Life

Why Do Filipinos Point With Their Mouth?

Filipinos offer their explanation for “nguso,” the distinctive habit of mouth-pointing.
April 13, 2021, 9:08am
Why Filipinos point with mouth and lips nguso
Photo: VICE

But Y Tho explores the plethora of funny, strange, and peculiar superstitions, mannerisms, and beliefs in Asian culture to provide long sought-after answers to questions that have been swimming in all our heads.


If you’ve ever been to the Philippines or have ever met a Filipino, you would have probably witnessed one peculiar mannerism: mouth-pointing. It’s as Filipino as adobo and, just like the beloved dish, is a daily fixture. 

But why though?

Mouth-pointing — also known as “nguso (lips/snout),” lip-pointing, or “snouting” — is a movement that is commonly used to indicate a physical direction or signal someone to look at something. But it goes beyond simply pouting your lips. 

“It’s not a static movement,” said Beomjin Heo, 25, a Korean TikToker who grew up in the Philippines. “There’s a lot of push and pull kind of motion, with a little bit of tension on the neck as well.” 

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“It’s a three-step thing,” Camilla Camacho, a 26-year-old post-graduate medical intern in the Philippines, told VICE. 

The first part of nguso, according to Camacho, is the act of lifting the eyebrows. While this is happening, the lips pout in the direction that one is signaling. “And then the chin has to tilt up,” she said. This movement may be accompanied by a muffled sound that resembles a quiet moan.

A quick browse on internet forums reveals that this mouth-pointing habit has piqued the curiosity of many observers.

“A lot of Filipino children are taught at a young age that pointing with their index fingers is rude, and can be seen as disrespectful,” said one Quora user in a thread dedicated to discussing Filipino mouth-pointing.

But as it turns out, mouth-pointing is not unique to Filipinos; it can also be found in other cultures around the world such as Laos, the Yoruba people in western Africa, and the Arrernte people in Australia. In many of these cultures, the pouting of the lips supplements the act of head-pointing. In other cases — like among the Yupno people in Papua New Guinea — the lips are used to signal direction where finger-pointing is considered taboo.

Filipinos have wildly different theories about how this local habit came to be. 

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Some speculate that the pouting lips stem from the pronunciation of “doon” (“there” in the Tagalog language). Others postulate that the mouth action was born of necessity when farmers literally had their hands full.

Paulo Hechanova, a 25-year-old admin assistant, thinks that nguso has its roots in pre-colonial Philippine religion that emphasized giving respect to nature. 

“It was considered rude to point to our nature. Our mouths are considered cleaner than our hands, so our ancestors couldn’t use their hands to point. What they used instead were their mouths,” he said.

“No one knows the origin of this but I believe it was started by multi-tasking mothers,” quipped a Quora user.

Ronald Vincent R. Salva, head Filipino teacher at the Philippines’ Department of Education, had three possible explanations for this distinctive gesture.

The first concerns the value of time. “We give importance to time,” Salva explained, describing mouth-pointing as a way of saving time. Secondly, he said it’s a Filipino way of conveying emotions in a visual way. “It’s not just about pointing to a direction. It’s a part of kinesics and pictics (form of non-verbal communication),” said Salva. 

Salva’s last explanation relates to interpersonal nuances. “It’s for us to give clarity to the directions we give,” he said, adding that nguso is deemed appropriate for casual interactions among peers, but not when one is conversing with someone older or in a position of authority.

Find out more about this But Y Tho investigation in this video: