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Business Across Cultures: Appearances

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On one level, the Indonesian concept of gengsi, or appearance, is quite similar to the Western understanding 'to put on airs', to be trendy or to show a face to the world that does not really correspond with your true self. Trendy symbols like golf memberships and the ubiquitous hand phone in Jakarta have their counterparts in Western culture. Many Europeans or Americans will scrimp and save in order to afford flashy cars and nice clothes. In the West we say that clothes make the man. In Asia, the outward appearance of a person can indicate education, status and class.

However, we find another application of this concept in Indonesian business. Situations arise where maintaining the appearance that all is well in a business setting takes precedence over solving a problem. Javanese culture separates the inner and outer beings of a person. While the inner, private self may hold a certain opinion or emotion, the outer self is expected to conform to the customs and norms of the group. This often leads to situations where you do not know what a person is really thinking. This problem is faced by Indonesian and foreign managers alike.

Maintaining the harmony of the office by giving the outward appearance that there is nothing wrong is a fairly common situation in traditional Indonesian offices. Bad news may not be communicated to the boss and situations that seem insurmountable to an employee may simply be ignored.

Consider the following situation. A mid-level Indonesian manager is tasked with finding out information about cable suppliers in Semarang by a particular deadline. Being unsuccessful in contacting any suppliers by phone or letter, he waits for his superior to ask him about his progress. When the deadline passes and the boss asks for the list of suppliers, the employee reports on the steps taken and the failure to find the information. Had the employee approached his boss sooner and told him what was happening, they could have thought of another idea. The unwillingness to convey bad news and the desire to maintain the harmony of the office set back the project completion date.

A western manager may have to spend more time monitoring his Indonesian employees than he would similar-level employees in the West. This is partly due to the paternal nature of Indonesian business relationships and partly due to the tension involved in conveying bad news to a superior. A western manager should make it clear that he wants and expects his subordinates to come to him if they have questions or problems in the performance of their job responsibilities. Cross-cultural effectiveness is a two-way street. The foreign manager must certainly understand Indonesian business customs, but the Indonesian managers should also be informed about what the foreign manager normally expects in a work situation.

Foreign managers take note. Not all is as it appears in Indonesian business. An effective foreign manager is in tune with the running of the office. He monitors the progress of his subordinates as they go about their varied tasks. Using an upbeat leadership style, he makes sure that they know what is expected of them and he doesn't just assume that they will just figure out the cultural differences in management techniques.

There is a lesson here to be learned by the foreign manager. Study the art of outward control as demonstrated by the Javanese employee. Separate your inner and outer selves and do not show negative emotion and anger, confrontation or aggression in front of your Indonesian co-workers. Be polite and keep smiling, no matter how angry you may be inside.


This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.

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