Of course no one will expect you to immediately understand or behave like an Indonesian but as Indonesians are not likely to correct foreigners about wrong behavioural patterns (as this is considered to break down the much-wanted social harmony), it will be wise to take some time in order to gain insight into the Indonesian culture(s) and start to think and become a little bit more 'Indonesian'. This will definitely benefit your stay in Indonesia, especially in the long term. The team of Indonesia Investments - which has a long and profound experience in Indonesian society - provides a list with advice and recommendations regarding Indonesian culture(s) or behavioural patterns. This will be helpful to make your time in Indonesia more effective and efficient.

One matter that needs to be pointed out first is that it is difficult to talk about 'Indonesian culture' in general. The country contains hundreds of cultures that differ in variable degrees. When a Muslim from Aceh (in the far west of Indonesia) meets an animist Papuan (in the far east of Indonesia) there seem to be more differences than similarities (in religion, clothes, lifestyle, traditions, native language and so on). As it would be impossible to describe all Indonesian cultures here we therefore present a list of general features that seem to be shared in most regions of Indonesia.

1. The Importance of Learning and Using Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia)

Only a relatively tiny proportion of the Indonesian people are able to speak non-Indonesian languages such as English. When dealing with high positioned people at big Indonesian companies (particularly those companies that are internationally oriented) or with the reception and management staff of luxurious hotels there will be no problem when applying English. These Indonesians have excellent mastery over this language. But life is not confined to offices of big companies or luxurious hotels only. Outside these domains there is the constant and urgent need to use Indonesian in order to lead an efficient and effective life. Whether it is to instruct a taxi driver, request information about medicines in a pharmacy or to communicate with people on the street, the only way to succeed in good communication is by using the Indonesian language.

Indonesians will highly appreciate it if you (try to) speak their language, even if the quality of your Indonesian is not that great. In fact, if you only know a couple of words you will probably already receive many compliments from the locals. This is typical Indonesian behaviour: they generally enjoy to make compliments as it will enhance social harmony (and - as such - it is good to make compliments to Indonesians too). But despite such pleasant compliments, beginners in this language should not start to think that their Indonesian is great. The Indonesian language is actually more complicated than meets the eye; not morphological or syntactically, but culturally. Each language contains a separate cultural framework which is conveyed through words, phrases, sentences, and discourse. Much of this needs to be learned through experience and by observing Indonesian communication. This learning process will take years and cannot be done through a simple language course.

Thus, we advise you to observe carefully how Indonesians communicate in various contexts or settings, both verbally and non-verbally. For example, when addressing those that have a high(er) position within society (for example due to their job status or age) it is better to choose your words as well as your body gestures or body language carefully. Compared to western nations, Indonesians tend to show more respect to their "higher ranked" speaking partners through their selection of words and body language.

It should be underlined that wrong usage of the Indonesian language can - in some situations - offend Indonesians (see point 2). This particularly applies to those foreigners who can already speak the language rather fluently and are thus expected to use this language in a culturally correct manner. However, for beginners sociolinguistic mistakes are acceptable (and an Indonesian will know whether you are a beginner or advanced speaker within a couple of seconds). Therefore, this risk of offending people should not stop you from using and practicing Indonesian. A good solution is - at the beginning of conversations with people that you are not familiar with - to apologize for any possible mistakes. For example, you can say:

Bahasa Indonesia saya belum lancar. Maafkan saya kalau ada kata-kata yang salah.
My Indonesian is not yet fluent. Please forgive me if I make mistakes.

2. The Hierarchical Society of Indonesia

Hierarchy is very important in Indonesian society and people's status should be respected at all times. Status is mainly based on a person's age and (job) position. How can we respect this Indonesian status?

First of all through correct language usage (as was mentioned in 1). Most Indonesians - but in particular those of higher status - should be addressed with a specific title (Bapak for men and Ibu for women). This can be in combination with their name (Bapak Widiyanto) or position (Bapak Presiden). These titles should continuously be used when talking to a person of higher or similar status. And it is always good to talk in a subtle (almost soft) manner.

It is important to be aware that people of higher status in Indonesia should not lose face (especially not in public) and therefore it is advised to be very careful when correcting or criticizing a person of higher status. It is in fact better not to do that at all. But if an Indonesian corporate leader makes mistakes or implements wrong policies that affect business in a negative way (and thus affects you), you can try to create an opportunity to meet, with just the two of you, and gently explain how business or policies can be improved, in your opinion, without criticizing existing policies too much. In point 5 below we also explain that you need to be careful with criticizing Indonesian employees.

3. Be ready to Socialize

Compared to Indonesians, western people can, quite generally, be labeled as rather individualistic. For Indonesians, however, most activities (such as watching television, doing grocery shopping and eating) are done in the company of others. It is highly recommended to join such activities - instead of being individualistic - in order to develop and maintain good social relations. Long and good discussions are necessary for a friendship to develop. Depending on the background and interest of both sides topics can involve food, sports, food, politics, etc.

For Indonesians it is common to talk to strangers. As such, foreigners are interesting 'objects' and therefore you should not be surprised if people start a conversation with you. Moreover, during a first conversation Indonesians tend to ask questions which - from a western viewpoint - can be considered quite private (such as your marital status or age). This is not only sincere interest but also their way to assess your social status. If you do not like a question which is posed it is wise to respond with a vague answer or a joke, instead of becoming annoyed or complain (such a direct confrontation would endanger the social harmony).

When it comes to business relations it is important to use a more personal approach. For example inviting business partners or colleagues to have dinner is a sensible thing to do as Indonesians need to see you in person in order to maintain a good relationship. Correspondence through email or telephone only is therefore not recommended. Business deals often happen in the restaurant or at the golf course.

When you, especially if you're a (white) westerner, walk on the streets of Indonesia, people will surely stare at you. Contrary to the West, it is not impolite to stare at people in Indonesia. Although this can make you feel uncomfortable in the beginning, it is something you will get used to. It is best to simply ignore peoples' staring. Furthermore, Indonesians (especially the younger generations) will often yell out "bule" to you (which actually means albino but has become commonly-used to describe a foreigner, especially those of European descent). Others will simply yell out "hey Mister" when they see you passing by. It is best to answer by smiling and nodding your head.

4. Learn about Indonesian Food

It seems like every Indonesian has a sincere passion for food. Indonesian cuisine is very versatile due to the many cultures within the country. For most Indonesians it is common to eat daily in restaurants or small food stalls (called warung) as it is usually cheaper than to cook themselves. These restaurants or warungs are present on basically every street in Indonesia. For the Indonesian middle class and elite it is common to go to the more luxurious restaurants (often in the big malls) which also include foreign cuisine. As mentioned above eating is an important social activity in Indonesia but the topic food is also one of the most popular conversation pieces in any casual situation. Therefore it is recommended to explore Indonesian food a bit in order to be able to join actively in such conversations.

One interesting matter related to food is that burping is not considered an impolite act. Hence, when you are in a restaurant or having dinner at people's houses, you can often hear these sounds, and you will rarely hear people excusing themselves after having burped.

5. Being Indirect is Polite

Generally Indonesians place high value on maintaining harmonious social relations. When necessary this implies being indirect (in other words, not say what they really think or feel if that would jeopardize the social harmony) which by westerners sometimes can be interpreted as being dishonest or hypocritical. We would like to stress however that this merely constitutes a difference in culture and we should therefore not think in terms of good or bad. Vice versa, Indonesians expect others to be indirect to them too. For example, be cautious when criticizing Indonesians in case they make a mistake. It is better not to confront them using blunt speech or with a raised voice. Instead try to correct them calmly with a smiley face and it is always good to make some casual jokes in these situations. And when you are planning to criticize an Indonesian employee it is usually better to start of the conversation by complimenting on some of his/her good qualities.

6. Values, Morals and Ethics

Religion plays a very important role in Indonesian society and in the daily life of the Indonesians. Therefore values, morals and ethics which stem from religion, tradition and culture (although these three are often highly intertwined) are important matters that influence Indonesian cognition. The number of Indonesians that do not believe in (a) God is almost negligible. This is also the reason why a large segment of the Indonesian people think about the western world with mixed feelings. On the one hand they admire the modernity of the western world (and copy modern features like clothing and technology) but on the other hand do not understand the decreasing influence of religion together with the decrease in morals it brings along (for example couples living together before marriage/free sex).

These feelings are strengthened by images from Bali where some westerners drink large amounts of alcoholic beverages and some western women sunbath wearing revealing bikinis. Western movies which sometimes contain explicit sexual scenes between non-married couples are also a cause for negative sentiments. It is advised to have respect for such Indonesian values, morals and ethics when residing in Indonesia as people will subsequently respect you more.

Although free sex, homosexuality, adultery, consumption of alcohol and other "sins" (from a religious perspective) are all present in Indonesia, throughout history, Indonesians often tend to look at these matters as being negative influences from the West. It is important to realize that the average person's knowledge of western lifestyle mainly originates from western TV shows and movies.

7. Jam Karet (Elastic Time)

Indonesians have a different attitude towards time and are generally quite flexible when it comes to meeting deadlines or showing up at appointments. The cultural phenomenon of arriving late for an appointment is called jam karet meaning 'elastic time' (literally 'rubber time') and is part of the game when living in Indonesia. It is difficult to say whether Westerners are more aware of the scarcity and finiteness of time compared to Indonesians, but for sure the different attitude brings along a different approach to time management. Therefore, do not be surprised if deadlines are not met or people are late for an appointment (or do not show up at all). Usually, a small excuse is used to explain the situation. For example, in the bigger cities of Indonesia a late arrival is often blamed on the traffic congestion (whether true or not).

Further Reading:

Population of Indonesia
Indonesia's Business Culture