Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Crab Mentality: A Philippine Phenomenon?

The FilAm papers here are forever referring to this crab mentality when something goes bad with the local FilAm communities.

I must confess I was not familiar with this phrase until I left the old country. I was made curious to no end since some people mention it with the same bluster and passion as though expounding dogma or doctrine. Thus, piqued by curiosity, I decided to do a little research on its origins and usage. I couldn’t decisively determine where it originally came from, but I know that its usage is not limited to Filipinos. Our Indian neighbors also use this expression. Even the African-American community is not averse to using this expression to carry across maybe the same sentiments. And who knows which other groups. And so it has to be left as such – undecided as to its origin.

But in the Philippine context, what exactly are its common connotations or meanings?

One hopes that everybody would be interested to learn about them, especially because anybody given that description is sort of invested with some kind of stigma; by the same groups that revere it as gospel truth. It probably does not do justice to the crab as a creature since this crustacean carries considerable nutritional importance and value; thus, in the food chain it commands a godly price, both in the Philippines and everywhere else.

Some Filipinos or FilAms here have a quite loose interpretation of it. In a group discussion decrying the general state of FilAm businesses here, this mentality is attributed the blame. They concur that Filipinos do not patronize their own; but as is common, they instead compete with any successful established business of the compatriots to the point of over-saturation. One can point to the overcrowded forwarding businesses scattered throughout the continent. Some pointed out though that comparative prices could be a big factor for the non-patronage.

In some legal discussions read, this mentality is mentioned in the same breath as witch-hunting, a rash to judgment of guilt, a disregard for the presumption of innocence principle in law, etc.; and is thus blamed by the government for the slow development growth of the country.

Still, others would use it for any and all adverse criticism directed toward another Filipino or FilAm, especially against another person or business, who or which may have attained some degree of prominence or success in the community. Regardless of motives and/or reasons? Unless explicit and expressed, or blatantly obvious, motives are hard to discern. Thus, who makes that determination for judging adverse and/or critical comments advanced as a sign of the crab mentality or just that, a constructive critical criticism?

The analogy of typical Filipino behavior is casually described as reflective of the behavior of crabs in a bucket; the others pulling or dragging down any crab trying to climb out of the bucket. One can also witness this phenomenon in the live crabs section of one’s local wet market. When you try to pull one out of the batch, the closest one will attempt to lock its pincers on the one you have lifted and will cling to it tenaciously. I have tried to violently separate the two, ending with one set of pincers being ripped off its socket. Quite gruesome.

Here’s a quite different spin. On my first days here in San Francisco, before embarking on my first job, my first “gainful employment” was “crabbing” with my wife’s relatives. Armed with crab nets (they typically are shaped like buckets of intertwined rope), we would spirit away on those biting-cold August days under cover of midnight and make our way under the Golden Gate bridge. Secured on some outcropping of rocks, we would drop our nets and hunt for those delicious Dungeness crabs, quite popular and quite expensive in these parts.

I had wondered then why we had to do it around midnight. Until much later, I found out that we were not just to trying to avoid frostbite; but more importantly we were trying to elude any warden who could be patrolling the area.

Anyway, bait for the crabs was chicken legs or necks tied at the center of the net. One had to buy these from wet markets. But I would notice that while we would only have one bait per net (part of the reason was cost) if we kept that net submerged long enough, one could come up almost always with two or more crabs.

Thus, any budding social scientist could interpret that behavior of the crab as showing its sharing mentality. While most animals would fight for a morsel of food, the crab typically shares it with others. You have seen dogs and even pigs growl at others trying to share in their meal.

There you go. So the next time somebody tags you with the crab mentality label, think of this least-known behavior of the crab and find solace in it.


I had initially painted three scenarios where Filipinos might use the phrase to depict a particular situation.

From solicited comments made, it does not appear that Filipinos patronize Filipino businesses any more or less than other ethnic groups. There may even be a predisposition toward patronage due to familiarity and commonality of language or dialect. I myself, partly because I live in an area of high concentration of FilAms, bought my first house from a FilAm agent. Another reason for the choice was that the familiarity with him emboldened me to ask for bonuses one would not normally ask from strangers.

On the legal front, this claim of rash to judgment reaction, or witch-hunting, or even disregard of the presumption of innocence principle, may not be justified for assigning this label. They are just too fraught with legalese and may be too complicated.

Thus, the most oft-used reason this label may be used is when a compatriot renders adverse criticism to another Filipino/FilAm, especially one of note and prominence. And it is usually assigned by the target of the criticism or those directly involved or associated with him/her. A quote from one post ascribed this heightened sensibility to criticism to the Filipino’s amor propio. But translated, amor propio means self-respect. Can self-respect be damaged by any and all adverse criticism? Could be affected but not necessarily? Or do we interpret amor propio to mean pride of self or ego? Or worse, false pride?

I still do not see the proper correlation or connection. If such were the case, then maybe we as an ethnic group should refrain from liberal and gratuitous (?) use of such label?

UPDATE:
"Crab mentality" takes on a new meaning for the Bugueyanos. They do not buy the traditional negative connotation that crabs, when placed in a pan, tend to pull one another down as they try to reach the top, Antiporda says.

Cooperation, unity

Instead, they say, crab mentality should connote cooperation and unity. In a literal sense, crabs, in a similar situation, get on top of one another to form a makeshift ladder to help them reach the brim."

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