So you’ve just inked a deal with a hard-driving international partner. Each of you returns to HQ satisfied that you’ve negotiated the better deal. It’s only when both sides start putting the deal into action that it becomes very clear that each party’s understanding of the other’s objectives was way off base.

Four hundred years ago, Spanish conquistadors and the pre-Hispanic Filipinos were having similar cross-cultural communication problems with each other.

For the Spaniards, victory in war meant one thing, and for the Filipinos, it meant another. Comically, the two definitions complemented each other, resulting in a situation where both sides could claim victory.

Maybe not the worse thing in the world, in retrospect.

In the Spanish discourse on war, the key objective of battle was to gain possession over the battlefield. Amassing large numbers of soldiers and weapons to intimidate the enemy, Spanish forces would then launch a sudden, violent attack—think Braveheart. The preferred method of combat was confrontational and hand-to-hand, with little regard for the number of human casualties.1

On the Filipino side, the key objective of battle was to display the spiritual potency of a leader. It was once among many means of convincing his followers that they were better off following him over his rivals.

Although the Filipino armed warriors made a great show of fierceness, there was no desire to engage in sustained warfare resulting in heavy casualties. Conquest of rival forces was usually accomplished through diplomacy or deception, not brute force.

Why was this so? In early Southeast Asia, humans, not land, were the key resource. (Yes, there was a time when human life was precious in Asia!) Wet-rice cultivation was very labor intensive, and although fertile land was abundant, people were not—hence the popularity of slave raids. For this reason, the power or spiritual potency of a ruler lay in his ability to command large numbers of people.

 

Faced with the reckless and bellicose Spaniards, Filipino warriors preferred to retreat into their forest redoubts not because they were cowardly, but because they did not want to lose precious human resources.

 

From the Filipino perspective, this didn’t mean conceding defeat since victory was had by the leader better able to lure the other’s followers away through superior spiritual potency. From the Spanish perspective, however, control of the battlefield meant victory in battle.

What were the consequences? To the chagrin of the Spanish, the authority of local leaders often remained intact even after military defeat. To force total capitulation it was necessary to actively court the local leader’s followers and claim his spiritual potency. Where the Spaniards failed to do so, they lost any advantage that military victory might have given them.

Sometimes “tomato” means “tomato” and “tomahto” means “tomahto.”