On the whole, apart from the street vendors and touts, Indonesians are polite people (if not exactly what you’re used to), and adopting a few local conventions will make your stay much easier.
- A general tip for getting along in Indonesia is that in Indonesian culture it is extremely important to save face. If you get into an argument with someone, forget about trying to “win” or argue and blame the person. You will get better results if you always remain polite and humble, never raise your voice, smile and ask the person to find a solution to the problem. Rarely, if ever, is it appropriate to try to blame or accuse. However, if someone is clearly corrupt or obstructive, a letter or phone call to or meeting with someone higher up can fix the problem. How far up you need to go is variable.
- It is best to speak diplomatically. Do not criticise the 6 state-recognised religions and do not make statements that could be interpreted as an attempt to exert political influence. Similarly, defamatory statements (even if true) about local businesses should be avoided. It is a well-known fact that in court it has nothing to do with the letter of the law, but with who bribes the judges the most. In other words, you should not be confrontational with the locals – they will only consider you rude and you will not be respected or noticed.
- Smile and nod your head or greet people as you walk around – if you don’t, you will be cast in a dubious light and seen as rude or stuck-up. Consider a few factors, however, because smiling is also often used in normal circumstances to hide embarrassment, sadness, anger, confusion and other emotions.
- When you meet someone, whether for the first time ever or just the first time that day, it is customary to shake hands – but in Indonesia this is not a knuckle crunching, just a light touching of the palms, often followed by bringing the hand close to the chest. Meetings often begin and end with everyone shaking hands with everyone. However, do not try to shake hands with a Muslim woman unless she offers her hand first. It is respectful to bow slightly (not a full bow) when greeting someone who is older or in a position of authority.
- Never use your left hand for anything! It is considered very rude as Muslims use their left hand to wash their privates after going to the toilet. This is especially true when you are shaking someone’s hand or handing them something. It can be hard to get used to, especially if you are left-handed. Although occasionally there are special greetings which are given with both hands. If you are forced to hand something to someone with your left hand, you should apologise: “Maaf, tangan kiri,” (excuse me for using my left hand).
- Avoid touching a person’s head, as it is considered a sacred part of the body in some cultures. Do not point your finger at someone, but use your right thumb or a fully open hand. Do not stand or sit with your arms folded or on your hips as this is a sign of anger or hostility.
- Take your shoes off outside before entering a house, unless the owner explicitly allows you to leave them on. Even then, it might be more polite to take them off. Don’t put your feet up when sitting and don’t try to show the bottom of your feet to anyone – this is considered rude. Don’t walk in front of people, walk behind them. If others are sitting while you walk around them, it is customary to bow slightly and lower one hand to ‘cut’ through the crowd; avoid standing upright.
- And if it all seems terribly complicated, don’t worry too much about it – Indonesians are a laid-back bunch and don’t expect foreigners to know or understand the finer points of local etiquette. If you wonder about a person’s reaction or see a strange gesture that you don’t understand, they will appreciate it if you ask them directly (later casually, kindly and humbly) rather than ignoring it. Generally, such a question is more than an apology; it shows trust.
- Do not assume that everyone has the same opinion about the Soeharto regime as you do. While many people criticise this era for corruption, dictatorship and racism, especially towards Chinese Indonesians, many still praise it for economic growth, stability and cheap prices for products. It is better to judge the opinion of the speaker before approaching the subject.
- Don’t be surprised if some locals interact with foreigners, especially those of European descent, in a way that can be taken as “rude and over the top”. They might call you a “bule” (literally: albino) and do things like stare at you constantly, take photos with you, greet you laughing and then ask you questions to some extent. You may also see some form of astonishment or amusement because they are doing something they assume you are not doing. This is not meant as an insult, but as a form of curiosity.
- A few Buddhist and Hindu temples and houses may have a swastika somewhere. They are religious symbols, not a form of anti-Semitism or support for Nazism.
Dress code in Indonesia
By and large, Indonesia is a conservative country and modest clothing is advisable. In most Bali and Lombok beaches, locals are used to foreigners parading around in bikinis (never topless or nude), however elsewhere women are advised to keep their legs and cleavage covered and act as locals do when bathing. Covering the hair is unnecessary, although it is encouraged in Aceh. Wearing shorts or miniskirts is unlikely to cause real offence, but such clothing is sometimes associated with sex workers. Men can also gain respect by wearing a long-sleeved collared shirt and trousers when dealing with the bureaucracy; a tie is not usually worn in Indonesia.