Indonesian Business Etiquette

Selamat datang di Indonesia! (“Welcome to Indonesia” in Bahasa Indonesian)

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago, an island chain located between Australia and Asia.  The beautiful beaches and rainforests are Indonesia’s natural attractions, accompanied by historical temples and rich ethnic and cultural diversity. The capital of Indonesia is Jakarta and the official language is Bahasa Indonesian.

Indonesia has a mixed economy and the country continues to grow in the world of business.  In addition to tourism, the country has valuable natural resources, providing half of the world’s supply of palm oil, and exports such as gas, plywood, rubber, and textiles.  The country’s largest employer sectors are the service industry and agriculture.

The Lowdown

  • There are over 250 million people living in Indonesia speaking more than 700 living languages, including Bahasa Indonesia, the official language.
  • Because of the various cultures and languages in the area, customs and traditions vary accordingly, so these tips might depend on what part of the country you are in. The largest ethnic group is the Javanese, predominantly located on the island of Java.
  • Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, with over 85% of the inhabitants practicing Islam. Christianity, Catholicism and Hindu are also practiced in the region, so keep this in mind while you’re conducting business.
  • Because of the predominance of Islam and Hindu religions, men and women should avoid touching each other in public, including business handshakes.

Dressing Sharp 

  • Although the climate is usually quite hot, both men and women are usually fully covered in clothing.
  • Men typically wear businesses suits or dark slacks with a lighter colored shirt and a tie. On occasion a casual office may allow short sleeve shirts, but never shorts.
  • Women should wear business suits or long-sleeve blouses with a skirt that covers the knee. They should stick to muted and dark colors and always wear hosiery.
  • An umbrella is recommended if you’re traveling between September and February, as this is the rainy season in Indonesia.
  • If you want to appear clean and professional, you may want to pack extra clothing to ensure that you have something to change into. The weather can be extremely hot and humid and affect you appearance throughout the day.

Make or Break Meetings 

  • Although your counterparts may arrive late, it is expected that you arrive on time for a meeting, and you should not comment on someone else being late or the meeting starting late.
  • First meetings are typically used for introductions and getting to know each other. Don’t be surprised if you don’t discuss business at all during the initial meeting.
  • Hierarchy is important in Indonesian business culture. Your business partners will probably enter the room or be introduced according to rank, so pay attention to who is who in the room.
  • Business cards are important in Indonesia and are treated with respect. They should display your name and title in English on one side and Indonesian on the other, and be exchanged at the first greeting.  When you receive a business card, examine it before placing it next to you or in a card case—never place a business card in your back pocket.
  • A light handshake with your right hand is appropriate and can be accompanied by a nod. If an Indonesian woman offers her hand to you, accept, but a man should never initiate a handshake with a woman.

Dining Decorum 

  • The host or eldest/most senior member has the right to initiate the meal, usually a large plate in the center or buffet style. The rest of the guests are to help themselves, in no particular order to dishes after the primary person.
  • Only a fork and spook are used, as the food is pre-cut into bite sized pieces. Place the fork in your left hand and use it to push the food onto the spoon in your right hand.
  • In some areas, people eat using their hands. You might find a water bowl with lime at your table; this is for cleaning your hands before and after a meal.
  • The person who proposes the meal typically buys and it is considered impolite to split the bill.

Gift Giving 

  • Small gifts are frequently given in Indonesia, but it is polite to verbally refuse a gift before accepting it, and the recipient does not open the gift in public. These practices are to show that the recipient is gracious and not greedy.
  • The type of gift to give depends greatly on your recipient’s ethnicity or culture:
    • Chinese cultures see umbrellas, knives and scissors as signs that you do not wish to see them again, avoid these gifts as well as clocks and handkerchief. Gifts should be decorated elaborately with gold and red.
    • Hindus find cows sacred, so be careful not to give leather. Alcohol is also not recommended. Bright colored wrapping is said to bring good fortune.
    • Muslims do not consume alcohol and only eat halal food prepared a certain way, so avoid gifts of food or alcohol.

Down to Business 

  • Hand usage is important in Indonesian The left hand is considered unclean so you should always use your right hand to shake hands, eat, accept business cards, give and receive gifts, etc.
  • Saving Face is an important concept in the Indonesian culture. People tend to be very indirect and are careful about how they speak and interact, trying not to offend or embarrass anyone.  Be sure to never blame anyone or point out flaws and wrongdoings.  Also, be aware of facial expressions and behaviors and make sure that you understand what someone is telling you—they might be trying to tell you something else in an indirect way.
  • “Yes” doesn’t always mean yes.  Bahasa Indonesian has 12 words for no and several different words for yes, of which there is no proper English translation.  Make sure they are actually agreeing and not just saying “yes, I understand” or “yes, let me think about it” or just trying to say what you want to hear.

Now that you’re well prepared for your next jet-setting business trip to Indonesia, don’t forget to stay tuned for our next Business Etiquette blurb! 

Selamat tinggal! (“Goodbye!” in Bahasa Indonesian)