The we versus I culture: putting relationships first

Throughout my time in Malaysia, the one thing that really stood out to me about the culture is their emphasis on building relationships. Personal relationships are incredibly important in all Asian cultures, but especially in Malaysian culture; it is all about the collective rather than the individual.

Before I left for Malaysia, I made plans to meet up with my father’s friend, Paul, in Malaysia. My father and him have been friends for over 10 years now, a friendship that started at work but became a personal friendship as they spent time traveling around the world and taking time from work to explore the countries they visited. Maintaining a friendship on the opposite side of the world is not easy, but both of them ensured that they stayed in touch. It was incredibly helpful for me to immediately connect someone I knew. Even though we had never met in person, I feel like I have known Paul forever. It was a wonderful experience for me to form my own relationship with someone that has had such a huge impact on my father’s life.

Me and a classmate with Zara at the Batu Caves in Malaysia.

When we visited the Batu Caves, I met Hatti and his daughter Zara. My classmate and I were admiring the stairs to the caves when Hatti came over and asked if his daughter could take a picture with us. After taking the photo, he began asking us about where we were from and why we were in Malaysia. We told him that we were from the U.S. on a study abroad trip with our MBA program. That is when Hatti told us he was earning his Master’s in Education and wanted to become a full-time professor. Currently, he was a high school teacher and was at the caves for a field trip with his students. He took the opportunity to bring Zara along for the trip. Zara is 10 years old and speaks Malay, while her father is fluent in both English and Malay. Up until 1956, all schools were taught in English due to British Colonial rule. Once Malaysia gained independence, Malay became the official language of Malaysia and schools went from teaching in English to teaching in Malay, Chinese or Tamil (The languages of the three cultures of Malaysia). Hatti, since he was in school in 1956, received his entire education in English. It was amazing how quickly we were able to find a common link through education and build a connection through this. In the U.S., we rarely approach people we do not know and strike up a conversation with them to get to know them better. It was so nice to feel so welcomed to Malaysia by Hatti and Zara.

Finally, I met SY Wong at our business tour of HELP University. SY is a Doctorate student of Business Administration at HELP. He identifies as Chinese Malaysian. Like Hatti, he received all of his education in English. He received both his bachelors and master’s degrees from the U.K. He then worked in the U.K. for a British company for three years before transferring back to Malaysia with that company. When I asked him what his plans for his future are, he said his family is his future. He then proceeded to talk about how his wife is also Chinese Malaysian. All four of their children can speak both English and Malay. All four received their bachelors in the U.K. and three of the four stayed to work in the U.K. after school. I never had someone answer a question about their future by talking about their family. In the U.S., when someone asks us about our future, we typically talk about only ourselves and our professional future. Having experience in both European and Malaysian culture, SY told me that the best way to be successful in business is to build personal relationships with people. He said that in Asia, people will not even begin discussing business until they feel that they have established a personal connection with you.

Malaysia has a “we” culture, not an “I” culture. Everything is about people. When visiting various companies in Malaysia, all of the leaders said that Malaysia’s greatest resource is its people. I have never experienced a culture that cares as much for its own people as it does for others. It does not matter what a person’s background is, everyone is welcome. Malaysians want to learn your story and get to know you. They want you to feel welcome and will go out of their way to make sure you are happy there.

In contrast, the United States is a very individualistic society. While we like to say that we “work well in teams”, the truth is that we look out for ourselves. We prioritize ourselves, our success and the success of the business over our personal relationships with people. We may build relationships in the moment, but once we accomplish our objectives, we rarely care for and nurture the relationships we built afterwards.

Each interaction above discusses a different relationship I have formed during my one week abroad. I know I will continue to grow my friendship with Paul; we already have plans for him visit with our family here in Florida. I have already connected with SY on LinkedIn and I look forward to nurturing my relationship with him as we both continue our studies in business. This is one of the many lessons learned from my time in Malaysia that I look forward to employing throughout my career and in my personal life.

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