Indonesia: Etiquette and Cultural Sensitivity

Indonesia is an archipelagic state located in South East Asia. Primarily an Islamic society, Indonesia also has a considerable population of those that follow the Hindu faith, as well as around 300 diverse ethnic groups. There is also a sizeable Chinese-Indonesian population, in which case Chinese customs and etiquette tends to be the norm. But generally, the social customs followed in Indonesia can be decidedly different to those of the Western world.

ind_cultsensitivity_mediumBy and large, Indonesians are very friendly people, always willing to strike up a conversation and interested in connecting with foreigners. This can seem extreme to some travellers, particularly for those from Western cities where just looking at someone in the subway can be cause for angry glares.

Typical western public reserve may be interpreted as aloofness or disrespect in Indonesia. This is especially true in the less populated areas of the country, where walking through villages without greeting the villagers is considered the height of rudeness.

Indonesian Society & Culture

Diversity

  • Indonesia is a hugely diverse nation.
  • It is made up of over 17,500 islands (6,000 of which are inhabited) which are home to over 300 ethnic groups.
  • Each province has its own language, ethnic make-up, religions and history.
  • Most people will define themselves locally before nationally.
  • In addition there are many cultural influences stemming back from difference in heritage. Indonesians are a mix of Chinese, European, Indian, and Malay.
  • Although Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world it also has a large number of Christian Protestants, Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists.
  • This great diversity has needed a great deal of attention from the government to maintain a cohesion.
  • As a result the national motto is "Unity in Diversity", the language has been standardized and a national philosophy has been devised know as "Pancasila" which stresses universal justice for all Indonesians.

Group Thinking

Along with unity and conformity to society's rules, honor and respect for the individual is the basis of Indonesian culture. Indonesians value loyalty to family and friends above all else. Life is simple for most people; most enjoy few modern conveniences, such as running water. Indonesia as a whole is viewed by its people as an extended family with the president, schoolmasters and leaders of business enterprises referred to as "fathers" by the public.

  • Due to the diverse nature of Indonesian society there exists a strong pull towards the group, whether family, village or island.
  • People will define themselves according to their ethnic gourp, family and place of birth.
  • The family is still very traditional in structure.
  • Family members have clearly defined roles and a great sense of interdependence.

Hierarchy

  • As with most group orientated cultures, hierarchy plays a great role in Indonesian culture.
  • Hierarchical relationships are respected, emphaised and maintained.
  • Respect is usually shown to those with status, power, position, and age.
  • This can be seen in both the village and the office where the most senior is expected to make group decisions.
  • Superiors are often called "bapak" or "ibu", which means the equivalent of father or mother, sir or madam.
  • Although those higher up the hierarchy make decisions Indonesians are advocates of group discussion and consensus. This ties back to the idea of maintaing strong group cohesiveness and harmonious relationships.

Face

Indonesians don't like conflict. Friendly, outgoing and peaceful are the norms for interaction. For this reason, saving face and not being caustic are very important for travelers to remember. 

People in Indonesia embarrass easily; so it is considered very rude to do things that would embarrass anybody. These include raising your voice or making accusations. Problems are publicly treated as issues to be solved in concert with others, and ego-based or emotional outbursts are inappropriate.

This cultural principle, known as equanimity, has roots in Eastern religious practices like Confucianism and Buddhism

Indonesian society is very family-orientated, and so the concept of ‘saving face’, as well as respect and loyalty, is prevalent in the culture. Much of the population of Indonesia live in relatively rural locations, so contact with Westerners and an understanding of Western culture may be limited.

Whilst you may be used to openly airing your displeasure at certain circumstances, in Indonesia, this would be considered extremely disrespectful and bad etiquette. In the event that you are disgruntled or angry with a person, it is best to discuss the matter privately. This way you are allowing them to ‘save face’ and retain their dignity and honour amongst their peers.

  • Due to the need to maintain group harmony the concept of 'face' is important to understand.
  • In Indonesia the concept is about avoiding the cause of shame ("malu").
  • Consequently, people are very careful how they interact and speak.
  • Although a foreigner can not be expected to understand the nuances of the concept it is crucial to keep an eye on ones behaviour.
  • One should never ridicule, shout at or offend anyone. Imperfections should always be hidden and addresses privately. Similarly blame should never be aimed at any individual/group publicly.
  • One manifestation of the concept of face/shame is that Indonesians communite quite indirectly, i.e. they would never wish to cause anyone shame by giving them a negative answer so would phrase it a way where you would be expected to realise what they truly want to say.
  • Bahasa Indonesian actually has 12 ways of saying "No" and several other ways of saying "Yes" when the actual meaning is "No" !!

General Etiquette Guidelines

Body Language & Communication

Both the Muslim and Hindu faiths somewhat abhor the use of the left hand. It is considered as ‘unclean’, so when shaking hands, offering a gift, eating or generally touching another person, it is considered proper etiquette to always use your right hand. You should also never touch the head of another adult, as it is commonly believed that the soul inhabits the head, and the head is therefore sacred.

The mainstream Indonesian culture is very conservative in its approach to public relations between men and women. Men should not openly make physical contact with women, and should only shake hands if the woman instigates it. A handshake between men is the a widespread form of formal greeting, and although in more familiar circumstances a pat on the shoulder might follow, it is best to err on the side of caution and only do this if your Indonesian counterpart initiates the gesture. You should always adopt a formal approach when addressing an Indonesian – usually Mr or Ms will suffice.

Salam’ is also a standard greeting between Muslims, and it would perhaps be considered polite to follow this form of salutation. Generally in Salam, the equivalent of the handshake is to proffer both hands and gently touch your counterpart’s extended hands, before finally bringing one’s hands back to the chest to demonstrate that you welcome from the heart. The greeted party will then reciprocate this gesture. Remember that it is good manners to always make sure that you acknowledge and greet the most senior person present first. It is also polite to formally greet a person with the phrase ‘Selamat’ – this literally translates as ‘peace’ and should never be used flippantly.

You should also be aware that showing the soles of your feet or shoes is also considered to be rude in Indonesia. When sitting, try to keep your feet pointed downwards or level on the floor. When in public, it is considered very bad etiquette to point with your left hand or right index finger. If you have to point, using your right thumb with the fingers folder under is preferred.

  • Good relationships involve a great deal of physical contact and touching. But, foreigners should allow time to be accepted and to develop good relationships before this is acceptable.
  • Indonesians are used to an overcrowded society; they tend to ignore inadvertent invasions of space. Allowing for personal space is a sign of respect.
  • A man does not touch a woman in public except to shake hands. Do not display affection in public.
  • The head is where the spirit resides and is considered sacred. Do not touch a person’s head.
  • Keep both feet on the floor when sitting. Do not cross your legs, especially not with an ankle over the knee. Sitting with good posture (rigid) and both feet on the floor is a sign of respect. Don’t allow the bottom of your feet to face or point at another person.
  • Looking someone straight in the eyes is considered staring. Avoid prolonged eye contact, which may be viewed as a challenge and may cause anger.
  • Point with your thumb, not your index finger. Never beckon with one finger.
  • The left hand is considered unclean. Do not touch food, pass or receive anything, touch anyone or point with your left hand.
  • Approval is sometimes shown with a pat on the shoulder, but American-style backslapping is considered offensive.

Dress Sense

When in Indonesia, by and large a conservative and modest dress sense should be adopted - especially by women. Skirt hemlines should fall below the knee and the shoulders should always be covered. Men should try to avoid wearing shorts, but generally, if on holiday, casual clothes such as open-necked shirts and trousers for men and modest t-shirts, skirts and dresses for women are perfectly acceptable.

It is acceptable for women to wear makeup, but it is best to adopt an understated or ‘classic’ look. When a visit to a place of worship is organized, the proper dress etiquette for such places is of utmost importance. When entering a mosque, always remove your shoes. Women should cover their heads with a scarf – some mosques may provide these beforehand, but it is best to always come prepared. Likewise, removing shoes is also expected when visiting Hindu temples, with the toe of the shoe pointing to the outside from inside the entrance or lobby area.

Meeting and Greeting

Shake hands and give a slight nod when meeting for the first time. After the first meeting, a handshake is not necessary; a slight bow or nod of the head is sufficient. Shake an Indonesian woman's hand only if she initiates the greeting. Greet people with "Selamat" (sell-a-mat), which means peace. Say it slowly and sincerely.

  • Greetings can be rather formal as they are meant to show respect.
  • A handshake is the most common greeting accompanied with the word "Selamat".
  • Many Indonesians may give a slight bow or place their hands on their heart after shaking your hand.
  • If you are being introduced to several people, always start with the eldest or most senior person first.
  • Titles are important in Indonesia as they signify status. If you know of any titles ensure you use them in conjunction with the name.
  • Some Indonesians only have one name, although it is becoming more common for people to have a first name and a surname, especially in the middle class.
  • Many Indonesians, especially those from Java, may have had an extremely long name, which was shortened into a sort of nickname for everyday conversation.
  • There are several ethnic groups in Indonesia. Most have adopted Indonesian names over the years, while some retain the naming conventions of their ethnicity.

Especially for Women 

  • Indonesia is a Muslim society and very male-oriented, but most female visitors experience very few hassles with men. However, blond-haired, blue-eyed women may be hassled more often than dark women. It helps if you dress modestly.
  • A woman is expected to initiate a handshake.

Gift Giving Etiquette

Gift giving etiquette in Indonesia heavily depends on the ethnicity of the receiver..
Here are some general gift giving guidelines:

Gift giving etiquette for the Chinese

  • It is considered polite to verbally refuse a gift before accepting it. This shows that the recipient is not greedy.
  • Items to avoid include scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate that you want to sever the relationship.
  • Elaborate wrapping is expected - gold and red and considered auspicious.
  • Gifts are not opened when received.

Gift giving etiquette for ethnic Malays / Muslims

  • In Islam alcohol is forbidden. Only give alcohol if you know the recipient will appreciate it.
  • Any food substance should be "halal" - things that are not halal include anything with alcoholic ingredients or anything with pork derivatives such as gelatine. Halal meat means the animal has been slaughtered according to Islamic principles.
  • Offer gifts with the right hand only.
  • Gifts are not opened when received.

Gift giving etiquette for ethnic Indians

  • Offer gifts with the right hand only.
  • Wrap gifts in red, yellow or green paper or other bright colors as these bring good fortune.
  • Do not give leather products to a Hindu.
  • Do not give alcohol unless you are certain the recipient imbibes.
  • Gifts are not opened when received.

Dining and Entertainment

  • Social events generally start late. Indonesians usually arrive thirty minutes after the stated time.
  • Any business discussions at social events should be initiated by Indonesians.
  • A fork and spoon are used for dining. The fork is held in the left hand and the spoon in the right. Use the fork to push food onto the spoon.
  • Most Indonesians are Muslim and consume no liquor or pork.
  • Indonesians are known for their hospitality. Do not reject their hospitality, as it will be viewed as a personal rejection. Never refuse food or drink, but never finish either completely. Compliments about the food are appreciated. It is a special honor to be invited to an Indonesian's home.
  • The host is always the last to sit and eat. Men are generally served first. Wait to be invited to eat or drink.
  • The guest of honor or senior person begins the meal; this is a distinct honor. If you are asked to begin the meal, you should refuse twice and then begin.
  • Fingers are still used for eating in some places. Both hands are kept above the table while eating.
  • The person who invites is expected to pay the bill in a restaurant. Request the bill by making a scribbling gesture on the palm of your hand.
  • When finished with the meal, place the fork (tines down) on your plate with your spoon (down) crossed over the fork.
  • If possible, reciprocate with a dinner before you leave the country. A lavish dinner may be criticized; be generous and hospitable, but don't overdo it.

Dining Etiquette

Dining etiquette is generally relaxed but depends on the setting and context. The more formal the occasion the more formal the behaviour. Below are some basic dining etiquette tips.

  • Wait to be shown to your place - as a guest you will have a specific position.
  • Food is often taken from a shared dish in the middle. You will be served the food and it would not be considered rude if you helped yourself after that.
  • If food is served buffet style then the guest is generally asked to help themselves first. It is considered polite that the guest insist others go before him/her but this would never happen.
  • In formal situations, men are served before women.
  • Wait to be invited to eat before you start.
  • A fork and spoon are often the only utensils at the place setting. Depending on the situation some people may use their hands.
  • Eat or pass food with your right hand only.

How To Be Friendly

Often all it takes to follow proper etiquette in Indonesia is a smile and a humble demeanor. It is far more conservative than most Western countries, and as such, people tend to view outsiders visiting, even if they're just walking through the city, town or village as guests entering their homes. Treat yourself as a guest in their home.

While the bigger cities like Jakarta and Bali are more cosmopolitan and Western in outlook, villages are often intrigued, to say the least, by visitors.

If you want to walk down a residential street in a village, for instance, and there's a person working outside, ask, "boleh?" (may I?) before walking down the street. People in Indonesia are very friendly, but they have to be sure that you're friendly too.

If you would like to take a picture of a local, hold up your camera and ask the magic word, "boleh?" Often, he or she will accept gladly, as many people in Indonesia are too poor to own a camera and don't have any pictures of themselves. However, they will not ask you to send it to them, as that would be considered rude. It would be rude of you not to offer. After you take the picture, ask for their address by saying, "alamat?" Do remember to send the photo when you print it out or get it developed.

If you are invited to an Indonesian family's home, it is customary and polite to bring a small gift - something coming from your country that they might not have access to. A postcard or photograph is a good thing, as is chocolate or other such sweets.

How To Show Equanimity

Patience is a virtue in all cases, but nowhere is this more important than in Indonesia, where the trains may not run on time, where shopkeepers may not understand the notion of "hurry up," and where if you take out your camera and start taking pictures of people, you may end up standing in one place for half an hour while you chat, take pictures, and promise to send them overseas.

Go with the flow of things when you're traveling; Indonesia is not a place to visit with a complex itinerary packed full of things to do. It's far too hot for that anyway.

If you are stopped by a police officer and feel that you are in the right, or if you feel that you've been short-changed by a vendor, don't get angry. 

Be humble and calm as you explain yourself. In Indonesian culture, the fact that you're not okay with a situation is spoken by your calm refusal; you don't need a show of anger to make your point. 

Similarly, aggressive postures including putting your hands on your hips or puffing out your chest are considered in poor taste.

How To Respect Religion

Indonesia is home to the largest Muslim population in the world. Most identify as Sunni Muslim and are only moderately religious, at least in comparison to some Muslim countries in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Indonesia has always been a conservative, traditions-based society.

For instance, it is considered shameful and impolite for women to walk around in skimpy clothing, especially in cities like Aceh, home to the Grand Mosque and perhaps the most devout, traditional Muslim city in Indonesia. 

Even in cosmopolitan areas like Jakarta and Bali, women wearing short shorts or miniskirts and halter tops will often be mistaken for prostitutes and will be bothered, especially at night.

When entering a mosque, men should be sure to be wearing long slacks and shirts that cover their arms. Women should cover up as well, and should invest in a kerchief or shawl to cover their hair.

A man should also never shake hands with a Muslim woman unless she extends her hand first.

As far as homosexuality goes, it's unfortunate but if you go outside of the cosmopolitan cities, you should try not to be overly affectionate in public. People are polite enough to mind their own business, but you may get strange or nasty looks and comments if you engage in public displays of affection. 

While outright violence against GLBT individuals is generally rare, it is best to err on the side of discretion if you've chosen to travel in Jakarta.

Helpful Hints

  • Taking photographs is a way of honoring someone. Indonesians may ask to take your picture.
  • Civil servants are respected. Be very respectful to government workers. Never treat them as though they are your servants.
  • Don't assume tomorrow means tomorrow. Tomorrow may mean sometime in the future. Set specific dates and times for arrangements.
  • Do not chew gum or yawn in public.
  • Never use your left hand for anything! Don't touch anyone with it, don't eat with it, don't pick things up with it, as it is considered the hand you use to wipe yourself in the bathroom. If you are left-handed and suddenly everyone looks at you with disgust, that's what's going through their minds.
  • Remember to remove your shoes or sandals at the door to a house, and don't show the soles of your feet to anyone.
  • Use your right thumb to point at things - pointing with the index finger is considered rude.
  • Always bend slightly when meeting or greeting an Indonesian older than you or in a position of authority.
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