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Business Across Cultures: Scheduling Meetings

Face-to-face encounters between western and Indonesian business people present many unique situations. For instance, in meetings between Bapak and senior western executives, both sides must understand a common language, understand different negotiation styles and even understand the body language of the other party. However, one of the most frustrating aspects of Indonesian business meetings may not be the different ways that Indonesian Bapak actor express themselves, but rather the difficulty often encountered in how a foreign executive gets to see them.

We have discussed the concept of jam karet, rubber time. This cultural norm has influenced business practices in Indonesia for years and continues to play a large role in getting meetings started on time. The realization that, as a foreigner, you are expected to be on time, while an Indonesian Bapak can normally be expected to be a few minutes late, is not that hard to accept. The foreign professional is the guest in Indonesia and as a guest, has a responsibility to honor the host. Remember, one of the ways to show respect here is to forgive the late arrival of the other party.

But there are also situations where the meeting doesn't even come about. It is more than possible to schedule a meeting, say a week from Thursday, only to arrive to find out from a secretary that the Bapak is out of the office and not expected back for the day. Always remember to reconfirm a meeting shortly before the scheduled time to make sure that plans have not changed.

The fact that a Bapak has had to miss or reschedule a meeting does not necessarily have anything to do with you. Keep in mind the concepts of status and authority in Indonesian business culture. It is more than possible that the Bapak received a call from his superior. In that case, he would have had to respond quickly and informing you would not be his first priority.

An often more inconvenient aspect of meetings is when Bapak in positions of authority over foreign professionals give the appearance of summoning the foreigners to a meeting. This problem was raised recently in a crosscultural training program by a group of high ranking foreign executives working in a mining joint venture company. They were initially confused, then frustrated and finally angry at the way that the Indonesian Bapak overseeing the joint venture would inform them of important meetings. Twenty-four hour notice was considered adequate and often they were told that the meeting was starting and would they please attend now. This tendency caused fairly large problems in scheduling their own activities. Often foreign executives would have to stop their own meetings to respond to the calls from above.

These foreign professionals perceived this as a deliberate act to inconvenience and possibly insult them. They found out that the other Indonesians at some of these meeting had had proper notice. Some actually had come to Jakarta just for the meeting. Why, they asked, aren't the foreigners being given proper notice?

The answer to this question may vary in different companies. There are definitely Indonesian Bapak that are resentful of a westerner's presence and activity with his company. He may see them as bringing in new and strange ideas or procedures. Some may change a Bapak's role and authority within the company perhaps, challenging his position.

Another answer is perhaps more likely. Experienced Bapak and their assistants may understand the frustration caused by the canceling and rescheduling of meetings that is so common in traditional Indonesian business culture. Accept the possibility that you are not informed until just before an important meeting to spare you inconvenience. It could be a sign of respect that you are not asked to keep rearranging your schedule to meet the fluctuating time constraints of the Indonesian participants. You are only informed when everyone else is sure that the meeting will actually proceed.

Effective communication is a two-way street. This is especially true in intercultural work environments. The rationale and feelings behind an action in Indonesia are often different than the rationale and feelings behind a similar action in your home country. One has to communicate more openly here. Control your emotions and explain what changes you would like to see. This may or not be effective. If it isn't, patiently try again and again. One of the first concepts of cross-cultural effectiveness is to clearly understand what the situation is and explain effectively what you want the situation to be.

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