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Indonesian Cultural Habits and Idiosyncrasies:
Tips for Cross-cultural Interaction
During your stay in Jakarta you are certain to come across some strange sights and baffling behavior. What seems strange or baffling to a foreigner may, however be perfectly normal to an Indonesian. It all depends on one’s culture and perception. The following hints are an attempt to explain some Indonesian habits and idiosyncrasies to the unknowing expatriates to help you understand them whenever you encounter them.
You will notice that Indonesians rarely do things or go to places alone. Indonesians have a very strong sense of community and prefer to be “one of a group”. They always like to have a friend to accompany them and will feel pity for someone who is alone, saying “Kok sendirian?” ("Oh, you’re by yourself?”) in a pitying tone of voice.
Anger and Confrontation
Traditional Indonesian culture emphasizes the need to live in harmony. Open displays of anger – shouting, hands on hips, rude looks, or slamming of doors – are all considered highly offensive behavior. Foreigners who behave like this in public (or in their own homes) are seen as rude individuals, unable to control their emotions and anger. Indonesian methods of dealing with differences is to strive towards consensus, and dealing with difficulties behind closed doors so that the persons involved do not lose face. Indonesians often call displays of anger "emosi".
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.
Coughing and sneezing
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 around your family members. 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).
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 variant of “Hey Bule”, which is “Hey Mister” yelled out to men and women alike … 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. Expat 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 (therefore know to be true) from western TV shows and movies!
Read the article ... “Don't call me bule! How expatriates experience a word”
In Indonesia, 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 in public. It is not appropriate for an adult man to touch an adult woman beyond a handshake in a social setting, unless they are related.
This is the name given to the custom of rubbing a coin on a person’s back or other areas of the body in combination with the application of balsam or lotion in order to relieve aches and pains known as “masuk angin” or “wind coming in”. It can be quite shocking to see one of your staff members with red welts or dark red marks showing on their neck or back. These marks are the results of the coin which is rubbed hard in a pattern of lines in order to break blood vessels under the surface to “release the wind”. It actually does not hurt the person who is suffering “masuk angin” but provides (to their way of thinking/believing) relief from pain, headache or flu symptoms.
Sometimes you will see an Indonesian man with one or two very long nails, usually the thumbnail. This is intended as an indication of his status as a non-manual laborer or worker.
People in Indonesia tend to use mothballs a lot, not only in closets but also in bathrooms as an air freshener. Frequently bathrooms are poorly ventilated and mothballs are used to cover up smells, inhibit the growth of fungus. You'll often see a few mothballs sitting on the drain cover to keep cockroaches at bay.
Pinching of Children
Indonesian parents tends to punish misbehaving children with a surreptitious pinch, often accompanied by a threat that something fearful will happen to them if they continue to misbehave. An open smack or yelling at your children is considered very inappropriate in Indonesian culture and seen as very harsh punishment.
In Indonesia, people also love to pinch the cheeks of a cute baby or child. It is intended as a gesture of affection, but can sometimes hurt if done too hard. It's quite common that it scares young expat children who are not accustomed to it. Discourage people from pinching your child’s cheeks by saying “Maaf, dia tidak suka.” (Excuse me; he/she doesn’t like that.).
Sense of personal space / privacy
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.
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.
Read also Privacy Issues in Indonesia and how they affect expatriates
The vast majority of Indonesian men smoke, excessively! I most public spaces you will inevitably have to breathe in cigarette smoke. There is a general lack of understanding as to the detrimental effects on the health of cigarette smoking, and little consciousness of the dangers of inhaling secondhand smoke. A law that banned smoking in transportation terminals, malls, offices, hospitals, schools, universities, places of worship, buses, trains and playgrounds has been in effect in Jakarta for over a decade, but it is not entirely enforced. Most office buildings and public areas of malls are complying, however, there will still be a smoking section in most restaurants.
This habit is particularly common during the fasting month. Strictly observant Muslims don't want to swallow their own saliva while fasting, and spit on the ground or in the street. Gargling and spitting is part of the ritual cleansing before Muslim prayers.
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.
In Indonesian culture, 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 that live 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.
Use of the Left Hand
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.
On the subject of bathrooms, it may seem to the average foreigner that the typical traditional bathrooms are wet all over! A traditional Indonesian bathroom contains a upright trough of clean water, from which water is scooped up in a plastic dipper (gayung) and poured over the body while standing on the floor of the bathroom. After soaping up all over, more dippers full of water are splashed over oneself to rinse off. This same practice is utilized when going to the toilet, resulting in very wet toilet seats!
It can be a bracing and refreshing experience to bathe from a traditional bak mandi, as only room temperature water is used. Warm water is only for babies, the elderly or the sick. Indonesians are very conscious of personal cleanliness and bathe at least twice a day.
For insight into cross cultural concerns within a business environment read the series of articles in our Cross Cultural Training for Indonesia section.
Our thanks to Colliers International for contributing part of this article, which we built upon!
A fun article - 14 Classic Indonesian Habits - a Faux Pas, or a Way of Life?
Last updated April 4, 2019.