Before you visit Indonesia, it is a good idea to know the standard etiquette in Indonesia. While it won’t be entirely different, there are some etiquettes and norms which are different from the west. By familiarizing yourself with these, you can avoid unnecessary miscommunication and make better impression with the locals!
Indonesians in general are very friendly and they are very generous with greetings. You can say ‘Halo’ or ‘Hai’ to greet people in Indonesia, however it is more common to say ‘Selamat pagi/ siang/ sore’, depending on the time of day.
‘Selamat’ is a very common word you will find in many of Indonesian greetings. By itself it means safe. Here are a list of common daily greetings and special occasion greetings.
Left-hand vs Right-hand
In Indonesia, as with several other Southeast Asian countries, the right hand is considered superior to the left hand. It’s considered rude to pass things using the left hand because the left hand is used for personal hygiene, that is, using the toilet paper. So, always use the right hand when passing things to others.
In some situations when it is more convenient to use left hand they would apologize while doing it “Maaf/ Permisi, pakai tangan kiri.”, which means, “Sorry/ Excuse me, I’m using my left hand.” In the case of giving gifts, you should use both hands.
In the past, left-handedness has been discouraged amongst children. Usually left-handed children are encouraged and trained to use their right hand, especially when passing things and eating.
Indonesians are very careful when using pronouns, especially ones that refer to other people such as ‘kamu’ (you), and ‘dia’ (he/she). ‘Kamu’ can only be used when talking to someone inferior than you or has similar social standing and has close relationship with you, for example your children and your friends. You definitely cannot use ‘kamu’ when talking to your boss, your teacher, or your parents. ‘Anda’ is another word for ‘you’, but it is very formal and distant, so it is not appropriate to use with your boss, teacher, or parents either.
You might ask, so how do you say ‘you’ to your parents then? Well, you need to replace the pronoun ‘you’ with the person’s title, most commonly ‘Bapak/ Pak’, or ‘Ibu/ Bu’.Teacher to student: Kamu sudah makan?/ Sudah makan?
Also, adding the person’s title after the end of sentence also has the effect of making the sentence softer and more polite. For example, “terima kasih pak” (thank you sir) is more polite than just plain ‘terima kasih’ (thank you).
Now in the Indonesian modern urban household it is more common to eat using fork and spoon. Spoon on the right, and fork on the left hand. However, traditionally Indonesians eat with their right hand. It is not acceptable to eat from the left hand.
In Indonesian culture, when someone is about to start eating, they would say to the people surrounding them “Mari makan.” or “Makan, bu/pak.” While it literally means “Let’s eat.”, usually it doesn’t mean that the person is inviting you to eat. It is usually a mere gesture of politeness to say “Excuse me, I’m going to start eating”.
If someone says “Mari makan” to you, what you can say in reply is, “Ya bu/ pak” (Yes mam/ sir) or “Silahkan bu/ pak” (Please do mam/ sir). This is merely gesture of politeness.
Women in Indonesia are expected to dress modestly. The more conservative Muslim women would wear headcover (hijab) with long sleeves and long pants or skirt so that only the face, hand and feet are seen. However non-Muslims are expected to dress modestly in public as well. Skimpy clothing such as sleeveless tops and mini shorts or skirts, or low necklines are not commonly seen. While it is not prohibited to wear them, you can be sure that you will attract many gazes.
Ironically though, they seem to have no problem in displaying large advertisements of scantily clothed women in most malls and shopping places.
While in western countries it is still acceptable for male and female to give friendly hugs, in Indonesia it is not the case. Usually handshake between genders are still acceptable although you need to be more careful in more conservative communities.
The Indonesian handshake is slightly different. Firstly, the grip is usually not as tight as the western handshake. When children greet adults, the child would take the adult’s hand and touch his/ her forehead with the back of the person’s hand. This is a show of respect.
The Indonesian kiss is a brush between cheeks, usually they do it twice, the right cheek and then the left. This kiss is just done between women and not men.
As Indonesia is a country with many ethnic groups and religions, it is very important to be careful when talking about these issues. While in general there is a high tolerance between Indonesians, tensions because of religion or race issues can easily be aroused and have in the past caused terrible conflicts. A common conversation starter that people always use usually revolves around food and the traffic, especially if you’re in Jakarta!
Smile and Be Friendly!
Having all said these, don’t let these do’s and don’ts deter you from interacting with the locals. Being a foreigner means you are entitled to more leniency regarding these social rules. They will likely understand if you are not familiar with some of their cultural etiquettes and make minor mistakes without the intention to offend them.
Furthermore, Indonesian people are generally very friendly and like to smile. So, while keeping these etiquettes in mind, put your best smile and enjoy your interaction with the locals.