Malaysia is well-known for its diversity in culture, thanks to its history of colonisation and trade flurries that opened up the land to merchants and travellers from all over the world.
This also means that the customs and etiquette can get overwhelming and aplenty, with each ethnicity having its own numerous customs and etiquettes, to begin with.
However, the general etiquette in home-visits covers most of the major ethnicities as the myriad of culture has somewhat come into an intricate fusion.
Here are 5 helpful tips on what NOT to do when visiting a Malaysian home:
1. Give your host time to prepare
Malaysians are generally a happy and accommodating bunch of people, so, they would appreciate it that you alert them before you drop by their homes. This gives time to tidy up their homes and prepare food and drinks.
Preparing for a guest is an honourable thing to do among Malaysians, as they appreciate their guests and love to make them “feel at home”.
When you do come unexpected, you should knock the door 3 times (“Assalamualaikum”). If a person does not reply or open the door after these 3 times knocking it means the person is busy or not willing to receive you. You should then leave the house and go back again maybe later.
2. Never sit on the stairs in front of the door
Lots of houses in Malaysia have stairs in the front of their house. When you’re waiting for your host to open, don’t sit on those stairs. This is considered rude. In fact, sitting on stairs in general public spaces is also sometimes considered rude in Malaysia.
3. Greet the right way
Many Malaysians, particularly the Malays and some Indians do not feel comfortable having direct skin contact with a person of an opposite sex. Bowing is the most common way of greeting among traditional Malay. The best hint to know whether a women is traditional in greeting would be when she’s wearing a hijab.
To show courtesy, they will usually place one hand on their chest and slightly bow with a smile. The best way to reject is simply by doing the same: place a hand on your chest and bow.
A handshake isn’t uncommon in Malaysia, but this depends on the individual. If you don’t know a person really well, it’s better to bow in a formal setting, or just say hello in a casual setting. It is fine to return a handshake if they started it first, otherwise, just go on and give verbal greetings instead.
Never kiss someone you don’t really know! Why? In Malaysia, the Face is a Holy Temple. It’s common for Westerners to give each other a hug or kisses. However, when in Malaysia, try to avoid touching a Malay or to kissing them on their face. The head and face are considered to be the home of the human soul.
4. Bring a gift
If invited to someone’s home for dinner, bring the hostess a gift such as pastries or good quality chocolates. What to avoid:
- Never give alcohol.
- Buying toys for the host’s kids is a great idea, but not give toys related to dogs or pigs.
- Do not give anything made of pigskin.
- Avoid white wrapping paper as it symbolises death and mourning.
- Avoid yellow wrapping paper, as it is the color of royalty.
- If you give food, it must be “halal” (meaning permissible for Muslims).
5. Take off your shoes
Like in many other countries, it is customary for Malaysians to not wear shoes in their homes. Therefore don’t forget to take yours off before stepping in. Keeping your socks on is perfectly fine though.
6. Always accept food or drinks
Part of preparing for a guest also involves preparing and serving snacks and beverages during their visit. Try not to decline the offer, or politely explain your reasons and ask for an alternative if they insist.
7. Sit the right way
In Malaysia there’s a different sitting etiquette when sitting on the floor. Most host do not expect foreign visitors to know such etiquette, but you can really impress if you do.
First of all, sitting down on the floor for men and women are done differently. It is rude to straighten out your legs or bring your knees to your chest while you are sitting down. For men, the term “bersila” is used, which mean crossing both of your legs inwards (i.e. like a bow or head of scissors). While for women, “bersimpuh” requires you to bend both legs to the side (right or left).
8. Don’t be blunt and keep it polite
In general, Malaysians love to keep conversations polite, especially with their guests. They usually use careful tones when making a point to avoid conflict or hurting anyone’s feelings, even when the issue is not in their favour. It goes the same way when you are a guest.
When eating, try not to make too much noise. As in other cultures, speaking with your mouth full is considered rude in the Malaysian Culture. If you want to say something to each other try not to raise your voice too much. When someone is too far away go to the person first or try to get closer so there is not need to speak too loudly.
We hope this guide is useful to you! For questions, feel free to leave a comment.