- Indirect Communication: As an extension of the need to maintain harmonious relations, Malaysians rely on indirect communication. Great consideration is made to ensure that what is said, how it is said and how much is said does not offend the other person in the interaction. Words are chosen to be polite and not assertive. Speech can be ambiguous as they often understate their point. For example, they may take a while to talk about other things before arriving at the intended topic. More attention is paid to posture, expression and tone of voice to communicate meaning. The purpose of this is to maintain politeness and respect throughout the conversation, and also prevent a loss of face on either end of the exchange. The best way to find the underlying meaning is to check for clarification several times by asking open-ended questions.
- Language Style: The Malay language uses many similes, idioms, proverbs (peribahasa), short evocative verses (pantun) and poems (syair). Figurative language allows people to express their point indirectly. For example, criticism may be presented in the example of a poem that reflects a similar scenario.
- Refusals: A Malaysian person’s preoccupation with saving face and politeness means they will seldom give a flat ‘no’ or negative response, even when they do not agree with you. Therefore, focus on hints of hesitation, listening for what they say but also paying careful attention to what they may subtly allude to.
- Soft Voices: Speaking loudly is generally interpreted negatively as ‘kasar’ (crass/coarse) in Malaysia. Instead, it is expected that people speak gently and softly regardless of the nature of the conversation. That being said, Malaysians are not so cautious about this that they never speak loudly. For example, they will generally raise their voice when they get excited.
- Laughter: Malaysians may laugh when they are embarrassed as a defence mechanism. The timing may seem inappropriate or awkward in certain scenarios. Consider that it can indicate their unease.
- Physical Contact: In Malaysia, it is generally not appropriate to touch strangers. Avoid backslapping or putting your arm around people's shoulders. Incidental touching (for example, in a crowd) is permitted. However, generally people are not very tactile. Furthermore, being a predominantly Muslim population, Malaysian society generally respects a separation of the genders. It is also not always appropriate to touch someone of the opposite gender, and public affection is seen as especially awkward and inappropriate.
- Silence: Silence is an important and purposeful tool used in Asian communication. Pausing before giving a response indicates that someone has applied appropriate thought and consideration to the question. This signifies politeness and respect.
- The Head: Malaysians consider the head to be the most sacred part of one’s body. Therefore, it is considered very rude and inconsiderate to touch another person’s head.
- Pointing: Avoid pointing with your index finger and use your open hand instead.
- Beckoning: Beckoning is done by facing the palm of the hand to the ground and waving the fingers towards oneself. Individual fingers should not be used in this gesture.
- Feet: The feet are considered the lowliest and dirtiest parts of the body. Do not move objects with them or display the soles of your feet to someone else.
- Hands: There is a separation of function of the hands in Malaysia, influenced by Islamic culture. The left hand is considered unclean and is used for the removal of dirt and for cleaning. It is not used for actions such as waving, eating or offering items.
- Eye Contact: Malaysians generally avoid holding direct eye contact with people of the opposite gender out of modesty. They may also lower their gaze when talking to someone older than them.
- Bow: People non-verbally say ‘excuse me’ when entering/leaving/passing people by bowing slightly.
- Body Language: Placing one’s hands on their hips or in their pockets during conversation indicates anger.
- Punctuality: Malaysians generally have a relaxed approach to time. This varies between ethnicities, and also between the cities and rural areas, with Chinese-Malaysians generally being more punctual than other groups. However, people generally start events later than the scheduled time.