The Animals are Catching Us

By Pete Brunoehler

By Pete Brunoehler

In today’s world of writing more and speaking less, the subtleties and nuances possible with face-to-face speech are often lost in texts and emails, despite the excessive use of emojis. This short-form writing culture is rapidly invading the workplace as well.

Despite being seen as conventional wisdom, I have never accepted the notion that Asians, specifically Malaysians, are conflict-averse. My experience is that in any culture, in any country, you’ll have some employees who avoid conflict, but you’ll also have some who will embrace and even thrive on it. However, one approach to conflict that I have seen foster itself excessively in Malaysia is an attempt to deal with it via (a) email vs speaking face to face; and (b) copying the boss on said emails, hoping to get the solution from that boss. I’ve seen mails that had dozens of increasingly heated exchanges, consuming a tremendous amount of (wasted) time. As such, two rules I’d suggest if you’ve had this experience are first, do not allow emails or texts for one-to-one, ‘solution required’ communications within the same office. Require employees to go talk to their colleagues – often in the next cubicle – and solve the problem without pushing to the boss. While email is fine to share information among a group, I am talking here about one-to-one issues, specifically conflicts. The second rule is that more than three (you can adjust up or down) emails on any unresolved subject requires a meeting or call, as opposed to more emails. While this is frankly impossible to police, you can set an underlying principle that speaking will solve issues more efficiently and more effectively than writing.

In my second illustration of the need to reconsider the role of writing, expats corresponding with Malaysian staff need to be aware that Western-style norms can at times come off as rude and brusque to Malaysians. As an example, a Malaysian staff member, via email, requests a one-to-one meeting with their expat boss to update a project on which they are working. The expat manager’s email response is, “Fine, I’ll have only 30 minutes – focus.” A better response looks like this: “Hi Chin, I look forward to your update, but I have another meeting at 4pm, so we need to stay within a 30-minute timeframe. Thanks, Bob.” Both effectively said the same thing, but conveyed a very different tone to the receiver. The second response took less than one additional minute to compose, well worth the time spent to get the very best from the staff involved, both in ‘content terms’ today and in ‘confidence terms’ tomorrow. I have seen cases where local staff were dismayed and discouraged by what they perceived as an overly harsh reply such as the first one above, which, though not the intent of the writer, came across as such to the reader.

Finally, and with no disrespect to our younger readers, fully written (and hopefully properly spelled) words are the only appropriate form of written communication in an office environment. U, shd, tmrw, abt, hv, gd, 4, C – all fine when texting friends, but never in corporate communication.


1) Reading the comments that follow news stories in digital media will reveal how harsh commenters can be. Although these keyboard warriors are somewhat anonymous, even colleagues well-known to one another can be increasingly confrontational and nasty from that ‘comfort zone’ behind the keyboard. Don’t allow this in your office.

2) When it comes to expat business communication in Malaysia, what may seem succinct and efficient to the expat (in an undoubtedly busy day) can seem curt and negative to the reader. Seeing these exchanges through the lens of the receiver should drive the tone for the writer.

3) Require all office communication to adhere to professional standards. I know I sound incredibly old-fashioned here, but professional communication does not utilise SMS versions of actual words.

In conclusion, it’s been said that human capability for complex communication is one behaviour that sets us apart from other animals. I’d tend to agree, though I think the animals are catching us as we text ourselves into oblivion. So take a stand, establish your communication guidelines, and not only will your company be better off, even those employees grumbling behind your back (in texts to one another) will benefit from the professionalism. That’s good communications leadership.