Ways Malaysians Say No


Wai Keat is busy at his desk when he hears a knock on his door. His American boss, Frederik, extends an invitation to his house for a barbeque this weekend. Wai Keat has made plans for the weekend, so he begins to say, “Ohh…err…I got something to do…” Frederik jumps in and insists that he only needs to stay for an hour or so, and that there’ll be plenty of food and drinks at the party. “Okayyy…I think first…maybe can,” replies Wai Keat meekly. Frederik is all smiles and exclaims, “Great! See you there!” as he walks off to invite more people to the party. During the party, Wai Keat is a no-show and Frederik is left doubting his subordinate’s integrity.

Have you found yourself in a similar situation, having heard what you thought was a clear ‘Yes’ which then turned out to be a subtle ‘No’? Ever wondered why and how this happens?

Anglo cultures typically engage in low-context communication in which emphasis is placed on being clear and direct in the words used and less on the communication context. On the other hand, Asian cultures employ a high-context communication style in which great importance is placed on the context of the conversation on top of what is actually being said. Additionally, as a face-saving culture, Malaysians are culturally wired to act in ways that do not embarrass others or themselves. In particular, saying ‘No’ may be viewed as a rejection or a refusal which can cause offense and as such, most Malaysians find it stressful or challenging to give an outright NO as an answer. If you are an international employee working among Malaysians, how can you identify situations when your local colleague is actually saying No without telling you so?

Being vague. Malaysians may respond in a way that does not exactly convey consent and yet does not sound like an explicit no either. To an untrained ear, it may appear that you have solicited an agreement, but your Malaysian colleague actually means no.

Peter:                   I’m having trouble writing this report that is due tomorrow. Do you have time to have a look at it later and help me out?

Wei Ling:             See how lah later.

Displaying apprehension in tone, sometimes followed by questions. If there is a pause/lull in response to your question, this is a sign that your Malaysian counterpart is not too excited about your proposition and is thinking of how to respond, while affording you some time to pick up on this nonverbal tip to retract your request. At times, the response is in a form of questions tailored to buy time or to hint at the answer no.

Erik:                      We have a problem with Project XYZ and need someone to lead and fix it. Can you spare some time and get this done?

Muthu:                 Erm…(few seconds pause)…Is it urgent as I’m still working on Project ABC? Is anyone else available to help?

Giving excuses. To get out of a situation, Malaysians may provide an excuse to explain the reasons for not being able to accept the invitation/request (which could be genuine or at times half-truths).

Emily:    We’ve secured a last minute meeting with client X at 5pm today. Can you join us?

Ali:         Aaah…I already have an appointment with client Y and will be leaving the office soon.        

The ability to understand how Malaysians say no (reading the air, as it were) is important to avoid miscommunication and unnecessary conflict. Being able to correctly interpret your Malaysian counterpart’s response and reacting accordingly will not only ensure workplace efficiency but endear you to them as well. Our various Cultural Intelligence programs tailored specifically for the Malaysian environment can help you develop the right skill set to achieve this.

By: Boleh Blogger