LAST_UPDATEFri, 20 Jul 2018 10pm

American Teacher Shares About His Time Working In Malaysia And The One Word He Almost Never Heard

Filepic: Tourism MalaysiaFilepic: Tourism Malaysia

Teaching in a 'Kebangsaan' school in Terengganu for two years, American teacher Mark Abadi had to overcome cultural and language barriers including some invisible communication barriers which are less obvious.

As a U.S. Department of State Fulbright Scholar, the native New Yorker suddenly found himself living in rural Malaysia in 2013, tasked with designing and implementing an English-language curriculum for 2,000 students in a government school.

Sharing his experience with Business Insider recently, Abadi wrote about the challenges in adapting to a new style of communicating, which goes beyond language and variations in local dialects.

"That’s what I learned in Malaysia during my two-year stint there as an English teacher in a public school. My days consisted of dozens of interactions with students, teachers, administrators, and government officials, all of whom communicated in a way that was foreign to me as an American," he wrote.

As Americans are known for their upfront directness which many Asians might view as crude or crass, Abadi said the subtle unspoken rules of communication of the locals were what he struggled with.

"For example, whenever I would submit proposals for school-wide English programs, I was surprised that there was one word I almost never heard in response: “No.”

"That doesn’t mean that all my ideas were approved, or even that they were good. But months into my stay there, practically all of my proposals were met with a “We can try that” or at least a “Maybe”, he recounted.

The author working with students in Kuala Terrenganu, Malaysia. Pic: Mark Abadi/ Business InsiderThe author working with students in Kuala Terrenganu, Malaysia. Pic: Mark Abadi/ Business Insider

It gradually dawned on him that Malaysians have very different styles of communicating, which is essentially much less direct than what Americans practice.

"Expressing negative feedback in Malaysia, even when speaking to a subordinate, can be perceived as shaming the person you’re speaking to and would reflect poorly on both parties.

"Instead, Malaysian culture requires you to read between the lines and infer that a lack of outright-positive feedback is effectively a rejection of your idea," he points out that he eventually realised that when he got the answer "We can try that”, it was a hint that his suggestion was not acceptable.

Using the analogy of Facebook communication, Abadi said that he learned to interpret his interactions with locals "the same way we tend to approach invitations to a Facebook event: No means no, maybe means no, yes means maybe, and only an enthusiastic yes can safely be counted on".

Abadi, who described himself as having elementary proficiency in Bahasa Malaysia said the indirect manner of communication meant he had to repeat himself frequently and how he realised that it was not enough to just learn the local language but its nuances which are key to making successful local connections.

"They virtually all would say yes to my face the first time I would ask, even if they already had plans. It was up to me to follow up multiple times to ensure that the “yes” wasn’t just a polite formality."

Abadi's experience reinforces the findings of past survey findings, which highlight East-West cultural differences in communication.

Filepic: LinkedinFilepic: Linkedin

An earlier report by Asia-Pacific Global Research Group describes how in the East, more focus is placed on the context of the communication than the communication itself. 

The report summed up the top 5 ways Asians say “No” without actually saying it as outlined below:

“Maybe later” -  in an Eastern context, generally “maybe later” means “no.” 

“I/We will think about it”  - although Westerners tend to view this response that the suggestion is being consideration, this is not the case.

“I/We don’t know”  -  a statement such as this is best interpreted as a “no.” primarily for face-saving measures.

Silence – silence or a non-reply can also be interpreted to mean a “no.” coupled with the appropriate facial expression.

“That would be impossible” (or a direct “no”) – the use of the term “impossible” is the most direct indication by those in Asia of a “no.

- mD