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Malaysian phone etiquette

Part of the task of the anthropologist is to ‘unpick’ the culture they are studying in order to lay bare the cultural and social mechanisms that underlie the daily functioning of the people within that culture. This is kind of like taking apart a clock and showing how all the different parts come together in a unique way to make the clock tick. Of course, a culture is nothing like a clock really – you can’t easily say where it begins and ends, and with a clock taking out one piece is enough to make it stop functioning completely, whereas cultures are endlessly malleable and dynamic. Take out one piece (a monarch, for example), and there will be adaptations, derivations and replacements that immediately come to play.

In the classical anthropologist situation, the anthropologist arrives as a stranger in a new place, and starts to observe how things happen. Although she has the disadvantage of not knowing what to do, how to speak the language, and so on – this is also an advantage, because everything that people around her take for granted stands out to her and she may be able to spot patterns and connections that those who are embedded in the system cannot.

As my supervisor has pointed out, I have both the advantage and disadvantage of having been here in Malaysia for a while now, and being involved with blogging for a while too. The advantage is that I know more, the disadvantage is that I may take things for granted now that would stand out to a newcomer; I'm going to try to remedy this by doing a series of posts on my blog that reflect upon how Malaysia felt to me when I first got here, and how blogging first seemed to me.

So, I’m going to start a series of posts in which I try to recall how both Malaysia and blogs seemed to me at first – they will be in new subcategories of the ‘Anthropology’ category: I’ll call the Malaysia ones ‘Malaysianisms’, and the blog one I’ll call… hmm… ‘Blogisms’ I guess.

So, here goes for my first trip down memory lane – Malaysian telephone etiquette.

When I was brought up, I was taught that you always have to introduce yourself on the phone. This is obviously not the case for many in Malaysia – when I first arrived I was staying with my in-laws (to be) and because I was not working, often was by myself in the house. This was when I was introduced to Malaysian telephone etiquette – or what seemed to be the lack of, to me.


The phone would ring and I pick it up –
‘Hello? Julian speaking.’
‘Mrs Wong ah?’
‘No, this is Julian. Mrs Wong is not in for the moment.’
‘Where is she ah?’
‘I don’t know, she had to go out.’
‘What’s her handphone?’
[I’m already a bit flustered at the lack of introduction, and the rapid fire questions. The request for the number is the last straw to me – why should I give someone’s number to a complete stranger?]
‘If you would like to leave your name and number and a message, I’ll ask her to call you.’
‘Say Ah Chong called.’
‘Mr Ah Chong… and does she have your number?’
‘Ya ya, got got. OK’ -He hangs up-
…‘OK’

What things were very different for me here?
• Not introducing oneself at the beginning of the call.
• Asking for personal information – what was ‘Mrs Wong’ doing, what’s her handphone number.
• The lack of polite niceties, such as ‘Hello’, ‘please’ and – in particular – putting down the phone without saying goodbye! That one took a lot of getting used to :-O I eventually learnt that conversations usually end with the end of the matter in hand, and a word such as ‘OK’, or ‘Thanks’.

Initially, I would find myself being distinctly disgruntled at such calls, in particular the perceived rudeness of (for me) cutting off a conversation without proper disengagement. I learnt to deal with it, and now often don’t say goodbye, depending on who I’m talking to – I’m more likely to take this approach when speaking to my in-laws, friends or trades people such as my mechanic or plumber, but less likely when I’m speaking to colleagues or people I need to deal with for work. I also learnt to use the call ID function more – so when ‘Joe’ calls, I’ll answer the phone with ‘Hello Joe, wassup?’ or something, in a way doing the introduction part myself rather than waiting for the caller to do it.

I've found that very often my 'western style' is too formal and there are too many words - sometimes people will have trouble understanding me because - I suppose - I use a lot of words that serve no apparent purpose :-)

OK, that’s it for the first of the Malaysianisms posts – any comments?

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3POINT8 on :

One thing I suppose about malaysians are that, they try to use as few words as possible to relay a message.

julian on :

Correct! ;-)

Not when they are starting speeches though, which I should blog about some time.

syikin on :

Duh! It's not only in Malaysia but Singapore too.
I was also brought up in a household where we have to introduce ourselves when receiving/ making calls.

Unfortunately as I grew up, I realised like you, not many are thought in that manner.

N I'm a freaking Singaporean! Glad to hear I'm not the only one stuck in this predicament.

julian on :

Well I've gotten used to it by now, though the hanging up still gets to me sometimes :-)

synical on :

My only reason for being brief on the phone is the money factor: time is money. Time spent on greetings is better spent on getting the message across.

Then again, I rather text than to actually speak over the phone. I hate phone calls.

These days with mobile phones and caller ID, introductions are unnecessary.

julian on :

Ya I prefer texting sometimes, but not to people I don't know already.

Amanda on :

I am a Malaysian living in Melbourne and I remember having a bit of culture shock when I was last back in Malaysia. Answering the phone and have my mother's house cleaner speak to me in the exact way "Ah Chong" did in your post. Reading this made me smile thinking of the idiosyncrasies of different cultures and despite growing up in Malaysia how I still get a little bit of culture shock now and again.

julian on :

We take cultural practices so much for granted that when we are exposed to new ones, they can seem completely alien.

When you've lived in different places, it's easier to adapt, but it's also easy to forget old habits too. When friends come to visit here, sometimes I find myself acting in ways that surprise them, and I realise I'm being 'Malaysian'.

mill jason on :

hello friends

shane jast on :

hello friend

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