Social customs

Customs, norms and etiquette in Indonesia

Comprised of over 17,000 islands and with a national motto of ‘Unity in Diversity’, Indonesia’s society can be very varied. 

Though known as being friendly and open as a country and people, awareness of customs and traditions may ease any culture shock, and it’s always good to be shown making the effort. If coming from a western country, you may find that many everyday behaviours differ from those you are used to. To avoid any faux-pas or misunderstandings, have a look at the following examples to make sure that your actions won’t be misconstrued.

Greetings

When meeting someone informally, as an expat a simple ‘hello’ will often suffice, although if you want to take your language abilities further, there are a myriad of ways to greet people, depending on time of day, and who you are meeting.

Selamat pagi’ is used as an equivalent to ‘Good morning’, although only before 10am, after which ‘selamat siang’ would be more appropriate. Before names, different titles or expressions can be used depending on the gender and status of the person. ‘Bu’ refers to married women, ‘mba’ to younger, unmarried women. ‘Pak’ is a formal way of greeting men, whilst ‘mas’ is more informal.

Most initial greetings involve a handshake, but don’t hurry it, as this can be seen as being disrespectful. In some situations you may notice Indonesians bow slightly as well, which should be seen as a sign of politeness. Taking the handshake further into one of the manly back-slaps common in Europe and America is not a good idea!

Body language

Indonesians are often taught from a young age to not get angry over little things and to avoid public disagreements. Body language and certain behaviours could be seen as representing anger, so you may need to make a conscious effort, at least at first, to keep yourself in check. Prolonging eye contact, for example, could be misconstrued as being a challenge or a form of aggression; best avoided!

Shouting or speaking loudly in public is another way in which offence could be caused, as Indonesians on the whole speak fairly quietly. Confrontations may often be counteracted with smiles, and offence-causing is avoided to the extent that there are more than ten ways of saying ‘no’, and even more of saying ‘yes’ but actually meaning ‘no’. In a similar vein, publicly blaming or criticising someone is a no-no, and it may take time to get used to a more indirect way of communicating certain things. Gestures and body language can prove useful in interpreting the real meaning of a conversation. A controlled and gentle public manner, avoiding strong gestures and displays of negative emotions, are the way forward.

Public displays of affection between members of the opposite sex are frowned upon, and in some greeting situations it may be wise to allow women to initiate the handshake. Avoid touching someone’s head, as it is considered sacred by some Indonesians. However, you will likely see members of the same sex with their arms around each other or holding hands, as a sign of friendship.

The left hand is seen as being unclean, meaning you should avoid using it to eat or serve food, to give or accept gifts, to handle money or even to hand over a business card. Avoid pointing or calling someone over with one finger; this could be mistaken as an obscene gesture and it is better to indicate with an open hand.

Clothing

Having a neat appearance and being well-groomed is seen favourably, and tailor-made suits are often much more reasonably priced in Indonesia than they are in other countries. Dressing appropriately for the weather is of course important, with an average temperature of 25-30°C and humidity of 82%. This doesn’t mean that typical holiday attire is appropriate, however. Women especially should bear modesty in mind, avoiding anything too tight, revealing, or sleeveless, as this may be considered inappropriate.

Business etiquette

There is a concept of ‘rubber time’ in Indonesia, and many social events are not expected to start punctually, however when it comes to business situations, it will likely be expected for expats to arrive on time. With this and other aspects of work-related social interactions, it’s best to know both what is expected of you as a foreigner, and what cultural customs you should be aware of.

Entry into the meeting room may sometimes be according to rank, and meetings earlier on can be more about getting to know each other than about the business itself - time doesn’t necessarily mean money. Don’t cross the line between bargaining and putting pressure on someone; bear in mind the culture of wanting to avoid disagreements, read into the answers you are given and remember the virtue that is patience, as some agreements will take longer to complete than you may be used to.

Standing out

Don’t let a call from across the street of ‘Hey, Mister!’ or ‘Bule! ’ surprise or offend you, especially from children. The terms are often used in reference to anyone who looks Western or fairer-skinned and aren’t usually meant to cause offence. Similarly, you may find yourself the object of more stares than you are used to at home, and it’s best to not let this faze you in any way.

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