Indonesia is a diverse country comprised of over 17,000 islands. And, Indonesian social norms and customs also vary from province to province. Although Indonesians are known to being friendly and warm, awareness of customs and traditions may ease any culture shocks. Just like any other place you visit in the world; you may find that many everyday behaviors differ from those you are use to, especially if you are coming from a western country.
To avoid any misunderstandings, it is wise to understand common cultural courtesies. Here we have the list of basic etiquette that you need to be familiar with to make sure that your actions won’t be misconstrued.
When meeting someone informally, as an expat or tourist a simple ‘hello’ or ‘hi’ will be appropriate. If you want to take your language abilities further, there are many ways to greet people, depending on the time and who you are meeting.
Selamat pagi is used as an equivalent to Good morning, which applies before 11am. After which selamat siang will often suffice.
Before names, different titles or expressions can be used depending on the gender and status of the person. Bu usually refers to married women, mbak to younger, unmarried women. Pak is a formal way of greeting men, whilst mas is more informal. Take note that in certain circumstances like in office, sometimes everybody prefers to be called mbak or mas to erase age and position discrepancies.
Most initial greetings involve a handshake. In some situations you may notice Indonesians bow slightly as well, and then put their palm on their chest after shaking hands as a sign of politeness. If you are a man want to give a handshake to a Muslim woman but then she joins her palms together in front of her, don’t be offended. It is common when a Muslim doesn’t want to have a handshake with opposite gender. Simply do the same gesture and smile.
The newcomer or tourist could very easily overlook body language and certain types of gestures, such as:
- Using the left hand for giving or receiving or when gesturing towards someone is seen as inappropriate. Indonesians consider the left hand unclean and impolite.
- Prolonging eye contact could be misunderstood as being a challenge or a form of aggression. It is best avoided!
- It is considered very rude to point at another person. If you must point to indicate something, it is considered more polite if you use your entire hand outstretched in the intended direction or your thumb to gently point in that direction.
- Do not use your forefinger with an upward movement to beckon somebody, but instead use your whole hand with a downward movement.
- When standing at rest, be aware of where you place your arms. Putting your hands on your hips or crossing your arms across your chest may be interpreted as anger or hostility.
- Shouting or speaking loudly in public is another way in which offence could be caused, as Indonesians on the whole speak fairly quietly.
- Publicly blaming or criticizing someone in public, as he or she will ‘lose face’. This is insulting for Indonesian. If criticism is needed, it is best to do it in private behind closed doors and in a very calm and controlled manner.
- Public displays of affections 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.
Indonesians are much more relaxed about time. There is even a concept of ‘rubber time’ or jam karet in Indonesia. 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.
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. Don’t cross the line between bargaining and putting pressure on someone; keep in mind the culture of wanting to avoid disagreements, read into 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.
Remember that majority of Indonesians are Muslim, and so it is important that you dress conservatively when in public, so modesty is very appreciated. Having a neat appearance and being well-groomed is seen favorably, and tailor-made suits are often much reasonably priced in Indonesia than they are in other countries.
Dressing appropriately for the weather is important, with an average temperature of 25-30°C and humidity of 82%. It’s hot, but it does not mean that you can wear your typical holiday attire anytime. Women especially should bear modesty in mind, avoiding anything too tight, too short, revealing or sleeveless, as this may be considered inappropriate.