ETIQUETTE AND CUSTOMS IN INDONESIA
According to everyculture.com: 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. Children may repeatedly shout "Belanda, Belanda" (white Westerner) at a European, or youths shout, "Hey, Mister." 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. [Source: everyculture.com]
“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.”
Indonesians, Chinese and other groups practice customs associated with their ethnic group. “The Javanese emphasize the distinction between refined ( halus ) and crude ( kasar ) behavior, and young children who have not yet learned refined behavior in speech, demeanor, attitude, and general behavior are considered "not yet Javanese." This distinction may be extended to other peoples whose culturally correct behavior is not deemed appropriate by the Javanese. The Batak, for example, may be considered crude because they generally value directness in speech and demeanor and can be argumentative in interpersonal relationships. And a Batak man's wife is deemed to be a wife to his male siblings (though not in a sexual way), which a Javanese wife might not accept. Bugis do not respect persons who smile and withdraw in the face of challenges, as the Javanese tend to do; they respect those who defend their honor even violently, especially the honor of their women. Thus conflict between the Javanese and others over issues of etiquette and behavior is possible. A Javanese wife of a Batak man may not react kindly to his visiting brother expecting to be served and to have his laundry done without thanks; a young Javanese may smile and greet politely a young Bugis girl, which can draw the ire (and perhaps knife) of her brother or cousin; a Batak civil servant may dress down his Javanese subordinate publicly (in which case both the Batak and the Javanese lose face in the eyes of the Javanese). Batak who migrate to cities in Java organize evening lessons to instruct newcomers in proper behavior with the majority Javanese and Sundanese with whom they will live and work. Potential for interethnic conflict has increased over the past decades as more people from Java are transmigrated to outer islands, and more people from the outer islands move to Java.
Books: “The Traveler's Guide to Asian Customs & Manners” by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Braganti; “Culture Shock, a Guide to Customs and Etiquette,” Indonesia by Cathie Draine and Barbara Hall.
A nod or slight bow is the usual form of greeting. People usually only shake hands only when being introduced for the first time and then they usually clasp hand lightly and say their name and then shake limply. If someone touches their heart while shaking hands that presents an especially heartfelt welcome. Handshakes are also used when congratulating someone or when saying goodbye before a long trip. [Source: “The Traveler's Guide to Asian Customs & Manners” by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Braganti.
Muslims sometimes greet each other with a “salaam”, in which two individuals each extend both hands and grasp both their hands somewhat like a double handshake. The gesture is also used when saying goodbye. The salaam is only used when greeting men. As a sign of deep respect young people kiss the hand of an elder and touch the hand to their forehead. In some places, particularly on Java, some people greet each other by pressing their palms together, with the right slightly forward and touching the other person’s right hand. Shaking hands is generally acceptable between the sexes but men should ere on the side of caution and should not shake hands with women unless they extend their hands first.
According to the Muslim Imam Shamshad A. Nasir: 1) Shake hands upon greeting and leaving, and always using your right hand. The handshake is limp and lasts 10-15 seconds. 2) For religious reasons (Muslim and Hindu) men and women do not touch in public in this culture. 3) Women do not offer a handshake to an Indonesian man. However, should a man extend his hand, always shake hands. Some Indonesian men may follow western business rules in a business setting. 4) Men do not offer a handshake to an Indonesian woman. Reciprocate, however, if she initiates. 5) Indonesian Chinese may bow, or combine a bow with a handshake. 6) When Muslims greet each other, instead of saying, “good morning” or “hello” they say “Assalamo Alaikum,” which means “May peace be upon you and may God's blessings be with you.” This greeting makes a Muslim aware that he has to spread love and peace wherever he goes. [Source: Imam Shamshad A. Nasir cyborlink.com]
According to kwintessential.co.uk: 1) Greetings can be rather formal as they are meant to show respect. 2) A handshake is the most common greeting accompanied with the word "Selamat". 3) Many Indonesians may give a slight bow or place their hands on their heart after shaking your hand. 4) If you are being introduced to several people, always start with the eldest or most senior person first. [Source: kwintessential.co.uk]
According to Bahasa Indonesia Lima: When you meet an Indonesian person for the first time, you need to make some quick decisions! Do you refer to them formally as Bapak or Ibu or more informally as Kakak/kak, Adik/dik, Mbak or Mas? Do you shake their hand or offer both of your hands with palms together? The following guides may help but it’s often best just to let them take the lead!To greet an elder (a respected person in the community, a teacher, your parents, grandmother, and so on), move their offered hand to slightly touch your forehead.[Source: Bahasa Indonesia Lima, Our Indonesian Language Hub: 5 Schools Bekerja-sama indo5.net
“Shake hands softly and then slightly touch your chest afterwards. Men usually give a stronger grip than women when they are shaking hands.Touching your chest after shaking hands demonstrates respect to other person (you’re taking their greeting into your heart). It’s often OK to shake hands with someone of the opposite sex. Just use a soft grip and then slightly touch your own chest as well. When female friends meet, they often greet each other by kissing cheek to cheek. This is known as cipika cipiki in Indonesian. Sometimes you may meet a Muslim Indonesian who will not touch someone (who they don’t know) of the opposite sex. Greet them with your hands together instead and bow a little bit.” [Ibid]
Names and Titles in Indonesia
Different ethnic groups address each using different names. To avoid confusion, ask a person how they want to be addressed. When addressing people for the first time, be polite, respectful, always use the formal terms, i.e. bapak for a man, ibu for a woman before their proper names. When meeting, Indonesians touch their heart in greeting, often after the handshake. It feels a bit awkward and pretentious to do this at first, but you get into the habit rather quickly and it is a respectful gesture when meeting officials.
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. 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. [Source: Indonesia-fascination.blogspot.jp]
Titles are important and they are often references to kinship. Older men are often referred to “bapak” ("pak" for short), which means "father." Older women are often referred to ibu” ("bu" for short), which means "mother." The titles of doctor, professor and engineer are also used. Titles are often used without a name. You can easily and safely address everybody by Ibu (Mrs. and Ms.), usually shorten to Bu and Bapak (Mr.) usually shorten to Pak. Coworkers address each other Mbak/Mas (older sister/older brother in Javanese) instead of the formal Bu/Pak.
According to kwintessential.co.uk: 1) Titles are important in Indonesia as they signify status. If you know of any titles ensure you use them in conjunction with the name. 2) 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. 3) Many Indonesians, especially those from Java, may have had an extremely long name, which was shortened into a sort of nickname for everyday conversation. 4) There are several ethnic groups in Indonesia. Most have adopted Indonesian names over the years, while some retain the naming conventions of their ethnicity. [Source: kwintessential.co.uk]
According to the Muslim Imam Shamshad A. Nasir: 1) Address each person using his/her title plus full name. A title may be an honorific title or an academic title. Rank and status is very important in this culture. 2) One important honorific title is for Muslims who have made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Haji is the title for a man, Hajjah is for a woman. 3) Mr., Madam, Mrs. or Miss is used if a person does not have a title. A man is addressed as Pak (Mr.) or Bapak(Sir) . A lady is addressed as Ibu. 4) People are normally called by their first name, as in Mr. Robert or Miss Susan, rather than using their last name. 5) Married Chinese women keep their maiden name. [Source: Imam Shamshad A. Nasir cyborlink.com]
In addition to the usual ranks and professional titles, it is customary to add Pak or Bapak and Saudara for addressing men, and Bu or Ibu for addressing women. Pak and Bapak are literally translated as "father", with Bapak being the more formal and used in speech much like the English word "sir". Saudara is a term of greater respect and formality, literally translated as "kinsman". Ibu is literally translated as "mother" and is used in speech much like the English words "ma'am" and "lady". If a person's name is unknown, one can call an Indonesian man Bapak or an Indonesian woman Ibu. Another informal way to address significantly older people is to call them Om and Tante, which mean "uncle" and "aunt". The terms are Dutch-influenced and quite commonly used in big cities. However, local honorifics continue to be employed throughout Indonesia, such as the casual general way Kakak is used for older sister/brother; in Javanese Mbak is used for older sister. Mas is used for older brother; in Sumatran Malay or Minangkabau cultural spheres it corresponds to Abang for older brother, but it is common to call a becak driver, angkot driver, vegetable vendor, fishmonger or hawker abang. Additionally, 'Gus' (from bagus), as used to address former president 'Gus Dur', is usually used exclusively to address honorable Eastern Javanese people with strong traditional and religious links. [Source: Wikipedia +]
See Names Under Language
Travel writer Norman Lewis wrote: "Keep a low profile. In Indonesia that is the golden rule." Public displays of affection between different sexes frowned upon. Physical contact between members of the opposite sex are minimal. Respect towards older people is greatly valued. In villages, and even in urban middle class neighbors, local elders have a lot of influence and power. Aggressive behavior is frowned upon. Publicly humiliating someone in Indonesian culture is considered unforgivable bad manners.
No physical contact between men and women is made in public, except a possible handshake. In Indonesia, it is common to see boys walking arm and arm and girls holding hands. It is not uncommon for people of the same gender to hold hands when walking together. This is a sign of friendship, not sexual preference. In most areas of the country it is considered improper for a girl and boy to hold hands or put their arms around each other. It is not appropriate for an adult man to touch an adult woman beyond a handshake in a social setting, unless they are related. [Source: expat.or.id ]
Stand closely to the others when you are waitinh in line when you queue in Indonesia. Expect “VIPs” to push in! It is regarded as polite to bow slightly when you walk in front of someone who is seated or interrupting somebody. Never eat while walking in public, or chew on a toothpick. Yawning in public is inappropriate (cover your mouth if you must yawn).
Squatting and Using of the Left Hand
According to expat.or.id:“For Indonesians squatting (mejeng/jongkok) is a very natural and comfortable position and they can remain in such a position feeling totally relaxed for a long time. You will often see groups of men or children by the roadside just passing the time of day, smoking and chatting, and squatting. They are trained from infancy to assume this position and do it with their feet flat on the ground – something that is very difficult for most westerners. For most Indonesians this is also the most natural and comfortable way to use the toilet, hence the prevalence of squat toilets even in some luxurious shopping malls and office buildings. [Source: expat.or.id ***]
“Throughout Indonesian society the left hand is used for “toilet duties” and is therefore considered unclean. In Indonesia, it is rude and offensive to hand someone something with your left hand, especially food or drink, or to shake hands with your left hand. When you think of where that person’s left hand has been, you probably wouldn’t want anything from it anyhow! If your right hand is occupied, it is best to try and switch the item to your left prior to receiving an object. If you are forced, due to circumstances, to hand something to someone with your left hand, acknowledge the unavoidable cultural slight by saying “Maaf, tangan kiri.” (Sorry, I had to use my left hand). This cultural idiosyncrasy leaves the left-handed person at a constant disadvantage in society! You may ask, what do the left handed Indonesians do? Indonesian children are trained from a very early age to use their "tangan manis" (sweet hand) and are urged to do everything with their right hand.” ***
Burping, Coughing, Staring and Spitting in Indonesia
It is not considered impolite to burp, and can even be regarded as a sign of appreciation of a good meal, therefore Indonesians generally do not excuse themselves after burping. Spitting is particularly common during the fasting month. Some strict Muslims refuse to swallow their own saliva while fasting, and spit saliva onto the ground or in the street. Gargling and spitting is part of the ritual cleansing before Muslim prayers. In some places people spit betelnut juice.
According to expat.or.id: “It is not common for traditional and less educated people in Indonesia to carry handkerchiefs or tissues, and often they do not understand how diseases are spread. Therefore it is not unusual to see people coughing or sneezing openly without attempting to cover their mouth or nose. If your domestic staff or driver have this habit, it would be best to explain to them your concerns and then provide them with some tissues and ask them to cover their mouth or nose when coughing and sneezing. Alternately, you might suggest they cough or sneeze into their sleeve (not their hands as it spreads the germs when they come into contact with other things). [Source: expat.or.id ***]
“In Indonesia, it is not considered impolite to stare. Sometimes when you are out in public, you will feel yourself the object of staring. Adults will point you out to their children, people will stop what they are doing to watch you, etc.! The fewer foreigners in the area, the more stares you are apt to receive. Most expats deal with the staring by just ignoring it. There is really nothing you can do about it; no matter how uncomfortable you are, it will always happen! Many expats “cope” by creating a kind of mental bubble around them, or tunnel vision, to deal with the discomfort. [Source: expat.or.id ]
Personal Space and Lack of Privacy in Indonesia
According to .expat.or.id: “Due, no doubt, to the high concentration of the population, Indonesians have little, if any, sense of personal space or privacy. There is no word in the Indonesian language for “privacy”. Gossip and curiosity is rampant and Indonesians will ask you a wide range of personal questions without batting an eye. [Source: expat.or.id ***]
In North America social space ranges from 4 to 10 feet and is used for communication among business associates, as well as to separate strangers using public areas such as beaches and bus stops. Personal space ranges from 2 to 4 feet and is used among friends and family members, and to separate people waiting in lines at teller machines for example. The North American personal space equates the Indonesian social space. When having business meetings with your Indonesian counterpart, you might find yourself backing away trying to regain your social space, while your Indonesian counterpart moves closer to you to maintain his / her social space.[Source: Canadian Centre for Intercultural Learning, intercultures.gc.ca \~]
Direct eye contact should be avoided. You can probably look at the person on the chin or you can also look them in the eye for very short periods of time as they will feel very uncomfortable to have direct eye contact constantly while having a conversation with you. But do use your judgement. If you know that the person grew up in Jakarta and has been educated abroad, it should be okay. Touching someone when speaking to them is reserved for friends and acquaintances of the same sex. You should refrain from doing so when speaking to someone of the opposite sex and professional associates. \~\
“Foreigners quickly get tired of the “20 Questions Game" that they are subjected to every time they meet a new person. Be polite in your responses, and understand that they are just being friendly in their own way, or just perhaps smile and don’t answer. You might want to turn the questions back on them ... asking them the same questions they ask you. Strike up a conversation and learn some Bahasa Indonesia. ***
Some Indonesians call Western foreigners “bule.: “Yes, we know, all foreigners are albinos (the actual meaning of the word bule). It is not uncommon for people to yell out “Hey Bule” when they see you … addressing the novelty of your appearance in their neighborhood. The best response is just to smile and nod your head … ! Most foreigners are also familiar with the common variety of “Hey Bule”, which is “Hey Mister” … yes all foreigners are men. These verbal pointing episodes are most common when there is a group of boys or young men congregating, often trying to one-up each other with their verbal acknowledgment of your presence. If you are a woman and their form of address is impolite, it’s best to just ignore them. Women should understand that dressing immodestly will undoubtedly result in more staring and more “Hey Misters” or other rude comments. Remember, the average persons “knowledge” of western lifestyles and mores, is influenced by what they see from western TV shows and movies! ***
Mosque and Temple Etiquette
Take your shoes off and dress appropriately when entering a mosque or Hindu temple. Men wearing shorts, are sometimes given robes at the entrance. Women should have their knees and arms covered. Some temples in Bali require visitors to wear a sarong. Sarongs are often available at the entrance for Westerners. Some temples also require visitors to remove their shoes. Inside a temple make sure your head is never higher than the head of the priest . When someone is praying, you can go beside or in back of them but never walk in front of them. Women are not supposed to enter a temple when menstruating. Don't sit with one foot resting on the other knee. It is considered rude.
Mosques and shrines are sometimes not open to women or non-Muslims. One should ask for permission before entering. Those that do welcome them expect them to be appropriately dressed: no shorts, short skirts, revealing halter tops or exposed shoulders. Mosques that allow women often require them to at least wear a head scarf. Some require them to cover their entire bodies, except the face, hands and feet, and not wear trousers. Sometimes mosques provide women who don’t have one with a head scarf. Sometimes they have robes for men wearing shorts.
The Muslim faithful are expected to remove their shoes and wash their feet in a sacred basin before they enter the mosque. If no water is available Muslims are supposed to wash themselves with sand. Foreign visitors can usually get away with just removing their shoes and are not required to wash their feet. In any case, make sure you feet or socks are clean. Dirty feet in a mosques are regarded as an insult to Islam. In large mosques you remove your shoes and place them on a shelf in a place with a number under it.
Inside a mosque don't walk in front of someone who is praying, don't touch the Koran, never sit or stand on a prayer rug and never place a Koran on the floor or put anything on top of it. Also, don't cross your legs in front of an older people and don't step over someone who is sitting down. Show respect, remain quiet and stay out of the way. Taking photographs is frowned upon. Some historical mosques require visitors to pay an admission fee. Some also require them to pay an attendant a small fee for taking care of their shoes. It is best for foreigner to avoid visiting mosques at prayer time on Friday. Women and men are segregated in many mosques.
Gestures and Body in Indonesia
Gestures in Indonesia: 1) In Indonesian the thumbs up sing means "You go first." 2) Don't pat someone on the head even though you see Indonesians doing this with children all the time. 3) Do not put your hands into your pockets when talking with someone. 4) Don't cross your legs in front of an older people and don't step over someone with crossed legs who is sitting down.
5) Never give or receive something by the left hand. It is considered impolite. You should give and receive things with your right hand. In the rural areas in Java, giving and receiving with both hands, with the body slightly downward is okay. "The Koran states the right hand is more honorable.” Left handed children are taught from an early age to use their right hands.
6) Don't gesture to someone by pointing. Pointing out something you want or pointing out directions is okay. Do not crook your index finger to call someone over. This gesture is offensive. Signal someone to come with you palm down. Beckoning is done with the palm faced down. Western-style becking with the index finger is considered rude. When you point at something or someone, never use your index finger. In Java, it’s common to use your thumb instead.
7) One should not talk with their hands on their hips. Placing the hands on the hips indicates anger. In a wayang shadow puppet show", that kind of position is for somebody who is ready to physically fight. 8) Don't expose the soles of your feet. 9) Do not put your legs on the table, while you are sitting down on the chair, when there are people around. The local people do not like this ’cowboy style’ of sitting down. While in North America this shows that the person is in a relaxed position, in Indonesia, it means arrogance and being impolite.
10) When walking past people, slightly bow your body and put your right hand in front of your body as you walk in front of someone. And don’t forget to say “permisi”. 11) When a concern/issue is “keciiiiiiil.” Touch the tip of your thumb with your index finger and then flick your index finger away. This gesture accompanies the phrase, “Masalah itu kecil sekali sampai bisa disentil” or “That problem is so easy to handle it’s like flicking away a speck of dust.” 12) “Kassseeehaaaan deh loe” was made famous by a sinetron in the early 1990s. Together with the index-finger-swipe-gesture it’s the Indonesian equivalent of “bring out the violins” or “poor, pitiful you”. “Kasihan deh loe!” The gesture lends the phrase a certain sarcasm.
Indonesian Social Customs
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. Otherwise Indonesians of the same sex are often very physical and frequently touch each on the arm when they talk. Indonesians often aren’t shy when it comes to giving advice and making remarks about others’ physical appearance and manners. Some foreigners say it takes some getting used to.
Giving and receiving things: Always use your right hand when passing and receiving things. Using the left hand is considered very impolite. The left hand is not used to shake hands, touch others, point, eat, or give or receive objects. Slightly bow your head as you say thank you.
1) Always defer to people older than yourself, and more respect is better than less. 2) Calmness is a virtue. Expressions of anger are considered rude and inappropriate. 3) Especially with foreigner, Indonesians ask a lot of personal questions. This is done in part to size a person up and figure out what level of respect to use when speaking to the person. 4) Indonesians often laugh when embarrassed, anxious or nervous. 6) Indonesians are often late.
7) Indonesians are more comfortable with silences that Wester people. Sometimes there are long pauses when people are thinking. 8) At parties people are often asked to give or speech or sing a karaoke song. In the speeches one is expected to express his or her pleasure with meeting everyone and to thank the host. 9) Javanese has 10 words for "stand up" and 20 words for "sit down." The various terms describe difference in posture, feeling and symbolism. 10) Unlike foreign tourist who like to take photographs of natural sights such as volcanos and enjoy the view, Indonesians like to make an offering to the volcano and take photographs of their friends and relatives. They often seem to care less about the view.
According to the Muslim leader Imam Shamshad A. Nasir: 1) Selamat means peace and is a traditional greeting. 2) "Yes, but" means no when someone is speaking to you. 3) Never allow your voice to get loud, whether in anger or joy. 4) Expressing anger in public through tone of voice, loudness, or body language is always inappropriate. 5) Do not use red ink when writing, or having printing done (Chinese). 6) Never show the soles of your feet/shoes or touch anything with your foot. 7) Never touch another person's head, this includes a child's head (such as a pat on the head). 8) Remove your hat and sunglasses when going indoors.[Source: Imam Shamshad A. Nasir cyborlink.com]
Conversation Topics in Indonesia
Good conservation topics include families, local communities, and food and places in Indonesia and your home country. Avoid discussions about politics, sex, material possessions, and the Chinese and don't say anything negative about Islam or Indonesia. Indonesians, and Javanese in particular, are often not very direct. They artfully talk about an issue by talking around it.
Family is often the first topic to be discussed, The family is very important to Indonesians. The Javanese, the ethnic Indonesian with the most population, have a saying that goes like this: "Mangan ora mangan asal ngumpul" which means: having food or having no food, the most important thing is that we are together. Indonesians will ask you your marital status. They ask about children, their age, etc. It is always safe to ask these questions in return and often it is necessary to go through this ritual of polite, light conversation (even in business) before getting to the topic or purpose of the meeting. Religion is also a common topic. All Indonesians identify with a religion, there are very few declared atheists, and they assume that Westerners are Christian. It is better to just declare yourself as a Christian (if you are an atheist), rather than asserting otherwise. [Source: Canadian Centre for Intercultural Learning, intercultures.gc.ca]
When meeting Indonesians who travel or have been educated abroad, you can also ask them about their experiences. Ask Indonesians about their origin. Which part of Indonesia do they come from? After having lived in Indonesia for a little while, you will be able recognize family names from certain areas or you will be able to recognize names from certain regions, such as Supomo, Soeprapto etc. Names beginning with "Su, Soe" and ending with an "o" are usually Javanese. Take a chance and ask them, "Are you from Central/East Java?"
Things to avoid discussing: 1) Age, as in many cultures, it is impolite to bluntly ask about their age. 2) Religion, Politics and human rights, unless somebody else started the discussion and the discussion is kept calm and controlled, it is not recommended to start discussions about these two very sensitive topics. 3) Be sensitive to their international travel experiences, allow Indonesians to tell about their experiences and do not overwhelm them with one of your own. Among lower middle class Indonesians, domestic travel is usually in response to death in the family and rarely for pleasure. The expatriate that has been in the country for two to three years may have seen more of the country than most of his Indonesian counterparts and friends.
In the past politics was a delicate subject, but in the new Indonesia it has become more of a topic of discussion. Also, when I was in Indonesia, there was often a perception that Westerners are experts in their field so I was often posed questions regarding my work and profession - sometimes with high expectations as to my level of expertise. I never felt shy about admitting my limitations, however Indonesians can be hesitant to admit they are unaware of something. The best example of this is just in asking for directions, no one will admit to not knowing something and you can be sent in all kinds of directions before realizing that you were just sent along on your way.
Things that might surprise you: Even if it was the first time that they met you, Indonesian might startle you by asking "personal questions" such as whether you were married, and if not, whether you were then engaged to be married? They will ask you about your family, where you work, what your occupation is, where you were educated and so on. Please just answer all these questions casually as you do not have to answer them in details. Indonesians often feel uneasy when they meet you for the first time. They do not know who you are and so they do not know "how to place you". Should I treat this person as an equal (i.e. the same age and/or social status) or should I treat her/her differently? They will usually err on the safe side by treating you as if you were "older and/or having a higher social status" and then slowly adjusting their behaviour after they get to know you better. The Indonesian society is a very hierarchical society, hence knowing where to place somebody is very important.
If you were married, they might ask you casually what kind of birth control you are using. This topic occurs very often in social conversations since the government has been working very hard to socialize it since the 70’s to control the increase in the population. As you know, Indonesia is the 4th most populated country in the world.
One final question that you will be posed constantly is "mau ke mana" where are you going? This can get a little annoying and you can feel that it is a little too personal to be asked this by your neighbor or your shop clerk etc. It is just a polite phrase for which they are not really expecting a long explanation of your plans. I often replied "jalan jalan saja" which means I am just walking.
Gift Giving Etiquette
Gift giving etiquette in Indonesia heavily depends on the ethnicity of the receiver. Religion/culture dictates specific rules for appropriate gifts. Muslim, Hindus, and the Chinese culture each have rules regarding food, alcohol, and other items. Make sure your gift is not offensive to the person you are giving it to. Gift something from your country or fruit or chocolate are generally safe and appreciated. Don't give pork or alcohol. People usually don’t open heir gift sin the presence of gift givers.
According to kwintessential.co.uk: Gift giving etiquette for the Chinese: 1) It is considered polite to verbally refuse a gift before accepting it. This shows that the recipient is not greedy. 2) Items to avoid include scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate that you want to sever the relationship. 3) Elaborate wrapping is expected - gold and red and considered auspicious. 4) Gifts are not opened when received. 5) Chinese may politely refuse a gift three times before accepting it. When the gift is accepted, tell the recipient how happy you are with his or her acceptance. 6) On Chinese New Year, give children and people you frequently deal with, who are not government employees, a gift of money. The money must be an even number of new bills, and presented in a red envelope. 7) Do not give a gift that numbers four or shows a crane or stork. In selecting the gift and the gift wrapping paper stay away from the colors white, black, or blue (Chinese). 8) A gift of an umbrella means you do not want to see that person again (Chinese). [Source: kwintessential.co.uk =]
Gift giving etiquette for ethnic Malays / Muslims: 1) In Islam alcohol is forbidden. Only give alcohol if you know the recipient will appreciate it. 2) 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. 3) Offer gifts with the right hand only. 4) Gifts are not opened when received. This practice shows the recipient is gracious, not greedy. =
Gift giving etiquette for Hindus: 1) Offer gifts with the right hand only. 2) Wrap gifts in red, yellow or green paper or other bright colors as these bring good fortune. 3) Do not give leather products to a Hindu. 4) Do not give alcohol unless you are certain the recipient imbibes. 5) Gifts are not opened when received. =
According to the Muslim leader Imam Shamshad A. Nasir: 1) Gifts, though small, are frequently given. 2) Do not give gifts of alcohol or pork. This would also include perfume since it is made with alcohol, and any leather product made from pigskin (Muslim). 4) Do not give gifts or pictures that show dogs. They are considered unclean. [Source: Imam Shamshad A. Nasir cyborlink.com]
Proper Dress and Clothes in Indonesia
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. How you dress for work depends where you work, but usually what Westerners consider casual formal. Be clean and wear ironed clothes. Men and women shouldn’t wear shorts to work. Dress pants and jeans (depending) are acceptable for men with short-sleeved shirts. Customs also differs depending on where you are based. In Muslim areas, women should not wear tank tops or sleeveless tops; your arms need to be covered. However in Bali, it is acceptable to wear sleeveless tops. In some situations don't wear yellow (it is the color of royalty) and don't wear black.[Source: Canadian Centre for Intercultural Learning, intercultures.gc.ca ]
1) Women should wear long-sleeve blouses and skirts that cover the knee. 2) Women meeting in a more formal office should wear a suit with hosiery. 3) Women are limited to clothing colors that are muted or dark. Leave brightly colored clothing at home. 4) Women must always cover their upper arms when wearing a casual blouse. 5) Women should not sit with their legs apart even when wearing pants. [Source: Imam Shamshad A. Nasir cyborlink.com]
1) Men should wear coat and tie until appropriate to dress more casually. Follow the lead of those you are meeting with. 2) Men generally wear dark slacks, long sleeve and light colored shirt, and tie (no jacket). 3) "Lounge suit" requires men to wear a business suit. This term may be included on an invitation. 4) Men may find in a very casual business office that a short sleeve shirt and no tie would be appropriate. 5) Jeans may be worn for very casual, but never shorts for men or women. Even though the climate is warm and humid, proper attire even for very casual appearance will always dictate your choice of clothing.
Indonesians like to entertain at home more than at restaurants. Part of it part is the Muslim hospitality thing. Guest often begin eating soon after they arrive. When welcoming people through a door or entryway (“silakan masuk“), gesture using your palm or thumb (never use your index finger to point or gesture!).
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.
Indonesians generally take their shoes off and leave them on the front porch before entering a house. Don't have holes in your socks. Do not touch the Koran or sit or stand on a prayer rug. People often sit on he floor. When sitting in the floor women should tuck their legs underneath them, turned down on the floor. and men should sit cross legged. Don't step over someone's cross legs. Males should sit with their feet crossed at the ankles. In Indonesian, this pose is called “bersila“.
In rural areas men often eat separately from women. Many middle class people have servants. They are often treated like members of the family. Even so it is considered insulting to offer to help them.
The toilet and the bath are often in separate rooms. There are often buckets of water in the toilet. Indonesians and Indians wash themselves every time they go to the bathroom. Sometimes only cold water showers are available. Some people take two or three showers a day because of the heat and humidity.
Foreigners are expected to be punctual and always present unless you are really ill. The local people might behave differently, especially if they are of a higher social status than you are, or if they are your boss. Then they will then have the privilege of being on "jam karet", which literally means ’Rubber Time’ (to stretch the time or be late). [Source: Canadian Centre for Intercultural Learning, intercultures.gc.ca ]
Eating Customs in Indonesia
Men, women and children usually eat together when there are no guests. When guests are present the men often eat together in the living room, while the women and children act as servants. Muslim Indonesians have traditionally used their left "dirty" hand to take care of wiping their dirty body parts and other "unclean" bodily functions. As a result, Muslim Indonesians never eat or touch someone with their left hand. 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. [Source: “The Traveler's Guide to Asian Customs & Manners” by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Braganti.
Food is eaten—usually quite rapidly and without speaking—with the fingertips or with a spoon and fork. Water is generally drunk only after the meal, when men (rarely women) smoke their distinctive clove-scented kretek cigarettes. 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.
According to kwintessential.co.uk: 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. 1) Wait to be shown to your place - as a guest you will have a specific position. 2) 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. 3) 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. 4) In formal situations, men are served before women. 5) Wait to be invited to eat before you start. 6) A fork and spoon are often the only utensils at the place setting. Depending on the situation some people may use their hands. 7) Eat or pass food with your right hand only. [Source: kwintessential.co.uk]
8) People often sit on the floor when they eat and wash their hands from a bowl before sitting to eat. 9) Indonesians talk less at mealtime than Westerners. Meals are considered to a time to savor over one's food. Among some Indonesians talking is impolite while eating dinner. Conversation is reserved for before or after the meal. 10) Don't touch the serving spoon to your plate and pass dishes by holding them with your left hand and supporting them with your right hand palm down.
11) Always rise when your host/hostess enters the room. 12) Wait for a signal from your host to begin eating or drinking. 13) Show that you are finished eating by crossing your fork and your spoon on your plate. 14) Don't blow your nose, clear your throat loudly. 15 Guests are expected to try everything and leave nothing on their plate. In some situations they ar expected to ask for multiple servings. Refusing food or leaving food on your plate is considered bad manners.
Eating with a Fork and Spoon in Indonesia
Meals are usually served with forks and large spoons. Indonesians usually hold their spoon in their right and hand and fork in their left hand and push food with the fork onto the spoon and eat with their right hand using the spoon. Both hands are kept above the table while eating. Knives are usually not served because the food is cut into bite size pieces and cutting isn't necessary. People are served plates and use serving spoons to dish themselves food from serving bowls at the middle of the table.
According to expat.or.id: “These days Indonesian food is generally eaten with a spoon and fork, the spoon in the right hand and fork in the left (or vice versa for lefthanders). The fork holds food steady while breaking off portions with the spoon, and is used to assist in loading up the spoon by pushing food into it. Most food is cut up into relatively small pieces before it is cooked, although chicken and duck are usually served on the bone, and fish is often served whole. When you are finished eating, you turn your spoon and fork over and lay them crossed in your plate. This signals the hostess that you are full and doesn’t lead to an urging to take more food! [Source: expat.or.id ]
Eating with One’s Hands in Indonesia
More traditional Indonesian families eat with their hands. Food and sauces are spooned on to the rice, and mixed together, kneaded into a ball and popped into the mouth with the fingers. Bones have to be extracted from fish and meat with one hand. A small bowl of water is often set on the table for the person eating to clean his hand with while eating.
According to Bahasa Indonesia Lima: Food tastes better when you eat with your hands! Indonesians call this the “eleven finger-fork” To eat Indonesian style, pinch your thumb and fingers together around the food, making it into a ball and eat! This is usually done with rice. Perhaps avoid this technique if you are left-handed, though, and ask for a spoon and fork! [Source: Bahasa Indonesia Lima, Our Indonesian Language Hub: 5 Schools Bekerja-sama indo5.net
Eating food with one’s hands is particularly common in Sumatra and some parts of Java. There, some restaurants don't have any utensils at all to give their patrons. Instead each table comes with a water pitcher that is used to clean the hands after the meal. Most meals come with pancake-like bread that is used to scoop up the food which is usually something that resembles stew.
According to expat.or.id: “Sometimes Indonesian food is served and eaten not at a table, but on woven mats covering a low platform or the ground. This style of eating is called lesehan and is common in Yogyakarta and Central Java as well as West Java. Traditionally food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand, and many Indonesians insist that certain dishes taste much better this way. Finger bowls, often with a slice of lime floating in the water to cut the grease on your fingers, are usually provided for cleansing your fingers after such meals. Note that only the right hand is used to eat the food, never the left. [Source: expat.or.id ]
Indonesian Eating Habits
According to expat.or.id: “Indonesians love to eat, not only meals, which they may consume at any hour of the day whenever they feel hungry, but also snacks of many kinds. Eating is also a social activity and meals are often shared with others who happen to drop in. The meals lend themselves to easily extending the amount of food available by the addition of another hastily prepared dish such as dadar telor (omelet). It is considered impolite not to provide some sort of drinks and snacks to a guest, whether invited or unexpected. [Source: expat.or.id ***]
A normal Indonesian-style family meal consists of white rice served with three or four accompanying dishes. When guests are present, and on special occasions, the number of dishes served is much greater and in more abundant quantities. In keeping with Indonesian hospitality, a wide variety and choice of dishes should be provided to honor a guest. Whatever is not eaten is never wasted. Guests may be encouraged to take home some of the leftover food and plastic bags or containers are always on hand for this purpose. The remainder goes back to the kitchen, to be eaten by domestic staff or to be reheated and served again the next day. Indonesians are honored if foreigners like their food and are adventurous to try new dishes. ***
Generally all of the dishes are placed on the table together and guests are asked to help themselves. This “family style” serving practice is the origin of the Dutch expression rijstafel. Unlike a formal Western style dinner, courses are not served separately. It is becoming more common for Indonesians to serve a soup that may be eaten before the main meal, but traditionally Indonesian soups are served and eaten together with the rice and other dishes, though some prefer to take their soup after eating their rice. You can sample the dishes one at a time if you like, but it is more common to take some of each dish together on your plate, placing them around your mound of rice. It is a complement to the hostess if you take second or third helpings. You do not need to empty your plate before you add another helping of a dish you particularly like. ***
Indonesian food is usually cooked in advance and served at room temperature, although there are some dishes that should be consumed hot and fresh from the stove or barbecue. Indonesian food has been greatly influenced by other cuisines, including Chinese, Indian and Dutch, but has been adapted and modified to suit the local palate.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
Last updated June 2015