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Business Etiquette and building relationships

With its plethora of nationalities all living and working together, Malaysia is something of a cultural melting pot.

It's important to keep abreast of the various aspects of business etiquette and local customs to be successful in your business endeavours.

Politeness, consideration, and respect are the watchwords of the business world in Malaysia. Be prepared to be flexible and willing to adapt your way of working, as the culture is much more team-based and you will be working with people from a mixture of ethnic backgrounds.

Avoid being impatient, aggressive or self-aggrandising. While in some Western cultures credence is afforded to those who display such unpleasant signs of ‘assertiveness,' in Malaysia you will be considered extremely rude, and it may impact negatively on your employment prospects. Much worth is placed on teamwork and pulling together towards a common goal at all levels of the hierarchical pyramid, and you will be expected to do the same. Malaysians have an emphasis on ‘saving face' — it is considered very impolite to publicly embarrass somebody or to express anger. Be aware that a side effect of this sensitivity can be non-direct communication if Malaysians fear to offend someone.

Be aware of the ethnic and religious diversity prevalent in Malaysia — there is a large Muslim population — and you must be respectful of local customs and avoid causing offence. Be heedful of dressing appropriately to prevent reproachful stares.

It's a good idea also to check the calendar for important cultural or religious dates – for example, the holy time of Ramadan, or the Chinese New Year. While of course you are not obligated to participate, being sensitive to these significant events is sensible.  

The exchange of business cards is standard practice, but it is important to conform to certain customs when doing so: hand over the card in right hand, supported by the left. Always look at the card before putting it away. It’s a good idea to print your details in English on one side, and in another language, such as Bahasa Malaysia or Chinese, on the reverse.

Gift giving is relatively common in the business world — if you are given a gift, make sure you receive it in both hands and don’t open it in front of the giver. Let a gift be given to you first, then reciprocate with a gift of equal value, rather than instigating the exchange.

Avoid touching anyone with your feet, or placing them on surfaces, and apologise if you do so accidentally, as feet are considered unclean. Pointing at people with your forefinger is also seen as extremely rude, so if you need to gesture use the palm of the right hand.

Don’t expect alcohol to be served at business functions, but do be prepared to discuss certain topics, such as Malaysian culture and art, family, and cuisine. Avoid topics such as politics or bureaucracy or religion.  

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