Published on Medium

The Unwritten Etiquettes of Southeast Asian Culture

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Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

“It’s just the way it is” has been one of the most repeated phrase in my vocabulary when trying to explain the many unwritten rules of Southeast Asian culture.

I appreciate how it may be confusing to a foreigner, especially one who has never traveled to Asia (much less Southeast Asia). Some rules are baffling to me as well, and I find myself questioning its logic only to realize that sometimes, there isn’t any.

But for the most part, there are obvious reasonings to why we do what we do.

I personally feel Asians are generally more attentive to culture etiquettes because we’ve been surrounded by it our entire lives. It has become a norm to us.

For instance, Malaysia is a small country with three main races (Chinese, Indian, and Malay) and four main religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam) that come with an exhaustive list of etiquettes.

We’ve yet to include other races and religions such as the Portugese, Kadazan, Minangkabau, Baba Nonya, Catholicism, Taoism, and many more.

Can you imagine the assortment of cultural beliefs and etiquettes in that country alone?

We were taught at a young age to respect other cultures. We learn aspects of it from our friends by celebrating festivities like Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, and Deepavali.

What I’ve noticed is that while foreigners are aware of our festivities and tradition, some may not be privy to the unwritten rules of etiquette when in Southeast Asia.

I hope to share some of the intricacies of Southeast Asian culture and why it’s such an interesting topic. For this piece, I’ll lay out some ‘ground rules’ per se, if you’re ever planning a trip to that region.


Remove your shoes when entering someone’s home

This is pretty common, and I’ve not met an Asian family (living in Asia) who wore shoes in their homes. They’re usually barefooted or equipped with house slippers.

Logically, removing your shoes before entering a home does not only keep dirt off your floors, it also protects it from scratches or damages. You’re also showing immense respect for their home when you remove your shoes because you’re helping to keep their house as clean as you can.

A not very commonly mentioned reason is that Asian lifestyles are centered around the floor. In many Southeast Asian cultures, meals and conversations are usually held on the floor, around a coffee table.

Most of my family members prefer to sit on the floor as it provides a better interaction flow with the rest of the living room. It gives a sense of comfort and informality that usually promises good, wholesome family time.


It’s not just a gift

Showing up to a social gathering, be it for New Year’s or a housewarming party with a gift is a sign of appreciation and politeness.

You’re thanking them for having you. It does not have to be an extravagant gift as it’s meant to be a small token of appreciation. A basket of fruits, a bottle of wine (if they drink) or a box of desserts are perfect gifts.

A birthday gift on the other hand is a little more personal and you should be aware that certain gifts have a negative connotation to it. Here are just some:

  • Gifting a clock to a Chinese person means you’re counting down the hours and minutes to their “departure”.
  • Sharp objects like a set of kitchen knives, no matter how expensive means you’re severing the relationship.
  • Gifting leather goods to a Hindu is very disrespectful, as cows are deemed sacred in that religion. Some Hindus are also vegetarians.
  • You should not gift Muslims any food items that contain alcohol or aren’t kosher as is not in line with the religion.

During these modern times, some Asians may not take offense to any of these gifts. I would honestly appreciate a set of kitchen knives! But it is always better to be on the safer side of things.


Don’t raise your voice

“You seem very quiet” — is something I hear a lot. It is not just a personality trait, it is also a cultural trait.

Asians are boisterous but we are generally non confrontational and would rather not get into a scuffle if we don’t have to. It is far better to solve the problem amicably, or just ignore it so it doesn’t turn into a bigger problem.

Just let it go… so to speak.

This sometimes gives the impression that we are submissive. We are far from that. We just prefer to choose our battles and to not raise our voices if we don’t have to.

Raising ones voice, especially in public is deemed to be rude, crass, and offensive.


Listen and observe before you respond

I’ve come to the realization that there are two very distinct types of Asians — one that isn’t afraid to speak to truth no matter how offensive it may be, and the other who relies on indirect communication to maintain the peace.

The first type usually do not mean any direct harm. It’s likely that they just see it as a fact even though it may be hurtful to the other person. For instance, they wouldn’t be afraid to let you know you’re not liked purely because they do not wish to waste your time or theirs.

In their mind, it’s better to lay your cards on the table and move on from there.

The second type is someone who usually understates their point and chooses to be polite instead of assertive. This sometimes means it can be difficult to understand what they truly mean without asking a few follow up questions.


Physical contact

In this day and age, the normal handshake is widely used and accepted in Southeast Asia.

That being said, it’s good to know that some cultures may be a little more conservative than others. An example would be the Islam religion where it is unacceptable for a man and a woman who are not related by blood or marriage to touch.

My best advice to you is to take a step back, observe those around you and wait for a gesture.


Keep political viewpoints at bay

In most Southeast Asian countries, speaking ill or negatively about the government, royal families, or leaders could possibly land you in prison. This includes comments on social media, or in person conversation in a public place.

Most Asians are very up to date with politics, but have very strong viewpoints of it.

Unless you’re sure of the company you’re with, I would suggest keeping political conversations to a minimum.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it provided some insights to a culture that is not only vibrant but rich with traditions.

What are some of the other Southeast Asian etiquettes you’ve heard of?

Thank you for reading.

Originally published here.

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