Indonesia is made up of more than 17,500 islands, 6,000 of which are inhabited.  It is also the home of the largest Muslim population in the world. Religious and other cultural traditions of Indonesia play a very important role in daily life and in the country’s businesses practices as well.  Adding to the complexity is the fact that many of the business people you encounter will be ethnic Chinese. Exploring the multi-faceted culture of Indonesia is essential to building business relationships there.

Traditional Indonesian Worldview

Group Orientation
Identity defined by group, family, work team

Harmony and face very important. Loss of face (malu) must be avoided in all situation.

Relationship Focused
Relationships are valued over profit; family relationships come before work.

Patterns of rank and status are strictly observed. Paternalistic expectation that the “Bapak” (literally “father”) takes care of the employees in return for respect and compliance. Elders are held in high esteem.

Tolerance for Ambiguity
Ambiguity is accepted to the extent that life is partly pre-determined and certain elements, such as natural disasters, cannot be prevented. Change is accepted when it shows consistency with the past and when the group leader can model the benefit of change to the group.

Loose application of rules; requires understanding of context and relationship. Traditionally corruption has been an issue that is currently being recognized and addressed.

Fluid Time
Scheduling and deadlines are more flexible. Foreigners are expected to be on time, but meeting and appointments may not.  “Jam karet, “ rubber time is the acknowledged norm.

Cultural Notes:

  • Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country and is also home to about 300 ethnic groups
  • National Motto—Bhinneka Tunggal Ika—Unity in Diversity.

Cultural Assumptions

  • Family and ethnic group are the most important social units.
  • Harmony must be maintained at all times.
  • Saving face is an essential element of communication.
  • Time is flexible and fluid.
  • It is more important to honor the past than to forge into the future.
  • Building and maintaining relationships comes first.
  • Elders are respected.
  • “Kekuatan Alami” – Life is largely pre-ordained; subjugation to nature.
  • Hierarchy dictates social relationships and behavior.
    Intelligent, refined individuals practice a reserved, respectful and indirect communication style
  • Outward anger and heightened emotion shows lack of control.
  • Who you know is as important as what you know. 

Traditional Indonesian Communication Style

Saving face is key to all communication. Harmony must be maintained. Chinese Indonesians in business culture tend to be much more direct.

High Context
Many unspoken rules and non-verbal cues. “Yes” may mean only that you have been heard; it may not be an indication of agreement.

Formality and respect is expected in all situations, and especially for those who are more senior in age or hold seniority in the family or company.

Outward display of emotion is considered immature and a sign of someone who lacks control or is childish.

Guidelines for Communicating with Indonesians

  • Establishing good relationships is the key to all communication.
  • Follow the Indonesian saying “Never write when you can call, and never call when you can visit.”
  • Direct confrontation must be avoided, especially in front of a group
  • A smile may mean embarrassment or discomfort and does not always show agreement and pleasure.
  • Sucking air through the teeth is a definite “no.”
  • Save questions and indirect confrontation for one-on-one meetings.
  • Modesty is essential. Let credentials speak for themselves.
  • Focus more on past achievements than future ambitions
  • Be prepared to take more time to understand the message being given.
  • Take more time to make sure that you are understood by repeating and checking politely checking for comprehension.
  • Don’t expect follow-through just because you hear “yes.”
  • Show respect to the elderly and those in more senior positions.
  • Expect respect from subordinates in return for caring about their lives and individual situations.
  • Develop an understanding of Islam and the influence it has on the daily lives of most Indonesians.

Non-Verbal Dynamics

Holding the head higher than a superior is not acceptable so Indonesians may bow or nod their heads lower in the presence of elders and superiors. Items should be passed with the right hand or both hands only. Pointing or putting hands on hips is rude or aggressive. A traditional greeting is a bow while touching the forehead with the right hand.

Normally, men and women do not touch in public. Shaking hands, however, is a normal greeting for both men and women, if the woman offers her hand first.. If she doesn’t, a slight nod is appropriate. Women may greet one another by touching cheeks. Men may put their right hand to their heart after a handshake.  Members of  the same sex touch frequently when interacting.

Personal space is very limited. Extended families may live together in relatively close quarters. People are comfortable sitting close together. However, foreigners are often given more space, particularly in urban areas.

Business Practices

PROBLEM SOLVING Identifying problems can be challenging because desire for harmony prevents people from wanting to raise issues. Problems and solutions are addressed with the well-being of the group in mind. Consensus is not required but all must feel the benefit of the solution.
MOTIVATING PEOPLE Strong relationships, a boss that has credibility, and feeling nurtured within the company structure. Money and rewards motivate, but not above a harmonious, respectful work environment.
APPRAISING PERFORMANCE Based largely on corporate culture. However, indirect approach must be maintained. Emphasis on the individual’s contributions to group success and ways to be more successful in the team.
PERFORMANCE EXPECTATIONS Negotiations are done in groups, only after a relationship has been established. Important to ask for much more than expected so there is room for movement. Silences should be respected and not filled with “hard-bargaining.” Only the most senior individuals will speak.
NEGOTIATING, PERSUADING Cautious, stretch out process using language, time, distance, not very susceptible to advertising gimmicks.
DECISION MAKING PROCESS Hierarchical. Decisions are handed down from the top. Boss models benefits of the decision.
PARTICIPATION IN MEETINGS Visitors are expected to be on time. More senior people may be late. Only the most senior people will speak. Not usual for subordinates to express opinions when supervisor is there. Many decisions made in pre-meetings.
Patriarchal. Supervisor is given utmost respect in exchange for caring for subordinates and showing genuine concern for their lives.
HIRING Based on a combination of credentials and relationships. Who you know can be as important as what you know. Dismissal is very difficult because of the loss of face to individuals and company.
CUSTOMER RELATIONS Relationships with customers are long-term, based on establishing ongoing trust. No business can be done without a well-established relationship.