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Understanding INDONESIAN Customs & Culture

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Like anywhere in the world, treating people with a measure of respect will go a long way. Be kind to the people you meet and they will be kind in return. Indonesians are a polite and friendly people and adopting a few local conventions and learning some basic Indonesian phrases will help you to have memorable interactions with the local people - in addition to a great time while visiting Indonesia.

Making friends is the single easiest way to learn local customs! Indonesians are generally very friendly and you'll often be introduced to new acquaintances and their families. Yes, you will find some pushy vendors and touts, particularly in the very touristy areas, but off the beaten path, the people you meet will most likely be completely genuine without any hidden agendas other than being proud of their country and traditions.


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Many traditions and norms are implicit, but when they aren’t, people generally won't take offence if you ask them to explain. In return, don't be surprised if people ask clueless questions about where you come from, they are usually just very curious. Caucasian travellers may find themselves being referred to as a “bule” - this is an informal term that originated from the term "white-skinned". It may sometimes be used to refer to clueless backpackers, but is also a common self-referral joke and is rarely used in a derogatory sense. Often, when we get asked where we're from, our response is met with surprise and perplexion -because we are not 'black'.


One general tip for getting by in Indonesia is to understand that saving face is extremely important in Indonesian culture. If you should find yourself in a dispute with a vendor, government official or anyone else, forget about trying to win the argument. Bringing shame is highly frowned upon among all Indonesian people and you will have a better outcome by remaining polite and humble at all times, never raising your voice but rather smiling and asking the person to help you to find a solution to the problem. Trying to blame or accuse someone will not get you very far.


When meeting someone it is common to shake hands, be it for the first time ever or just the first time that day. Unlike some other parts of the world, don’t be too assertive with your handshake, just a light touching of the palms (often followed by bringing your hand to your chest) is considered appropriate. Some Muslim women may prefer a friendly smile and head nod over a handshake so rather open with this gesture, and only shake hands if offered. It is also deemed respectful to bend slightly (however not a complete bow!) when greeting someone older or in a position of authority.


Polite forms of address for people you don't know are Bapak ("father") for men and Ibu ("mother") for women and once you know the name of the person you're talking to, you can address them as Pak Name (for men) or Bu Name (for women). The Javanese terms mas ("older brother") and mbak ("older sister") are also used but is best reserved for equals, not for superiors. This term also implies youth, so is more often used for unmarried people. When referring to others, it is best to mention them by name rather than using "dia" ("he/she") as using their name signifies openness, as opposed to talking of them in secret.


Never use your left hand for anything! It is considered very rude. This is especially true when you are shaking hands or handing something to someone. Don't point at or to someone with your finger, if you want to point out someone or something it is better to use your right thumb, or with a fully open hand.

Rather not stand or sit with your arms crossed or on your hips as this can be interpreted as a sign of anger or hostility.


In Indonesia eating with your hand is very common, particularly amongst the locals. If you do choose to forego western utensils, just remember the one basic rule of etiquette to observe: Use only your right hand, as the left hand is used to clean yourself! The basic idea is to use the four fingers of your right hand to gather a small ball of rice, which can then be dipped into sauces before you pop it in your mouth by pushing it off the fingers with your thumb. Whatever you do, don't stick any of your hands into communal serving dishes: instead, serve yourself with utensils (using the left hand) and then dig into your meal. It's very important to always make sure to wash your hands well before and after eating.


Indonesia is by far a conservative country and modest dress is advisable. On the beaches of Bali, Gili Islands and Lombok, the locals are used to foreigners walking about in bikinis but elsewhere across Indonesia, women are advised to keep legs and necklines covered and to match the locals when bathing. Take a look around you and try to fit in with the locals and respect their way of life. Wearing a mini skirt and exposing your belly would be considered inappropriate in most of Indonesia and you might get a few disapproving looks. Covering your hair is unnecessary, although it may be required at some temples and doing so may be appreciated in Aceh. A foreigner wearing any form of Batik is very well received.


Unless the owner explicitly allows you to keep your shoes on you should ALWAYS remove your shoes or sandals outside before entering a house. Even if they tell you its fine, it might still be more polite to remove your shoes. Whatever you do, never put your feet up while sitting and try never to show the bottom of your feet to someone, as it is considered rude. Where possible don't walk in front of people - instead walk behind them.


If you are a guest, it is not polite to finish any drink all the way to the bottom of the glass as this indicates that you would like more. Instead, leave about 1-2 cm in the bottom of your glass and someone will most likely ask you if you would like more. A common follow-up gesture is to gulp down the rest of your drink all the way to an empty glass just before leaving as this gesture implies that one appreciates the drink and would not like to see it go to waste. This gesture is commonly performed while standing up or even after gathering your belongings.


Although some traditions and local etiquette may seem terribly complex, don't worry too much, Indonesians are generally very easygoing and don't expect foreigners to know or understand the intricacies of the culture. A simple smile, showing general politeness and interest in their culture will get you a long way. If you're wondering about a person's reaction or you see any peculiar gestures you don't understand, they will appreciate it if you ask them directly.

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