Being Sensitive to the Local Culture and Mannerisms in Indonesia


As an expat family moving to a new country, cultural understanding is very important. It may seem trivial, thinking that you can understand the culture as the time goes by. However, individual experiences can vary; some settle-in easy, but for some it is a challenge. That is why a deep intercultural understanding is highly recommended for expats, especially in Indonesia.

Implicit culture is very deep-rooted, and as expat you need to understand this aspect of culture. Expats are expected to be actively involved in the process to accept and build awareness around cultural traits and nuances. It is not something that can be learned before moving into the new place; it is an ongoing process of learning and adapting. Joining a support group or expat forums and communities can also ease the process.

Now, if you are moving to Indonesia, intercultural understanding is also important. It is a country that has an eastern culture, and  that is probably 180 degree different from the culture of your home country. Moreover, it has hundreds of ethnicity and languages which sometimes can be quite of challenges. But do not worry, it is still something that can be learned and understood by expats.

Here are some key points of Indonesian culture that you must know:

  • Raising your voice in anger or losing control is unacceptable. Relationship can be permanently scarred by this behavior. Your partner may feel bad or tidak enak to you, and they tend to be reluctant to interact with you afterwards.
  • Losing face is demeaning to Indonesians. Never criticize or point out mistakes in public or in the presence of other people. If they made mistake and you want to give them advice, it is better to talk with them in private.
  • Left hand is considered unclean and should not be used to give or receive things. Some people are also still uncomfortable when you eat with your left hand (even though you’re using fork and knife).
  • Pointing finger at someone is seen as threatening behavior and must be avoided. You should use your whole or your thumb to point in the direction or a person.
  • Hands on your hips/waist or crossing arms across chest are considered hostile and threatening. Crossing arms across chest can also imply that you’re not interested to the person you’re talking to or do not agree with their points. Thus this gesture should be avoided while talking or standing.
  • It is rude to sit with your toes and soles of feet pointed in someone’s direction. When you’re sitting on the floor with Indonesians, it is recommended to sitting with crossed legs or “duduk bersila” than outstretching your legs.
  • Patriarchy – Men are considered the head of family and respected more. Instructions given by the Bapak generally have more impact.
  • Religious belief considers dogs unclean. Indonesian Muslim people do not want dogs to come near them. Many helpers will not want to work in a house with a dog. However recently it is pretty common for Muslim families in Indonesia have puppies or dogs at their home.
  • Multitasking and multiple instructions can be overwhelming and may result in the task being overlooked or not being done properly. “Lupa” or “I forgot” is a word you will hear often. This is also why you may find that in Indonesian companies or government institutions there are so many people are assigned to do the tasks that actually can be done by fewer people.
  • Borrowing money: your staff will often make requests for borrowing money. You need to be clear about how you will deal with this.
  • Punctuality is not prized and can be considered impolite. If you need to meet a person or have an event, make sure that you set the time at least one hour earlier than the actual time, so your invitees can come earlier.

Here are some cultural traits of Indonesia:

  • Hierarchical – expect clear directions, teacher-student dynamics, expect to be told and will do exactly as instructed and not anything more.
  • Indonesians are collective society and low on individualism. They tend to conform to the ideals of society and in-groups they belong to. Sometimes this leads to their hesitation to express their own ideas.
  • Success is not always measured in monetary terms. It is more the position the person holds. For some people (coming from certain ethnicity), “gengsi” or outward appearance that needs to be strongly maintained. For these people, eating only rice and salt every day is not a problem as long as they can afford a brand new gold bracelet every month.
  • Avoid uncertainty; economic or status. They keep a happy face even if they are very upset or angry, often mask the real feeling. They do not like to bring bad news.
  • Apprehensive of direct confrontation is viewed as threatening.
  • Pragmatic orientation – Truth depends on situation, context and time. They adapt very quickly to changed situations, are happy and always smiling.

Content courtesy Taruna Aggarwal