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Indonesia – Cultural Challenges

Esti McMillan, Reloc8 Asia Pacific Group’s Indonesia partner shares insights into Cultural Challenges in Indonesia.

Cultural Challenges – Indonesia

When moving to Indonesia you are prepared and most likely excited at the prospect of exploring the country and experiencing it’s rich and diverse culture. However, to avoid culture shock when faced with attitudes and behaviours quite alien to yours, it’s best to be aware of some of the rules and norms of Indonesian culture which will help you overcome the cultural challenges you will face!

Let’s start with you! You and your family are foreigners in this country and in rural areas or even while visiting some of the country’s main attractions, you may find you and your kids to be even more popular than the sights! Indonesians are very friendly people who love children and they may find your presence highly entertaining. Your cute little red-head or blonde kiddo will become the main attraction so be prepared for the interest you create, the photos which you will be asked to pose for and the pinching of your child’s cheek as a gesture of affection. Indonesians generally don’t understand the concept of ‘personal space ‘so smile, be polite but say ‘No ‘, if you feel uncomfortable.

If you are a woman, especially if you are on your own, avoid unwanted attention by dressing appropriately. When heralded with cries of “Bule!” (foreigner) acknowledge by smiling to avoid being considered rude.

Wherever you go in Indonesia you will be greeted by smiling faces and here lies your most serious challenge! What does that smile mean!

  • And most commonly: a warm friendly person.
  • Very often: the person has not understood you
  • Often: the person hasn’t a clue what to do or what to say……

It can be most disconcerting to have someone smile at you or even laugh after you have just explained the really serious problem that you have!

Which brings me to your body language and any obvious signs of your anger. Shouting, looking furious and finger wagging are considered offensive and if you have caused the person to lose face, he/she will refuse to cooperate. So take a page form their book, stay calm in all situations and dare I say it …..Smile!

  • Avoid cultural “faux pas” by avoiding behaviours construed as insulting.
  • Don’t point your finger it’s insulting to the locals.
  • Don’t use your finger to gesture someone over, use your hand.
  • Don’t touch a person’s head or ruffle their hair.
  • Don’t forget to take off your shoes when you enter a house.
  • Don’t use your left hand to hand things to people. The left hand is for performing ablutions!

Finally shopping, this is a cultural challenge in itself! Indonesians love to please and the level of service you find is wonderful, however, it can sometimes be taken to extremes. In the large department stores there are often more sales assistants than customers so don’t panic if you find yourself being closely followed at all times. Avoid stopping suddenly or making a quick change of direction as this will result in you coming face to face with said assistants!

Remember all possible meanings of ‘the smile ‘when asking for a product and don’t be surprised when you are brought the shoes you asked for but 3 sizes too big!

This is a wonderful land and very quickly you will learn the cultural rules and norms and fall in love with the wonderful Indonesian people.