Malaysian Communication-Stating an Opinion Outright vs Implying a Point

Developing the right skill set to navigate through the intricacy of communication among various cultures can set you apart from the rest of your peers.

An international organization held a conference in Malaysia to standardize its manufacturing line processes across the different regions and participants came from all over the world. The organizers had offered to provide transportation for the delegates from their hotels to the conference site. As the Japanese participants had initially politely declined the offer, the organizers interpreted it as a confirmation that the Japanese did not require the service. They later found out though, that the Japanese delegates were disappointed with the representatives of the organizer for failing to prepare travel arrangements for them to and from the hotel to the conference venue.

What went wrong? Didn’t the Japanese refuse the help offered by the organizers? What was the cause of their disappointment then?

The breakdown in communication can be attributed to the differences in communication style between the two cultures. The organizers were made up of international employees who are direct communicators. This involves saying explicitly what a person feels and thinks, and in which thoughts and ideas are expressed in a clear, simple and straightforward manner. On the other hand, indirect communicators often mask their true intensions behind the statements they might make, resulting in words or opinions being implied rather than outrightly said. In the above example, a refusal from the Japanese, however politely made, was taken by the organizers to mean a simple ‘No.’ However, had the organizers been aware of the cultural tendency for Japanese to politely decline an offer up to 3 times before accepting the offer, their misunderstanding could have been avoided. They needed the help, but appearing to modestly accept it because they were imposing on the organizers was of a higher priority than greedily jumping at the offer.

In today’s global working environment, Cultural Intelligence is becoming an increasingly important skill in ensuring global communication is understood and interpreted correctly. Since Malaysians are generally indirect communicators (like the Japanese), international colleagues from direct communicating cultures may find the below reasons and tips extremely helpful in comprehending and reacting appropriately to the behaviours of their Malaysian counterparts.

  1. WHY are they indirect? Malaysians value face saving or being polite as more important than giving direct responses. In order to avoid potentially embarrassing situations (such as disagreeing with your idea, rejecting your request, or disappointing you), Malaysians may say what they think you would want to hear rather than their honest opinion.
  2. WHEN are they being indirect? There are a variety of nonverbal clues to help you ascertain if your Malaysian counterpart is truly in agreement with you or if he/she is implying something else. A hesitance before saying something, a raising of the eyebrows, a twitch of the mouth, a quick glance at other local employees, an exhalation of breath, and the introduction of phrases like “umm, hmm, err, well…” may suggest that the Malaysian is debating whether to soften their disagreement or suggest another outcome politely.
  3. WHAT to do when they are indirect? To know for sure the intentions of your Malaysian colleague, you can practice asking further questions to narrow down the details. This ensures you get past the surface-level responses of “Yes/Maybe/I think so” and obtain more factual and accurate opinions. Instead of asking if a project can be successfully implemented on time, try asking “Why do you think it will be a success?” or “What are the obstacles that might delay the timeline?” or “Do you have enough manpower to work on the project and who will they be?”
  4. SHOULD you adjust your communication style? The answer is yes, to a certain extent, especially if you want to succeed in getting along and building trust in your relationship with your Malaysian colleagues. As an example, a newly appointed sales director for a global manufacturing company arrived from Texas, USA to Penang, Malaysia for a work visit. He unintentionally upset the entire Malaysian team when he openly rejected their eagerness to share with him their world renowned local street food, citing sanitary issues. While it wasn’t wrong to have a genuine concern, an indirect and subtler approach would have been more effective in stating his preference while still keeping the harmony and trust within the group.

 As there is no one right style of communication, developing the right skill set to navigate through the intricacy of communication among various cultures can set you apart from the rest of your peers. There is a growing need to understand and build the right strategies to effective global communication while staying true to your own culture. Our various cultural training programs have been extremely effective in helping countless professionals like yourself develop this cultural competency.


By: Boleh Blogger