Malaysians prefer to give bad news in a very circuitous way through the use of coded messages, which may be difficult to pick up on. Malaysian communication styles are characterised by extreme forms of politeness and diplomacy.
The underlying drive is to ensure the preservation of the existing harmony within a group or to develop a sense of harmony with new contacts. Thus communication can, at times, seem overly formal or protocolistic – and this is especially true when carrying bad news or when giving information to superiors.
It is often good to spend time going through the social pleasantries before discussing any actual business issues. This ice-breaking is a vital part of the relationship-building process and its importance should never be underestimated. Suitable topics of conversation would be family, sport (especially soccer), your impressions of Malaysia, your organisation, future plans etc. Topics to avoid might be politics, religion and ethnic tensions in Malaysia.
‘No’ is a difficult word and is therefore rarely heard. Malaysians prefer to give bad news in a very circuitous way through the use of coded messages, which may be difficult to pick up on. When unsure of the exact meaning of what has been said, try to ask a few open questions to draw out further information. It is probably safest to assume that anything other than a definite ‘yes’ followed by detailed plans is really a ‘no’. Most Malaysians working in any kind of international role speak fluent English and indeed fluency in English is seen as a mark of prestige. Most people will also speak their own native language and also Bahasa Malayu, which is used as a bridge language across the various ethnic divides.