Indonesia’s Social Customs, Norms And Etiquette

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 behaviors 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.



When meeting someone informally, 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 behaviors 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 criticizing 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.


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. Neatness in grooming is prized, whether on a crowded hot bus or at a festival. Civil servants wear neat uniforms to work, as do schoolchildren and teachers.

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.

Marriage and Family

Women in rural areas of Indonesia are often married by the time they are 20 years old. Although people throughout the country have more freedom to choose their own marriage partners than they had in the past, rural families are generally more involved than urban families are in the choice of their children's spouses, and men generally have somewhat more freedom in choosing their spouses than women have. Engagement is more than an agreement between the future bride and groom; it binds the two families. Members of the extended family often live under the same roof or near one another. Older people are shown special respect.

In most regions, the home is traditionally dominated by the father, and the mother is responsible for raising children and caring for the household. In urban areas, however, the trend today is for many women to work outside the home, and women now make up 40.8 percent (2000) of the labor force. Women occupy 12 percent of the seats in parliament and generally have as much access to education as men do. Indonesian women have more rights than women in other predominantly Muslim countries, including rights in property settlements, inheritance, and divorce. Among the Minangkabau ethnic group, the mother is the dominant figure in the household, and extended families group together according to matrilineal descent.


Rice is the staple and is eaten at every meal in Indonesia. Vegetables, fish, and hot sauces are often served with the rice; specific dishes vary according to the region. Tea and coffee are the most common drinks. Fresh fruit is widely available and is often eaten as dessert. Popular meats include beef and chicken. Observant Muslims do not eat pork. Chilies are often used (sometimes in large quantities) in cooking, as are other spices. Coconut milk is used to cook particularly spicy food known as padang food, named after the city on Sumatra where it originated. In the capital, Jakarta, restaurants serve a variety of different cuisines, although the range is not as extensive as in some other Southeast Asian capitals.

Many Indonesians eat with a spoon and fork, but more traditional families eat with their hands. Generally, the fork is held in the left hand and the spoon in the right, and both hands are kept above the table while eating. It is impolite to eat or drink until invited to do so by the host. Finishing a drink implies the desire for the glass to be refilled. There are many street vendors selling food, but people who purchase food should always sit to eat because it is considered inappropriate to eat while standing or walking on the street.


Indonesian culture is based on honor and respect for the individual. Letters begin with Dengan hormat, meaning “With respect,” and respect is important in greeting others. Status is also important; the most senior person or the host should be greeted first, and special deference should be shown to older people. A nod or slight bow is the usual form of greeting, although when meeting someone for the first time it is normal to shake hands as well. Handshakes are also used when congratulating someone or when saying goodbye before a long trip. Titles are very important and should be used when greeting and in general conversation. The most formal introduction would include, in roughly this order, Bapak (“Sir”) or Ibu (“Madam”), an academic or professional title (if applicable), the noble title (if the person uses it), and the person’s given and family names. Many Indonesians, especially the Javanese, have only one name and are therefore addressed both formally and casually by that name. Business representatives often exchange cards when greeting each other.

When socializing, one never touches the head of another person. Unless married or engaged to her, a man usually does not touch a woman in public, except to shake hands. The left hand is not used to shake hands, touch others, point, eat, or give or receive objects.

Indonesians believe that visits bring honor to the host, and they warmly welcome all guests. Unannounced visits are common. When a visit has been prearranged it is usual to arrive half an hour after the appointed time. Visitors sit when invited to, but will also rise when the host or hostess enters the room, because deference to one’s host is very important. A drink is often served, but a guest does not drink until invited to. A person may cause offense by refusing when food or drink is offered. Blunt talk should be avoided. If the host or hostess is not wearing footwear, it is polite for visitors to remove theirs. Shoes are removed before entering carpeted rooms, feasting places, places of funeral viewings, mosques, and other holy places. Gifts are not opened in the giver’s presence.


Badminton and soccer are the most popular sports in Indonesia, and many people play volleyball and tennis. Shadow-puppet theater is a traditional art, and performances are particularly common in rural areas and on special occasions. Other recreational activities include watching television and going to the cinema. Censorship is strict.


When riding a Jakarta bus, struggling in post-office crowds, or getting into a football match, one may think that Indonesians have only a push-and-shove etiquette. And in a pedicab or the market, bargaining always delays action. In some places a young woman walking or biking alone is subject to harassment by young males. But public behavior contrasts sharply with private etiquette. In an Indonesian home, one joins in quiet speech and enjoys humorous banter and frequent laughs. People sit properly with feet on the floor and uncrossed legs while guests, men, and elders are given the best seating and deference. Strong emotions and rapid or abrupt movements of face, arms, or body are avoided before guests. Drinks and snacks must be served, but not immediately, and when served, guests must wait to be invited to drink. Patience is rewarded, displays of greed are avoided, and one may be offered a sumptuous meal by a host who asks pardon for its inadequacy.

Whether serving tea to guests, passing money after bargaining in the marketplace, or paying a clerk for stamps at the post office, only the right hand is used to give or receive, following Muslim custom. (The left hand is reserved for toilet functions.) Guests are served with a slight bow, and elders are passed by juniors with a bow. Handshakes are appropriate between men, but with a soft touch (and between Muslims with the hand then lightly touching the heart). Until one has a truly intimate relationship with another, negative feelings such as jealousy, envy, sadness, and anger should be hidden from that person. Confrontations should be met with smiles and quiet demeanor, and direct eye contact should be avoided, especially with social superiors. Punctuality is not prized— Indonesians speak of "rubber time"—and can be considered impolite. Good guidebooks warn, however, that Indonesians may expect Westerners to be on time! In public, opposite sexes are rarely seen holding hands (except perhaps in a Jakarta mall), while male or female friends of the same sex do hold hands.

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