Managing Culture Shock in Malaysia

One of the first things that will become clear shortly after your arrival in Malaysia is that there are many new rules and that you probably don’t understand any of them. The realization that you don’t know much of what is going on around you creates anxiety at deep levels, and that can lead to some rather predictable behavior in the newcomer.

For example, since you don’t know how to get people to do what you want them to do, the way you do in your home culture, you may very well resort to the excessive politeness of the typical tourist, thanking everybody profusely for minor courtesies and chatting brightly with anyone who speaks to you. This basic appeal of innocence, which translates roughly as “Please like me and help me or at least don’t hurt me or make fun of me or take advantage of me!” is, of course, immediately recognized anywhere in the world for what it is – the surprising thing is that it works so well so much of the time, particularly in Malaysia where ‘old school’ manners and politeness are so valued. However, this is also the time when anyone who wants to get close to you for their own purposes knows that you are vulnerable and easily befriended. Basic rule – be friendly and don’t reject offers of friendship but make yourself step back and see whether or not this person has a legitimate reason for liking you. The first people who approach a newcomer offering friendship are, sad experience reveals, not likely to be the people who you will want to have as friends in the long run.

Sooner or later you start learning the rules that govern behavior in Malaysia. Then the problem becomes that the people around you who know all the rules, especially the unspoken rules, are generally not capable of articulating them – which of course is why they are called ‘unspoken rules’. Sometimes you have to be pretty creative to extract basic critical information on why it is important that things be done a certain way at one time and not at another.

Another problem that confronts the new expatriate almost immediately is that other people have expectations of you that you don’t know about. Many such situations will crop up everywhere during your first six to twelve months in Malaysia, and psychologists agree that the major source of stress on most expatriates and their children comes from knowing that there are multiple expectations affecting you at every turn without knowing exactly what those expectations are or how to fulfill them.

It is inevitable that you will break rules and make mistakes and much of the time you won’t even know you’re doing it. To complicate matters, you won’t have any way of knowing whether other people are following their own rules or not.

In your home environment, even in unfamiliar situations there are clues you can follow, but in a new country, working in a new organization and living in a new community where the people don’t know you and where you don’t know the rules that they all live by, mistakes are inevitable. The biggest problem is that many people have no real idea what the “unspoken rules” are even though they follow these rules every day – they just never think about them. This is, of course, true in every culture including your home culture. To summarize what we have discussed so far, it is very important for new expatriates to realize the complexity and difficulty of the challenges that they will face in adjusting to a new, unfamiliar culture.

  • The more than you are able to share and discuss the things that are creating stress during this period, the easier your adjustment will be. Even though you will be trying to do your best, you will not always know what to do, and you will spend a good deal of your time coping with feelings of lack of confidence.
  • It is important not to judge yourself harshly during this period, and it is even more important not to judge those around you harshly as a way of coping with your own frustration.

In both cases it is the quality of harshness that must be recognized and addressed if it occurs, because harsh judgment of yourself or others is an expression of out-of-control feelings of inadequacy and lack of confidence.

Excerpted and adapted from the ebook “Cultural Dimensions of Expatriate Living & Working in Malaysia” by Bill Drake.