Home » Practical Information » Employing Household Staff
Privacy Issues in Indonesia and How They Affect Expatriates
There is not a high value placed on the concept of privacy within the Indonesian culture, whereas for most westerners our privacy is considered one of our basic human rights. We have been taught from a very young age to respect privacy and individuality.
Indonesians, on the other hand, have their roots based in a communal society where the interests of the family or the group is considered to be more important than the rights of any one individual within that group There is an understanding of shared ownership and this includes information about the individuals within the group.
Most Indonesian middle and upper class families employ household staff, so they are used to having people other than family members in their homes. Maids who come from a lower level of society are also used to sharing very small living quarters with many siblings and even extended family members, so again there is little understanding of a concept of privacy. Prior to the introduction of birth control it was normal for a family to have 5, 10 or 12 children. Because of this, sharing of almost everything is accepted and expected.
Tip: If you have any information that you consider private and would not want all of your staff and the neighbors to know about then don’t tell them or don't leave it in a place that it might be read by them. When giving out wages and work bonuses you can be sure that everyone knows how much everyone else receives, even if you tell them to keep it confidential. Leaving any letters, photos, bank statements, shopping receipts, etc. around the house is an open invitation to have them read, even if they are folded and in an envelope; if you want them to remain private it's better to put them away in a locked filing cabinet or drawer.
What do I do when I first meet an Indonesian taxi driver, hairdresser, dressmaker or man on the street who starts asking me personal questions that I feel uncomfortable answering?
First of all, it’s important to bear in mind that usually no offence is intended, in most cases the Indonesian is just trying to either break the ice or practice their English. They may be sincerely interested in who you are and why you are in their country. They often will immediately open the conversation with what they consider to be polite small talk, totally unaware that their line of questioning is inappropriate and even considered to be rude or prying into our personal lives, by most western standards.
The first question asked will usually be “What country do you come from?” followed by questions ranging from your age, how long have you been in Indonesia, details of your marital and family status, how you like the weather, and your religion. Once this line of questioning has dried up they will often embark on questions such as where you or your husband works, which could even lead them to go so far as to inquire of your average monthly salary and the amount you have paid to rent your house! When a group of ladies get together the conversation will often include personal details of your children’s lives and even what kind of birth control you use! Very detailed questions of giving birth often come into the conversation and are discussed openly. To avoid going down a line of questioning that you don’t feel comfortable answering, you can;
- Take the lead role in the conversation. This is applicable in all situations but is particularly helpful if you are in a situation such as at an office or social function where it is virtually impossible for you to get out of the conversation without being rude. Be prepared, immediately upon receiving the first question “where do you come from”. Answer it, and then immediately ask a question of your own. It’s fine to ask people where they live and who they live with, remember you are just making small talk. To an Indonesian it’s considered appropriate for you to enquire about their family life. Once you have gotten over the personal formalities, immediately initiate another topic such as where they learned to speak such good English or ask them about the current events in Jakarta. Reading a newspaper such as the Jakarta Post or the Globe before you arrive at the event will give you plenty of topics of current interest. However, to avoid controversy it’s better to refrain from giving your opinion on the topic – just seek their thoughts on the topic, in most cases they will be more than willing to give their opinions. Taking these few simple steps will enable you to deflect the conversation off yourself and onto more neutral ground.
- Use body language and gestures to indicate that you are not interested in having the conversation; this is usually best for dealing with taxi drivers or people who are approaching you in a public place. Take up a stance that says you’re not interested. There is no need for your body language to indicate anger – just a lack of interest in having a conversation, and be sure to avoid eye contact. Don’t immediately answer the question; let them ask it a second time before answering. If they are very persistent, just give a small polite smile and proceed to do something that causes a distraction, for example take out your handphone and make a call to a friend or colleague. This always stops the conversation because it’s impossible for them to ask you questions when you are talking to someone else on the phone.
- Remove yourself from the scene of the conversation; this is the best thing to do if you feel that the person is not just making small talk, and if they are acting in an overly obnoxious manner. This can happen when confronted with a group of teenage boys or rambunctious teenagers in public places. If you are a woman alone in a taxi, and the driver is bothering you, just tell the taxi driver that you have changed your mind about your original destination and that you would like to get out at the next public place such as a restaurant hotel or shopping mall.
- You may be approached in a public place by school children that have been given an English assignment by their teacher. They may be assigned to ask you a few questions or just strike up a conversation. If you are not bothered by this intrusion, normally it is appreciated by the students if they can take a few minutes of your time and practice their English. If you are not willing, or do not have the time, then politely deny their request.
Someone I have never met called to my handphone recently. When I asked where they had gotten my number from she told me my maid had given it to her. Is this common?
This is quite common. If you have not clearly instructed your staff on how you want them to handle incoming calls and visitors, then they will feel that they are being helpful to both you and your caller/visitor by providing as much information as possible. They will happily give this complete stranger, especially if they are a foreigner, information about where you have gone, how long before you would usually be expected to return as well as give out your contact phone numbers.
- We advise that you instruct all of your staff not to give out any information about you or your family to anyone who telephones or comes to the house. Bear in mind that they may consider any foreigner to be a friend of yours, not a stranger, whether you know that foreigner or not. So it is best to tell them not to give any information to anyone, unless you have instructed them to do so, for example in the case of your husband’s secretary or your children’s school.
- Teach your staff how you want them to answer the phone. It will help to have appropriate dialogue in both English and Indonesian on a sheet by the phone. Instruct your staff not to give any information to the caller, just to say that you are not available to accept their call at the moment and that you will return their call when you are available. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure” would be an appropriate response to most other questions. Instruct your staff to ask the caller for their name and contact number in case you do want to call them back. Get your staff into the habit of actually writing down all phone messages; you might like to purchase a standard office message pad to keep near the phone to encourage message taking. Thanking your staff for each message they do give to you tells them you are pleased when they take messages as well and encourage that practice.
We had just moved into our new home. When I came home one day I was shocked to find two strange men sitting on the carpet in my entry hall waiting for me. They were drinking hot tea out of my crystal water tumblers and smoking. They proceeded to hand me some official looking documents, which were in Indonesian so I could not understand what it was all about. There was a Rp 250,000 amount written at the bottom of the document and they seemed to be asking me to pay the money to them. How should I handle these incidents?
Many people will come to your home asking for money, some are legitimate but many are not, listed below are several different types of people whom may come to your home asking for money, with tips on how you should handle them.
If you are not home and an unexpected caller comes to your home:
- Asking for any sort of payment; it’s best for you to instruct your staff never to invite the caller onto the property but to take the information from them and ask them to return the next day for a response. If the caller is trying to solicit money from you under false pretenses, this is usually enough to deter them and they will probably not come back. If they are legitimate, they should not have any objections to leaving a copy of the letter or a receipt explaining the purpose of the request. Legitimate requests could range from an unpaid bill left over from the previous tenant (in which case you should refer them to your landlord), a garbage collection bill or neighborhood watch fees, to a request from the city council to spray around your home to help eliminate mosquitoes. In any case, there is no matter that can’t wait until tomorrow, so just tell them to come back after you have had time to determine if the request is legitimate and decide if you are obliged or would like to pay it.
- Neighborhood visitors and workmen; You may have a legitimate caller who insists on waiting to speak to you directly. If the person is respected or of high standing within your neighborhood, your staff may feel intimidated and confused as to where to ask them to wait. Because of the existing Indonesian social structure, asking someone to wait in a place that they feel inappropriate could cause hurt feelings and loss of face. For service men and maintenance people who are waiting to speak to you, and who are known to your household staff, you might consider making an area available in the garage or near the maid’s quarters of your house, but not in your servant's living space. Your maid will not like having strange men sitting in front of her bedroom. On the other hand, if the visitor happens to be the elected representative of your local neighborhood, known as the RT (Rukun Tetangga), it would be inappropriate for your maid to ask him to wait in the garage. She would feel this would be being disrespectful to the RT, therefore bringing shame upon your home. This situation can be avoided by providing some appropriate seating on your front terrace; the RT would then be able to wait in a relatively protected area of your home without actually entering the house. Another option would be to have the maid tell the RT that you will send her to let him know when you have returned, so that he will not have to wait, since the maid has no idea when you will return.
Be sure that you consider the security of your household in determining who you let into your yard, garage, home, read Personal Security at Home and Around Town in Indonesia for more information. Instruct your household staff that if they do not know the visitor, even if they can produce some sort of official ID, that they should NOT be let onto the property.
My new maid just walks into our bedroom at any time she wants to, without knocking or having any consideration to our privacy. How do I handle this?
If you are uncomfortable with your household staff being in any part of your home at certain times, be clear with them about access. They are employees in your home and should not feel as free as your children do to enter your private areas at will. One method that may help is to give them some simple instructions: Please do not enter our bedroom while my husband is at home. Please do not enter our bedroom if the door is shut. Please do the cleaning work in the home after my husband has left for work. Please don’t clean the floors while we are having breakfast. These simple instructions, given with a smile and a friendly manner will let the household staff know that you feel the bedrooms, living and dining areas are your private family areas and that their presence in them should be at times convenient to you.
My driver and household staff are always asking me how much I paid for things. I don’t feel this is any of their business, but I don’t want to be offensive about it. What do I do?
Within Indonesian society, the sharing of prices is very common. At the basic level, this is the way in which women monitor the ever-changing affects of market forces and track the prices of vegetables and other basic commodities. They want to be sure that they are getting the right price and ‘today’s price’. On the other hand, they may ask you the price of something because they like it and want to buy it for themselves, yet don’t want to bother to go to the store to purchase it if they can’t afford it. Or, they may be trying to determine about how long it would take them to save up for something similar to your purchase. On the other hand, it may be an attempt to determine how much money you are spending, or how much you are wasting by paying high prices for items at what they consider fancy stores.
If you don’t want your household staff to know what you paid for things, be sure to remove the price tags from the items and hide the receipts. Often what expats spend on their pets food and vet bills exceed what your staff can spend on their children; so it may be advised to keep what you spend on your animals confidential from your staff. Receipts tossed into the garbage can easily be read by your household staff when they collect the garbage. You can always say something like “Things are cheaper here compared to in my country. This same item would cost four times more there. I am so lucky to find it here at a much lower price”. If you do not want to tell them the price, don’t. It would be better to just change the subject than answer rudely.
A few stories of expat privacy issues
This is an absolutely true story. At my last job, I was consulting for a foreign oil company in Jakarta, and a new expat employee arrived. Middle aged, married, three teenage kids, stable background. The family were due to join him in a couple of months. Naturally, he did what many middle class, middle aged, white heterosexual family men do when they arrive in Jakarta - he lost the family plot completely, and spent every spare moment chasing young girls in Blok M with two-digit IQs but sweet personalities (and sweet, highly available bodies). Apparently, after a couple of weeks, he noticed a nasty little rash, and went to SOS Medika to get appropriate and very confidential treatment.
Two weeks later, the invoice for his treatment arrived in the finance department, setting out in excruciating detail the symptoms presented, the diagnosis (genital herpes) and the various ointments and creams prescribed. Three minutes later, the only person that didn't know the entire office was aware of his embarrassing little problem was him. Suddenly, anyone required to shake hands with him would immediately disappear into the restroom to wash hands, no one would sit on a chair he had recently vacated, and requisitions for telephone disinfectant trebled overnight. He became literally a social pariah, and only he didn't know why. Everyone wondered how he would explain that (incurable) problem to his wife.
Apparently he is now divorced and lives with an ex-prostitute. In my opinion, two lessons can be learnt here: 1) keep it in your trousers, and 2) if you do go off the rails in Jakarta, assume that everyone will find out.
Solution: Simply pay such bills out of your own pocket and never try to claim such medical expenses from the office. Don't use the company's doctor, clinic, etc. In fact, it often pays to give a false name, job title in some instances when visiting the doctor. I recall visiting the a clinic in the past after being told there was a good Aussie doctor there. Turned out the good Aussie doc had left. His replacement was another foreign doctor who casually mentioned to me that all four members of a visiting four-man international finance team had recently paid him a visit - all of them suffering gonorrhea - and all claiming they had used condoms but the condoms had broken. So much for patient confidentiality, indeed. I resolved thereafter never to use my real name if ever visiting a clinic for such a purpose. Note that this was not an Indonesian doctor.
Prepare a sheet of paper in advance, mark it in VERY large letters "PRIVATE and CONFIDENTIAL" on the back, carry into office and make sure all staff see the "document" then, after supposedly perusing the face information repeatedly, leave it lying face down on your desk. Leave the office at regular intervals, but hang about and when someone approaches your desk, rush back to your desk to consult the document again, always leaving it face down afterwards. Continue this behavior all day, then at the close of business dump "document" in your trash bin. Leave the office, but return five minutes later and make a big event of searching the bin. Odds on you will never see the "document" again. For added effect, print face with complete gibberish. Far fetched ........... hah !!!! I've done this about twenty times at my previous employer's ... local staff CANNOT resist reading anything personal, that includes what you might consider "sensitive" Emails. Just how many of you have your birthday as your password? One day run a check on exactly who has a copy of your CV, you might be unpleasantly surprised!
My first experience occurred back in the bad old days, when I was living in my old office in West Jakarta. My girlfriend had just come over for some physical intimacy. As we were getting down to business, I glimpsed the office boy peeping through the window at us.
Solution: Lock the door, draw the curtains and put on loud music to cover the noise.
Once I was using the office toilet where there was no lock on the door and the boss' wife walked in on me.
Solution: We put a lock on the door.
I was talking on the telephone to an ex-friend once about the result of a pregnancy test. I was worried the office boy would overhear this sensitive conversation.
Solution: I switched from Indonesian to English.
Security guards always used to check my bag when I did some work at a hotel last year. I was very worried they would see my collection of 'Ricky Martin Live in Concert' VCDs.
Solution: A plastic bag of fetid dirty underpants placed strategically in my bag put a swift stop to the searches.
Little girls wearing jilbab always used to pester me for donations - purportedly for some religious fund - when I was walking from Kebon Sirih to Jl Jaksa. It was very invasive and annoying, as I start trembling and sweating profusely whenever anything impedes my progress to a bar.
Solution: I told the girls: "I know a very rich man. He is one of the richest men in Indonesia. Would you like to ask him for some money?" When they eagerly responded in the affirmative, I pointed them to a government official's office.
Ojek drivers in my old neighborhood initially always hassled me by shouting "Hello Mister" and "Ojek Mister?"
Solution: Depending on the location [example - right outside Bank Mandiri on Kebon Sirih] I would stop and express interest in their offer. When they asked "where to?" I would reply, "Do you know Jalan Kebon Sirih?" To which they said "Yes, yes, I know - where on Kebon Sirih?". I then asked them how many million rupiah to take me to the Bank Mandiri office - located one meter away. They had to laugh and stopped hassling me.
Elderly female beggars and shoeshine boys hang around outside several of the places where I drink and they always wanted money, often persistently following me and whining for cash.
Solution: Once a year - just before Idul Fitri - I give each of them Rp 50,000 or Rp 100,000, politely making it clear it's a bribe not to hassle me for the next 11 months. Works a treat.
I was bored in the office yet again and posted too much boring stuff of an extremely personal nature on the Expat Forum, causing huge embarrassment to myself.
Solution: I voted for Golkar. Twice. :)
People used to trespass on my front lawn all the time, mostly trying to steal from my fruit trees. I put up a sign that clearly stated 'Private Property - Keep Off the Grass'. But they simply ignored it, possibly because it was in English.
Solution: After trying but failing to learn the simple phrase 'tanah milik bule', I ended up hiring a few Brimob guys to shoot the trespassers.
Having boys and men conspicuously and unashamedly 'observe' me when using a urinal.
Solution: When I was working at a local television station many years ago one young cleaner always managed to follow me into the bathrooms when I needed a piss and stood alongside me making idle chat and staring at me. My solution was to respond to him verbally and by gesticulating with my arms/hands whereby I 'accidentally' urinated on his nice blue uniform. He was frightened of me after that and kept his distance - poor fellow.
Another solution: I hit upon the idea of spreading a rumor that I was gay. That was enough to make just about everyone avoid going near me in the bathrooms. The rumor was easily believed due to my longstanding lack of receptiveness to the advances of the flirtatious girls in marketing.
Once while part of a team working in the provinces I was taking a late night bath in the ocean and the Indonesian members walked to the end of the pier and shone their flashlights on me--again unashamedly--and inspected me while I bathed . . . and they giggled like young girls all the while they were doing it.
Having a member of my extended Indonesian family search through my room and wallet, not apologize nor denying when confronted, and then do it all again the next day.
Solution: Anything that's really private - lock it up. Everything seems to come with a set of keys. Use them.
Our thanks to Colliers International for their generous contribution of this article, to which we added stories from members of the Expat Forum.
Last updated May 8, 2019