This morning there was a nice surprise in my Facebook alerts from a former colleague, Alan. He was on business travel in Asia and ran into someone I had worked closely with in Europe many years ago. I’ll call him ‘RZ’, a Malaysian ex-pat working in Belgium.
RZ is the main character in one of my favorite cross-cultural stories. Certain taboo topics to an American are fair game in other cultures. This one dropped in my lap like a text book case study in cross-cultural awareness.
Here’s the setup: I’m an American working on a multi-national project based in Belgium. RZ is a Malaysian working on the same project. We both know and have worked with a senior visiting manager from the US (I’ll call her LL), who RZ has not seen since she left Malaysia several years earlier.
Here’s what happened: I call RZ to come visit LL at my desk. When he arrives, he greets her enthusiastically. The first words that come out of his mouth are “wow, you’ve gained a lot of weight since you left Malaysia”. I’m so gob-smacked that I blurt out something about that being a pretty shocking hello, how are you! She laughs and says she fully expected it. That’s normal in Malaysia. I’m rendered speechless.
When I moved to Southeast Asia myself a couple of years later, I learned that not only can you expect direct comments and questions about your weight, but your age, your salary and anything to do with money were also fair game. It’s a two-way street. We can easily offend each other without knowing it.
One man’s friendly hello can be another’s potential insult. This story still makes me laugh. I wonder if RZ remembers it too?