Business Etiquette for Visiting Malaysia

In Malaysia many people are Muslim so some stores are closed on Fridays, their day of worship. Not all stores follow this schedule though. Most stores are open from about 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with some open half a day on Saturdays. Schedule appointments for Monday through Thursday and eliminate Friday scheduling. Be on time but expect Malay counterparts to have a more relaxed attitude about punctuality.

It tends to rain quite a lot in Malaysia so many people carry umbrellas everyday. The weather is normally hot and humid all year long but showers arrive suddenly, often with no warning. Pack lightweight suits and shirts for comfort. Avoid wearing the color yellow since it’s reserved for Malaysian royalty.

Begin by dressing for the office: jacket, slacks, shirt and tie, but if you see that others are going without their jacket and tie you may remove these discreetly. Women should choose knee-length skirts and long-sleeved blouses but avoid pantsuits since these might be inappropriate in some offices. Although it’s acceptable to wear jeans, in public, shorts are simply not worn by adults.

In some cultures you would never dare ask someone how much they weigh and other personal questions. Not so in Malaysia. Be prepared to be subjected to very personal questions concerning marital status or even income. Graciously avoid the questions if you don’t want to answer. Acting upset or annoyed will cause the person to be embarrassed, or to “lose face”. Losing face is a very serious matter in Malaysia.

Conversation topics can range from art to sports to the local cuisine but avoid criticizing Malaysian laws or culture. Also, avoid saying anything that may make your Malaysian counterpart be embarrassed or upset. This can cause the person to “lose face” and that will lead to the end of your business dealings, more than likely. Many cultures believe that “losing face” cannot be rectified and therefore, all deals will be cancelled. Ways to cause someone to lose face besides embarrassing them include arguing with them, implying that they don’t know what they’re talking about, suggesting that they misunderstood you, or even pointing out to them that there’s food on their chin.

Address others by their title and surname. It can be difficult, simply by reading, to figure out which is the surname so pay attention as you are introduced and don’t worry about being embarrassed if you ask for a name to be repeated. Better to get the names straight from the beginning than to later mispronounce someone’s name.

Gift giving isn’t done unless both parties have become friends. To do so previous to that would seem like a bribe to most Malaysian business people. Gifts are not opened in front of the person who gave it, but saved for a private moment later. When someone gives you a gift reach for it with both hands, palms up. If someone gives you a gift you must reciprocate but not with something obviously more expensive than what was given you.

Men who wish to present a gift to a woman should beware since, in this culture, this can be misconstrued as a romantic gesture. When giving the gift state that your wife sent the present. This makes it more acceptable and lets the receiver know that no romantic intentions are involved. Never use white wrapping paper – associated with death. Also avoid black, yellow or blue wrappings. Green or red paper is perfect. Never give anything dog-related such as a stuffed dog or a picture of a dog. Another taboo is giving a gift with images of partially clad women, even if it’s considered artistic.

When invited to an associate’s home bring a small gift for the family but do not present it upon arrival. Instead, offer it shortly before you leave. Avoid anything containing alcohol (such as perfumes) and anything made from pork. Offer gifts only with the right hand.

It’s a regional ritual to decline a gift three times before accepting it. This makes it appear that the receiver is not greedy. Insist repeatedly that the recipient take the gift then thank them when they do. Go through the same custom when offered a gift.

When giving flowers make sure it is an even number or it will be an omen of bad luck. During the Chinese New Year it’s expected that you’ll give gifts of money, in a red envelope, to children and service personnel that you deal with often. Only new bills are acceptable and only in even amounts.

Avoid gifts that are predominantly white, black or blue. Never give sharp objects, like scissors or knives, since this represents the severing of the relationship. Items associated with funerals and therefore, not good choices for gifts, are clocks, towels, handkerchiefs and straw sandals. If you’re offering a gift to a Hindu nothing made of leather or beef will be appreciated. When giving gifts of money, except during Chinese New Year, give odd numbers in bills and amount. Those of Indian descent also prefer odd numbers when it comes to money, but nothing in multiples of three.

Business cards should be printed and embossed in English on one side, Chinese on the other, in gold ink which is impressive to the Chinese. Present business cards with both hands and never with just the left hand. Make a display of examining any cards given to you. To just shove the card in your pocket or briefcase is very rude. Never write on the person’s card either, even if it’s a notation about that particular person.

It’s important to know that Malaysians will not do business if they don’t know you and like you, so plan on making several trips to develop a rapport before moving on to business matters. Negotiations are slow and final decisions take much time. You’ll earn respect when you show respect, particularly to the elderly and those older than yourself.

Never raise your voice and avoid confrontations at all costs. How you control your emotions is very important to your business and to how you are perceived. You’ll rarely hear the word “no” in business discussions since this might embarrass you. Instead they will say “yes”, but rather hesitantly, indicating they actually mean “no”.

In many countries long periods of silence during conversation is extremely awkward but in Malaysia, particularly in a business setting, it’s seen as a few moments to reflect on what’s been said. If you are asked a question during a meeting proper protocol is to wait at least 10 seconds before responding, showing that you have taken the time to consider your answer.

Your business associates, especially if they are Chinese, may want to consult with an astrologist before signing any documents so they can decide on a lucky day. Even after the signing of the documents it’s not unusual for the Malaysians to want to continue negotiations and make changes.

Respond to social invitations with a handwritten note of acceptance. Remember to choose red or pink stationary and not black, blue or white. Your Malaysian counterparts will want to see that you are interested in them personally and not just from a business standpoint. Business is not discussed when spouses are present.

Arrive at social engagements 30 minutes late. You may be asked to remove shoes upon entering a home. In Muslim homes guests are usually seated on the floor. Many dishes are hot and spicy but even if a particular dish isn’t appealing to you at least sample a bite so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings. When dining never use your left hand. Do not pass dishes, touch silverware, or touch someone with the left hand if you can prevent it. Hand money over with right hand only and use both hands only when it becomes a necessity.

There are some unique rules in Malaysia when it comes to utensils. The serving spoon can never touch the plate. Lay chopsticks down on the chopstick rest after every few bites and while drinking or talking.

In public never be seen with your hands in your pockets. To reach into your pocket is fine but to stand around or chat with hands in pockets is very distasteful to people of the region. If you must point do so with the entire hand, never one finger. To call someone over to you hold palm downward and curl fingers inward.

Feet are considered unclean in this society – be sure to never move, scoot or point at something with your foot. If your shoes or feet ever touch anyone an apology is a must. Never rest one ankle on the opposite knee, thereby pointing the sole of your foot at others. Don’t prop your feet up, like on a desk, where others can see the bottoms.

Those of Indian heritage believe that the head is the “seat of the soul”. Because of this belief never touch someone on the head, not even a child. America’s head shake, from side-to-side, meaning “no”, is the equivalent of “yes” in this country.

Standing with hands on hips represents an aggressive position here. Bursting out with laughter also has negative connotations which can represent everything from embarrassment to disapproval. Malaysia is a unique country and you’ll do well here in business as long as you keep your composure, show respect to elders and royalty, and present a demure dress and manner.

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