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In 2 years of living and working in Malaysia, no one ever told me 'no' -- and it took me months to understand why

Mark AbadiThe author working with students in Kuala Terrenganu, Malaysia.
  • People from different cultures often have different styles of communicating.
  • In Malaysia, it is extremely rare for people in professional settings to give negative feedback.
  • That’s very different from workplaces in the US, where people are expected to verbalize their concerns.

One of the most challenging aspects of moving to a new country is adapting to a new style of communicating.

In many cases, some of the nuances of a culture’s communication style aren’t immediately apparent, and they often take months or even years to fully appreciate.

That’s what I learned in Malaysia during my two-year stint there as an English teacher in a public school. My days consisted of dozens of interactions with students, teachers, administrators, and government officials, all of whom communicated in a way that was foreign to me as an American.

For example, whenever I would submit proposals for school-wide English programs, I was surprised that there was one word I almost never heard in response: “No.”

That doesn’t mean that all my ideas were approved, or even that they were good. But months into my stay there, practically all of my proposals were met with a “We can try that” or at least a “Maybe.”

As I discovered, communication in Malaysia is much less direct than in the US. Expressing negative feedback in Malaysia, even when speaking to a subordinate, can be perceived as shaming the person you’re speaking to and would reflect poorly on both parties.

Instead, Malaysian culture requires you to read between the lines and infer that a lack of outright-positive feedback is effectively a rejection of your idea. I eventually learned that “We can try that” meant I needed to go back to the drawing board.

That contrasts with office culture in the US, where people generally expect their superiors to verbalize their concerns, as the cultural-communication expert Craig Storti told Business Insider.

“For Americans, it’s not enough to not say anything positive,” Storti said. “You have to say something negative for your disapproval to be understood.”

I learned that I needed to approach my interactions with my superiors the same way we tend to approach invitations to a Facebook event: No means no, maybe means no, yes means maybe, and only an enthusiastic yes can safely be counted on.

The same went for any time I asked students directly to participate in one of my programs or activities. They virtually all would say yes to my face the first time I would ask, even if they already had plans. It was up to me to follow up multiple times to ensure that the “yes” wasn’t just a polite formality.

It’s not a concept they teach you in language class, but understanding the nuances of cultural communication is critical to adapting to life in a foreign country.

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