Indonesia has a diverse mix of cultures and customs rather than a single one, but the effect
of mass education, mass media and a policy of government-orchestrated nationalism have created
a sort of Indonesian national culture and custom.
'Keeping face' is important to Indonesians and they are generally extremely courteous - criticisms
are not spoken directly and they will usually agree with what you say rather than offend. They
will also prefer to say something rather than appear as if they don't know the answer. They mean
well but when you ask how to get somewhere, you may often find yourself being sent off in the
Indonesians will accept any lack of clothing on the part of poor people, who cannot afford them;
but for Westerners, thongs (flip-flops), bathing costumes, shorts or strapless tops are considered
Women are better off dressing modestly - revealing tops are just asking for
trouble. Short pants are marginally acceptable if they are the baggy type which almost reach the
While places of worship are open to all, permission should be requested to
enter, particularly when ceremonies are in progress, and you should ensure that you're decently
dressed. Always remove footware before entering a mosque, and it is customary to take shoes off
before entering someone's house.
Asians resent being touched on the head - the head is regarded as the seat of the soul and is
therefore sacred. In traditional Javanese culture, a lesser person should not have their head
above that of a senior person, so you may sometimes see Javanese duck their heads when greeting
someone, or walk past with dropped shoulders as a mark of respect.
When handing over or receiving things remember to use the right hand - the
left hand is used as a substitute for toilet paper. To show great respect to a high-ranking or
elderly person, hand something to them using both hands. Talking to someone with your hands on
your hips is impolite and is considered a sign of contempt, anger or aggressiveness - it's the
same stance taken by characters in traditional dance and operas to signal these feelings to the
audience. Handshaking is customary for both men and women on introduction and greeting.|
The correct way to beckon to someone is with the hand extended and a downward waving motion
of all the fingers (except the thumb). It looks almost like waving goodbye. The Western method
of beckoning, with the index finger crooked upward, won't be understood and is considered rude.
An innate curiosity and interest in other people, combined with a desire to
practise English, means that there's a set of stock questions that everybody asks you. It's hard
to know how to react when you're sitting on a bus or boat and someone asks you 'Where are you
going?'. The usual stock questions in Indonesia are: Where are you from? Where are you going?
What is your name? How long have you been in Indonesia? Are you married? What is your religion?
The question to be careful of is the one on religion; Indonesians presume
that Westerners are Christian. If you are an atheist you'll be better off not telling them; in
Indonesia the logic is that Communists are atheists, and therefore if you are an atheist you must
be a Communist.
The question about marriage should be treated carefully too. Indonesians find
it absurd that anyone would not want to be married, and being divorced is a great shame. Your
social relations will go more smoothly if you say you are 'already married' or 'not yet married'.
If you are over age 30, it's better to be 'married' or else people will assume there must be some
defect in your personality. If you really can't handle being 'married', you could say your spouse
is dead, which is considered less of a tragedy than being divorced.
In the tourist areas, the relaxed morals of Westerners are tolerated, but
elsewhere unmarried couples sharing a hotel room may cause embarrassment if not moral outrage.
Say you are married.