What Did He Just Do?

By Pete Brunoehler

By Pete Brunoehler

A running theme throughout many of my prior columns has been a persistent call to localise yourself when leading a team in Malaysia. This advice comes from my own experience, and will generally serve expat managers well. But now to seemingly contradict myself, I will advise you when you should not think and act quite so local.

When overseas business visitors such as your senior company leaders and colleagues come to Malaysia, you’ll be eager to show off your team, your own ability to adapt to the business climate here, and the way that you comfortably interact with your local staff. The interesting dichotomy here is that this local comfort level you’ve achieved, generally a good thing, may actually lead to a very uncomfortable time for your overseas colleagues, and consequently, for members of your Malaysian team.

In my first experience, my Malaysian team and I were at a very nice and relatively quiet KL restaurant, eating with a senior European colleague, when one of my managers burped very loudly and openly. Now, had I been at a ‘normal’ meal with my local team – for better or worse – I would not have really noticed or reacted, since this is relatively commonplace here. However, at the risk of being overly dramatic, I’d say that burp not only stunned and momentarily rendered speechless my Western colleague (he leaned over and whispered, “What did he just do?”), he later told me he’d lost his appetite and it ruined his dinner. Yet, when I addressed it (later) with the aforementioned ‘burper’, he really did not understand what the big issue was as I had never mentioned – nobody had – to him before, that this was considered rude and vulgar in Western etiquette.

In my second experience, a European colleague had joined our business update meeting, his first in Malaysia, and had been pleasantly surprised at the high level of English spoken. He commented to me privately how much easier it was to join our meetings in Malaysia versus some other Asian meetings he’d joined where everything he said and heard had to be translated. So far, so good. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm gave way to dismay when he attempted to join a casual conversation afterward, over drinks, with Malaysian staff. While convinced that they were in fact speaking some form of English, he retreated from the discussion and enquired to me as to the meaning of meh, leh, lah, lor, kaypoh, gweilo, and bodoh. (Have you been here long enough to know all of these?)


1. Being localised remains a good thing. However, while you and your overseas Western colleagues may have a lot in common, you are now different – you are the one living here in Malaysia, and you are the one who understands local habits. As such, you know that some habits are best avoided when mixing your Malaysian team with overseas colleagues. So be proactive, and avoid discomfort for both groups.

2. Dining etiquette, including burping, chewing and slurping loudly, spitting bones back on one’s plate, etc., are issues that your team should be made aware of when dining with Western colleagues. I am never one to say what is strictly right or wrong, but I will say that one should always be aware of the cultural norms and etiquette of overseas visitors that you are hosting.

3. While I find ‘Manglish’ to be colourful, descriptive and entertaining, it is clearly best to avoid entirely in these settings. In addition to the examples above, ‘Donno lah’ is not something most Western visitors would immediately process, ‘can’ is a good word, but not a sentence, etc. Strive to stop the language confusion before it starts!

4. Having discouraged some behaviours, I’d absolutely encourage your team to be appropriately curious (no questions about salaries, bonuses, etc.). Encourage questions about life and culture where your Western colleagues come from. By the same token, assume visitors know little about Malaysia and be keen to educate them. My own experience is that Malaysia normally has a neutral (or occasionally negative) reputation, and is not better-known like Singapore, Thailand, or Hong Kong. This provides a blank canvas to be painted by your Malaysian team. Be proud… Malaysia Boleh!

In conclusion, while you as a localized expat manager will definitely benefit when you adapt to and even adopt your local teams’ customs and habits, you are also the liaison of sorts between local norms and those of overseas visitors. Accordingly, remember and recognise the differences, and when you provide a ‘heads up’ to your local team before these visits, they’ll go smoothly, nobody will feel uncomfortable, and you’ll increase the likelihood that your team and your foreign visitors will part with a good feeling about one another. That’s good local leadership and great global teamwork.