Blogs for Culture Vultures

Communication in Malaysian Business Culture


New to working with Malaysians?

One thing you need get right from the get-go is how to communicate with care.

Did you know that The Business Culture Complexity Index™ ranks Malaysia as the 43rd most difficult culture for foreigners?

Well, some of the reasons are cultural.

Malaysians have particular expectations around how people should speak, share opinions and disagree.

If you do business in Malaysia, or with Malaysians, you need to learn to adapt your communication style, otherwise it’s easy to come across the wrong way.

Malaysians are a very proud and noble people who place high value on proper behaviour. Failing to demonstrate similar standards can mark you out as someone they don’t wish to deal with.

So, in this blog we’re going to focus on 4 aspects of the Malaysian communication style that will help you better understand how you may need to temper your approach.

Malaysians tend to be indirect communicators

Malaysian culture values tact and diplomacy.

As a result, people wont always say what they think or feel. They sometimes feel obliged to say something due to the context.

Even if a Malaysian wants to say “no”, they may instead say “yes”, knowing this pleases someone or maintains a sense of harmony.

Similarly, when giving opinions, Malaysians will do so in a round about way. They don’t jump straight to a point – they work their way towards it, using intuition to inform them as to the right timing.

Malaysians can find very direct communication cultures such as the USA, Germany and the Netherlands insensitive and brutal with the truth.


Malaysians are a humble and modest people

Anyone who knows Malaysia understands what we mean when we say there is a ‘softness’ to their culture.

Manners, being polite, etiquette and modesty are all highly stressed. Above all, humility is key to how you handle yourself and interact with others.

Malaysians are ‘we’ people who think about the group. People who like to stick out, and to shout about the fact that they stick out, are generally not well received.

If you come from a culture that likes to wear it’s heart on its sleeve and focuses on ‘me’, Malaysians can interpret this as arrogance.


Malaysians prioritise face and feelings

Face places a huge role in Malaysian culture; people are very sensitive to any perceived slight on their honour.

Within communication, people will avoid disagreements and conflict at all costs. Where there is any sense of blame, people are also ultra-keen to avoid the topic and steer a conversation another way.

Malaysians are also very caring of other’s feelings which means they will rarely say what they mean when giving an opinion if it may cause someone to feel bad, sad, angry or anything else.

This sense of face means Malaysians tend to bury tricky issues in conversations to allow time and space for both sides to readdress the topic another time.

When working with Malaysians, until you get to know them, steer well clear of personal jokes of any kind whatsoever.


Malaysians employ non-verbal language

As with any culture that values group harmony and face, Malays employ non-verbal language.

Foreigners almost need to learn to ‘read the air’ when communicating with Malays. Sometimes it’s the subtle moments of silence, a change in eye contact or a smile that can really give us clues as to what someone is trying to tell us.

Smiles for example can be used for all sorts of reasons. A smile could mean, ‘yes I disagree’, ‘I understand’, ‘I have no idea what you mean’ or ‘I am scared’.

Yes, Malays use smiles for all sorts of reasons but if you don’t understand that, you can completely misinterpret what they’re trying to communicate.

Silence is also an aspect of the Malaysian non-verbal communication style many foreigners find uncomfortable – because they don’t understand what it means.

Learn more about working with Malaysian culture

If you want to learn more about Malaysian business culture and communication, then why not let one of our experts guide you?

Our tailored webinars on Malaysian culture are perfect for people or organisations who want insights and practical advice on how to make a positive impact in the country.

We can cover everything from etiquette to negotiations to relationship building to sales!

 Image source © 2017 IRITS Events Ltd. Photo: Stephen Wong (CC BY 2.0)


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