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"In Malaysia.. questions like 'Are you married?', 'Where do you work?' 'How much are they paying you?' and 'What kind of car do you drive' are perfectly normal as an icebreaker.."
- Idlan Zakaria

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We do it our way
by Idlan R. Zakaria, 22, Selangor, Malaysia
Sep 11, 1999

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For someone experiencing his or her first time in a foreign country, it can get pretty scary. A new environment, different surroundings, different food, different people. And what makes it most scary of all, I believe is the different customs and ways of life.

Whatever norms and traditions, manners and etiquettes that mom, grandma and Amy Vanderbilt taught, it's all gone out the window; rendered at least partially useless. You can't go wrong with the basic stuff, but even in some countries, shaking hands with someone may be offensive.

I've been lucky enough to have lived in two countries in my life so far, having spent a couple of years in England as a child. And as much as Malaysia is a former colony of Britain, the similarities end when it comes to what is socially acceptable or otherwise.

One comparison I can draw upon is what is socially acceptable to ask a person you have just met. In England, you'd probably just ask the simple stuff, and call the person by his or her designated name, like Mr or Mrs or Ms Smith, unless they offer you to use their first names.

In Malaysia, you would probably give the person the third degree. Questions like 'Are you married?', 'Where do you work?' 'How much are they paying you?' and 'What kind of car do you drive' is perfectly normal as an icebreaker. And forget anyone calling you Mr. Clinton if you've introduced yourself as William J. Clinton. You're just William, or even Bill or Willy.

I've had lecturers from places like Australia and New Zealand feel perplexed when questioned in this manner for the first time, and I don't blame them. But it's not rudeness on the part of us Malaysians.

Pardon us, but we are friendly people, and I guess we try our best to be as friendly as we can, even to virtual strangers. It makes us more at ease when we know more about the person we are talking to. We like to be on equal footing, albeit sometimes a bit too soon for the comfort of some.

In contrast, the British have always been known to be more reserved, and I think their manners and etiquettes have been adopted by most English speaking nations like the US, New Zealand and Australia.

Also, in Britain, I was taught that when we meet someone new, we shake their hands and say "How do you do?" (or something less stuffy). If you were extending your hand out to a Malaysian who happens to be a member of the oppositve sex, don't feel offended if he or she declines your hand. Most Muslims, like myself, do not socially touch members of the opposite sex. However, as a rule, if the other person extends his hand out first, I would accept it so as not to embarass him. Some people may not practise this, so don't feel bad. It's not you..

I've heard of some other taboos as well. For instance in Thailand, according to Michael Crichton's Travels, it is offensive to touch another person's head. And in a house or room, a person's head must not be higher than the statue of the Buddha in that room.

Of course, it can be rather overwhelming to learn all this all at once. Perhaps a good way of starting to know what the do's and don'ts are is to ask a local - with the advance of the Internet, its not hard to just e-mail someone from a pen pal website or something (to ensure that the recipient is not hostile).

But don't be too quick to be offended if there are things that you are uncomfortable with in your interactions with the locals of a new place. Just remember, over here, we do it our way.

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