Malawi has been known for years as "The Warm Heart of Africa", and Malawians are known for their friendliness and hospitality. Malawi is not known as a particularly dangerous travel destination for western foreigners and expatriates.
Muggings and robberies have occurred in the larger cities, most especially Lilongwe, as well as in some notorious places along the main tourist routes. It is advisable to avoid walking alone at night. If you go out for the evening, make sure you know how you're going back home. Car-jackings happen occasionally so be sure to keep windows shut and doors locked during evening and night journeys though night driving is not advised - most cars have broken headlights and Malawians tend to walk in the middle of the road at night and exercise reasonable caution as in any foreign city or rural area. Roads are less safe because many drivers are unlicensed and inexperienced and many vehicles are not inspection-ready; there is also the factor of drunk driving, especially in the evenings so be on the side of caution. However even half the taxi drivers you will get at night will be drunk...
More recently there has been a lot of pickpockets operating in nightclubs and bars. Just exercise caution, don't bring too much money and cameras etc. 10 beers is no more than MWK2500, so don't bring hordes of cash with you.
Homosexuality is officially banned by the law, and homosexual and transgender couples should exercise discretion when travelling to Malawi. It took a presidential pardon to release a couple recently arrested for "homosexuality" in reality, one of the persons involved was transgender and sentenced to 14 years of hard prison labour.
As with its neighbouring countries malaria can be a problem. The lake is freshwater and is prone to bilharzia, especially in the Cape Maclear area. Symptoms of bilharzia can take months to surface, and neither treatment nor tests will have any effect until around two months after being exposed. The treatment for bilharzia is often one dose of praziquantel following blood, urine and fecal tests confirming infection.
The adult HIV prevalence in the country is at 14% or 1 in 7 adults.
The official languages of Malawi are English and Chichewa. English is widely spoken in urban areas and by the well-educated upper class, though outside of that, a few words in Chichewa will go a long way. Chichewa is the first language of the majority of the population, and knowing Chichewa will get you by in most of Malawi though in some very remote areas, learning the local tongue might be essential. Locals always appreciate any attempts by foreigners to speak Chichewa and learning at least a few basic greetings would do well to ingratiate yourself to the locals. Tumbuka is the first language for many people in the north of the country. Chiyao is spoken by the Yao people who live mostly in the Southern District of the country. A multi-cultural country, Malawi has over a dozen indigenous ethnic groups, each with its own distinct language. However, even in those areas, many younger people will be bilingual in the local language and Chichewa. In the northernmost region of the country, Chitipa district, two additional languages are predominant: Chindali and Chilambya. Many people in the rural areas of Chitipa outside of the boma, or towncenter, are not even familiar with Chitumbuka, the language of the northern region.
Malawi has both patriarchal and matriarchal ethnicities and cultures. In the cities, men tend to be more respected than women, but the reverse might be true in the rural villages depending on ethnicity. Whites tend to be well-respected, a holdover from colonial times, but this is largely a Malawian's way of being courteous. Accept their hospitality. They are an exceptionally friendly people.
Malawians, especially those from very rural areas where they don't see many whites, can be quite curious when they do come upon a white traveller. To a Western mindset, this might be interpreted as unnecessarily staring at you or talking about you in front of you. Be prepared to be greeted by kids yelling mzungu, mzungu! and to answer lots of questions about yourself. Even relatively mundane items like mechanical pencils can draw a crowd of onlookers.
Malawians are in general extremely courteous, and a part of that courtesy is shaking hands, speaking softly, and referring to travellers and others with respect. Malawians avoid rudeness. It is common for Malawi men to hold hands when they've gathered together to chat, and this shouldn't be given a sexual interpretation when it is encountered.
Culturally, women should not wear shorts or mini-skirts, especially when travelling outside the lodge/camp. A woman in shorts or a short skirt is considered to be provocative, as well as rude. Many female visitors wear wraps that are available in the stores and markets of major cities. These are generally made of bright, coloured patterns and can be extremely attractive. Low-cut tops on women, while discouraged, are not nearly as provocative. Men in the cities tend to wear slacks and not shorts, as shorts are generally worn only by school-age children, so when a man wears shorts it can be viewed by Malawians as rather silly.
Finally, when meeting a Malawian — even to ask a question — you should always say hello and ask how they are. Properly greeting a Malawian is very important. They are uncomfortable with the Western notion of simply "getting to the point." Courtesy is a must, at all times, because not to be courteous is to show disrespect.