We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Indonesia
There is no one unified Indonesian culture as such, but the Hindu culture of the former Majapahit empire does provide a framework for many of the cultural traditions found across the central islands of Sumatra, Java, Bali and Lombok. Perhaps the most distinctively “Indonesian” arts are wayang kulit shadow puppetry, where intricately detailed cutouts act out scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana and other popular folk stories, and its accompaniment the gamelan orchestra, whose incredibly complex metallic rhythms are the obligatory backdrop to both religious ceremonies and traditional entertainment.
Indonesia is culturally intertwined with the Malays, with notable items such as batik cloth and kris daggers, and Arabic culture has also been adopted to some degree thanks to Islam. Modern-day Indonesian popular culture is largely dominated by the largest ethnic group, the Javanese. Suharto’s ban on Western imports like rock’n’roll, while long since repealed, led to the development of indigenous forms of music like dangdut, a sultry form of pop developed in the 1970s, and the televised pelvic thrusts of starlet Inul Daratista in 2003 were nearly as controversial as Elvis once was. Anggun Cipta Sasmi is a talented Indonesian singer who became a famous singer in France. Her single “La neige au sahara” became a top hit on the European charts in the summer of 1997.
Most Indonesian films are low budget B movies. “Daun di Atas Bantal” (1998) is an exception; it won the “best movie” award at the Asia Pacific Film Festival in Taipei, Taiwan (1998). The Raid, Redemption (Indonesian: Serbuan maut), and also known as The Raid was released in 2011 at the Toronto International Film Festival and has international distribution. This Indonesian action film had a production budget of £1.1 million It was written and directed by Gareth Evans (UK) and starred Iko Uwais. Evans and Uwais released their first action film, Merantau in 2009. Both films showcase the traditional Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat. Indonesian literature has yet to make much headway on the world stage, with torch-bearer Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s works long banned in his own homeland, but the post-Suharto era has seen a small boom with Ayu Utami’s Saman breaking both taboos and sales records.
Like anywhere in the world, treating people with a high level of respect goes a long way. Be kind and they will be kind in return. There are a bunch of customs listed below. You can read and memorize them or you can learn them as you go. For example, you could read somewhere that the front section of the bus is reserved for ladies in Jakarta. Or, as my friend and I discovered, the whole bus will laugh at you when you accidentally walk up there. Don’t worry about this kind of thing. It actually makes everybody’s day.
We made a few friends after we did this. Don’t be afraid of the following customs listed below. Breaking any of them will not get you into trouble. Nevertheless, they are interesting to read. By and large (hawkers and touts don’t count), Indonesians are a polite people and adopting a few local conventions will go a long way to smooth your stay. One general tip for getting by in Indonesia is that saving face is extremely important in Indonesian culture. If you should get into a dispute with a vendor, government official etc, forget trying to argue or ‘win’. Better results will be gained by remaining polite and humble at all times, never raising your voice, and smiling, asking the person to help you find a solution to the problem. Rarely, if ever, is it appropriate to try to blame, or accuse.
When meeting someone, be it for the first time ever or just the first time that day, it is common to shake hands but in Indonesia this is no knuckle-crusher, just a light touching of the palms, often followed by bringing your hand to your chest. Meetings often start and end with everybody shaking hands with everybody! However, don’t try to shake hands with a Muslim woman unless she offers her hand first. It is respectful to bend slightly (not a complete bow) when greeting someone older or in a position of authority. Never use your left hand for anything! It is considered very rude. This is especially true when you are shaking hands or handing something to someone. It can be hard to get used to, especially if you are left handed. However, sometimes special greetings are given with both hands. Don’t point someone with your finger, if you want point someone or something it is better use your right thumb, or with a fully open hand.
Polite forms of address for people you don’t know are Bapak (“father”) for men and Ibu (“mother”) for women. If you know the name of the person you’re talking to, you can address them respectfully as Pak Name (for men) or Bu Name (for women). The Javanese terms mas (“older brother”) and mbak (“older sister”) are also heard, but best reserved for equals, not superiors. When referring to others, it is best to mention by name rather than “dia” (“he/she”). Using their name signifies openness (so as if not to talk of them secretly) and acknowledgment.
Remove your shoes or sandals outside before entering a house, unless the owner explicitly allows you to keep them on. Even then, it might be more polite to remove your shoes.Do not put your feet up while sitting and try not to show the bottom of your feet to someone, it is considered rude. Don’t walk in front of people, instead walk behind them. When others are sitting, while walking around them, it is customary to bow slightly and lower a hand to “cut” through the crowd; avoid standing upright. Do not stand or sit with your arms crossed or on your hips. This is a sign of anger or hostility. If a guest, it is not polite to finish any drink all the way to the bottom of the glass.
This indicates that you would like more. Instead, leave about a half of an inch/2 cm in the bottom of your glass and someone will most likely ask you if you would like more. And if all this seems terribly complex, don’t worry about it too much Indonesians are an easygoing bunch and don’t expect foreigners to know or understand intricacies of etiquette. If you’re wondering about a person’s reaction or you see any peculiar gesture you don’t understand, they will appreciate it if you ask them directly (casually later, in a friendly and humble manner), rather than ignoring it. In general such a question is more than an apology; it shows trust.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Indonesia, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Indonesia food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Indonesia? Please comment below.