A Business Guide to Indonesian Culture

Traveling to Indonesia soon? You’d better brush up on your Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of the area. Business people in Indonesia often speak some English but it may be necessary for you to take along a translator for the trip, just in case.

Business hours are similar to those of the U.S., with many businesses open half a day on Saturday, and shops staying open late throughout the week. Keep all appointments on time but try to show patience if they leave you waiting. Time is a different concept in Indonesia than in the States. Make appointments at least two weeks in advance and call to make sure the appointment is still on before purchasing airline tickets.

Don’t count on a hurried business meeting with negotiations being settled immediately. Indonesians have a slower pace, particularly in business matters, than do Americans. Public meetings also have a habit of beginning late – by as much as an hour or so.

Observant Muslims have a fasting routine, during the month of Ramadan, from sun-up to sundown. It’s in appropriate to eat in front of anyone who is fasting. And, the fasting period could interrupt your business meetings so make inquiries about the dates of the fasting before scheduling.

In Indonesia many people carry umbrellas everyday whether it’s raining or not. The temperatures are hot and humid, most of the year, and umbrellas are used not only when it’s raining but also to protect from the sun.

Business dress should be conservative but appropriate. Wear suit and tie but remove the jacket if you see others have done the same. If others have shed their ties, feel free to do the same.Women should wear sleeved dresses and blouses that at least cover the upper arm. Skirts should cover the knees and pantsuits should be avoided. Indonesians bathe several times a day so if you’re staying with acquaintances follow suit. Women should opt for very little make up, if any.

Avoid topics of conversation concerning religion, military, or criticisms of Indonesian customs and beliefs. Always-safe topics are family (nothing too personal), weather, sports, the local cuisine, your own home country. Avoid asking them about their personal affairs, though.

How you say the name of an Indonesian is very important to them. Mispronunciations will not win you any friends. Make every effort possible to pronounce names exactly as you hear them. While being introduced it’s much more comfortable for Indonesians if you ask questions to clarify their names, at that time, rather than wait until later and mispronounce. Indonesian names can become very complex so, if need be, write the names down the way they sound, to help you pronounce them.

In some countries giving gifts upon initial introductions as seen as trying to “buy” the associates. In Indonesia it is a generous gesture of good will and sincerity. Gifts are also expected on certain occasions like for thanking someone for a particular service or when a visitor comes by your work place. Avoid food gifts when invited to a home for dinner. The food may imply to the host and hostess that they haven’t enough food for their guests.

Never unwrap a gift in front of the giver or you’ll be implying that you’re greedy. If you receive a gift simply accept it with a “thank-you” and set it aside for later opening. It’s inappropriate for a man to give a woman a gift, which may imply romantic intentions. Instead, explain that your wife has sent the gift. During Chinese New Year it is the norm to give gifts of money in a red envelope to children and service personnel that help you regularly. Give only new bills but avoid odd numbers and amounts.

For observant Muslims avoid giving alcohol or anything with alcohol in it, pork or pork products, and toy dogs or anything with dogs on it. Giving knives or anything sharp represents a wish to sever the relationship. Avoid giving a Hindu any beef or cattle products, such as leather. And never give a gift of nude or partially nude women, even if it has artistic value.

Your personal relationship with the associates is what you need to concentrate on the most. Indonesians will not do business with someone they do not like or trust. Even during business discussions work on getting to know the associates and letting them get to know you. This technique will be your best business asset. And, they can tell if you’re just putting on a show or if you genuinely like them and are much more apt to do business if they see you are genuinely fond of them.

Have all materials and business cards printed in the language of Bahasa Indonesia. All correspondence should be in that language as well. Indonesians are likely to be impressed with colorful, embossed business cards which state your position and the company’s reputation. Cards are not to be given with the left hand. Face each person and offer the card with right hand only. Take a moment to review the associate’s card before putting it away as a means of being respectful.

Business meetings are often extremely formal and somewhat of a production. You should stand and remain standing as each person, according to hierarchy enters and sits. At all times, keep control of your temper and never show irritation, aggravation or disbelief. Causing an associate to “lose face” will likely be the downfall of your propositions for business. Causing yourself to lose face, such as cursing or speaking loudly, can also ruin any hopes for business relations. Keep handshakes on the limp side rather than trying to show your strength. Touching an adult on the head is strictly taboo.

Don’t be surprised if Indonesians ask you very personal questions concerning marriage, kids and income. This is the way they decide your status in life and if they are talking to the proper person for business relations. Remember that when conversing Indonesians will often say “yes” even if they don’t mean it, so as not to embarrass you or cause you to “lose face”. Learn to read between the lines. To help you do this pay attention to how the person is acting. If they seemingly are ignoring you that’s a “no”.

If invited to a social event the proper etiquette is to send a written acceptance. If you must decline state a matter of great importance that will keep you away or you’ll cause your host to lose face. If you do attend a social event be sure and reciprocate soon. Check to see if your host is wearing shoes. If he isn’t remove yours as soon as you enter. Do not discuss business in someone’s home unless they approach the subject first. While dining, wait until the host has taken a bite or two of food or until he asks you to begin, before you eat.

Use only the right hand for eating or passing dishes. Sample every food passed to you but always end the meal by leaving a small portion on your plate. This will let the host know that you received more than enough. Be prepared for most foods to be extremely spicy and very unique. When finished eating lay fork on plate with tines down and cross it with the spoon. Knives are very rarely used.

Always use the right hand while giving some one money, pass paperwork, and almost every other activity, unless it’s impossible to do without both hands. Only in that case is it acceptable to use the left hand, even if you are left-handed. Never let the bottoms of your shoes point at anyone. This is extremely rude. Do not use the foot or shoe to scoot items or point at anything. Crossing your legs by putting one ankle on the opposite knee is unacceptable.

It is obscene to call someone over to you by pointing at them or curling one finger towards yourself. Instead, keep palm down and curl all fingers towards yourself for summoning. Eating or chewing gum, while in public, is crude.

The old adage, “When in Rome do as the Romans”, can be applied to almost any country. You’ll be seen in a positive light if you make the attempt to behave in a similar manner as the others around you. By the same token, one slip and you could be out of business in this country. Study and learn as much as you can about the culture, etiquette and protocol before scheduling your first business meeting in Indonesia.

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