The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016
However accomplished, funny, loved or successful we may be, most of us feel flustered in the presence of someone we hold in high esteem. The brain fogs over. Sentences come out scrambled. We may feel the overwhelming urge to run away. In English there is no precise word to describe this excruciating feeling (“HUMILIATION” and “shyness” are too broad; “starstruck” is closer, but still not quite right). Among the people of Dusun Baguk in Indonesia, it’s called malu.
Malu is all too recognizable: the sudden experience of feeling constricted, inferior and awkward around people of higher status than us. You might be experiencing malu if you clam up before your partner’s parents, or a conversation with a former headmistress leaves you staring at the floor and sweating. For Indonesians, malu is, in itself, nothing to be ashamed of. Many in the West would feel a profound self-hatred if the CEO asked our opinion, and we blushed and gabbled in reply. However, in Indonesia malu is an appropriate response. Taught to children from a very young age, outward expressions of malu govern manners and appropriate conduct. In any given situation, malu distinguishes those who command respect from those who bestow it. Like saying “thank you,” signs of malu oil the wheels of social life and reinforce hierarchies of power. There’s even a small plant that Indonesians believe exhibits malu tendencies—the indigenous putri malu (Mimosa pudica), the leaves of which droop and shrivel up when touched.
Like all emotions, the coy deference of malu can also be put on. When a person pretends to be too reticent and nervous to ask for something they secretly covet, they are malu-malu kucing—literally: behaving like a shy cat.
See also: EMBARRASSMENT.