Culture and Language


Indonesian People

In the period preceding independence, Indonesia’s community was made up of a large variety of ethnic groups and rural communities. The members of each group are tied to one other by a sense of solidarity and identity which finds its roots in the land, language, art, culture and customs they share.

Many Indonesians may see themselves first by their ethnic and cultural group and secondly as Indonesians. The glue that binds the people together is the usage of the Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, and Pancasila, the national philosophy, which stresses the doctrine of unity and universal justice for all Indonesians.

The Indonesian national motto “Unity in Diversity” points to one of the greatest attractions of your host country, Indonesia. There are about 500 ethnic groups in Indonesia, spread from Sabang (the northernmost of Sumatra) to Merauke in Papua. The Javanese community is the largest number of Indonesia’s total population (45%), followed by the Sundanese (14%), Madurese (7.5%), Minangkabau, Buginese, Batak and the Balinese. Other ethnic groups are the Ambonese, Dayaks, Sasaks, the Acehnese, etc. Apart from the indigenous communities, other sub-communities of foreign descent are the Chinese, Arabs and Indians.


The official language is Bahasa Indonesia. The written and spoken form is based on the Malay trade dialect which was used throughout the region in the past. Bahasa Indonesia is a strong unifying factor in a country where more than 300 distinct regional languages are still spoken. Bahasa Indonesia is not a difficult language to learn and many expatriates quickly learn the language sufficiently to succeed in meeting every day needs. More formal Bahasa Indonesia is expected to be used in high level business meetings. Newspapers and television news use formal Bahasa Indonesia.

Good morning Selamat Pagi
Good afternoon Selamat siang
Good evening Selamat malam
Good-bye Selamat tinggal (if you’re leaving)
Selamat jalan (to someone who is leaving you)
Thank you Terima kasih
You’re welcome Kembali or sama-sama
How are you? Apa kabar?
Excuse me Permisi or maaf


Do you speak English? Bisa bicara Bahasa Inggris?
I don’t speak Indonesian. Saya tidak bisa bicara bahasa Indonesia.
I don’t understand. Saya tidak mengerti.
Requesting basic assistance:
Can you help me? Bisakah kamu bantu saya?
Where is the bathroom? Di mana kamar kecil/kamar mandi?
Where is . . . ? Di mana . . .
How much is this? Berapa harganya ini?
I want this. Saya mau ini.
I want to eat. Saya mau makan.
Getting home:
My address is … Alamat saya…
Please take me to … Tolong, antar saya ke …

Directions :

Left Kiri
Straight Lurus
Beside Di samping
Backwards Belakang
Stop Stop/Berhenti



Indonesian people are generally friendly and polite and while they understand that Western culture is different to their own, it will be appreciated if their customs are respected.

There are several main differences in behavior that foreigners should be aware of when in Indonesia.

Do’s Don’ts
1.        Introduce yourself with handshaking and smile.

Indonesians are a polite people and very tolerant towards foreigners and their manners. Handshaking (salaman) is customary for men and women alike on introduction and greeting, accompanied with the usual smile. Indonesians like to establish relationships. The greeting process is very important.


2.       Greet and smile at everybody notwithstanding their level position.

Smile indicates friendliness. Arrogant people will not reply their smile/ greeting with smile. They will think people, who do not reply their smile, are not easy to talk with. Smiling at them can make them comfortable.


3.      Ask a simple question and call their name.

Asking simple question can make them feel that you care about them. Indonesians prefer personal closing. If you ask simple question and call their name, you have done the ice breaking. They will feel secure and think that you are friendly.


4.      Be a good model of discipline and give them real example.

Indonesians tend to duplicate the behaviour of the people they respect. If you are their superior, they will imitate your behaviour because you are their model. This feature can be used to build their attitude toward discipline. If you are their superior and they see you put the rubbish to the dustbin or clean the dirty cup, they will follow your action. They will follow you because you are their model. When they see you participating in maintaining cleanliness, they will understand your action and they will act together to realize the cleanliness.


5.      Provide the opportunity to worship and respect their belief.

For Indonesians, religion is essential and sensitive matter. They need the opportunity for worship. All Indonesians are religion embracers. The majority of Indonesians are Moslems. Moslems shall performs five times required prayers (Sholat) in a day and engage Friday prayers mass (Jum’atan) for the men at mosque. Respect this tradition and give them time to worship. Provide sufficient break time in Friday for your male employees to give them opportunity to engage Friday prayer mass.


6.      Offer edible food and non-alcoholic drink For Indonesians, rice (nasi) is staple food.

They are not satisfied if they eat without rice. In their mindset, they will be weak without rice. When providing meal for them, the rice must be included. Majority of Indonesians are Moslems. Not all foods and drinks are allowed for them to consume. Don’t offer pork or alcoholic drink, pork and alcohols are forbidden (Haram). Any animal with fang is forbidden. Amphibian is also forbidden. If you want to buy food or drink for them, choose the food or drink, which are Halal certified.


7.       Inquire first before entering a mosque or church – usually, there is a caretaker at the building.

If you are not a member of that faith, you may be refused entry. If you’re a woman planning to visit a mosque, do buy a scarf to cover your head.


8.      Learn Indonesian Language.

Language is a mean of communication. It is essential to convey the meaning. Not all Indonesians acquire International Language, such as English. By communicating in Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian Language), communication with Indonesians will be held understandably. If you cannot communicate in Indonesian Language, you can use English but you must simplify your language, speak slowly and clearly to make it more comprehensible resource.


9.      Avoid contact between opposite sexes.

Indonesia is a more conservative country in many ways than Western countries are. Open displays of affection will no doubt offend those within the area and result in disapproving looks. Despite contact between opposite sexes being frowned upon, contact between the same sex is a regular sight. It is used as a gesture of friendship.


10.   Reward the employees for their loyalty.

Payment by result is not readily accepted. People expect to be rewarded also for their loyalty.


11.     Understand status differences.

In Indonesia, status differences are unavoidable and viewed positively.


12.    Be polite.

Formal politeness and restraint of emotions are imperative.


13.    Show the respect to the family of the deceased.

Do condolence visit and assistance. Use cash for token donation. Wear black, white, and blue dress. These are the dress code for condolence visit.


14.   Wear a seat belt when seating in front as the police have started clamping down on motorists who violate traffic laws: Failure to wear a seat belt can bring a fine of up to US$1,500, even though many cars in Indonesia aren’t equipped with seat belts. When renting a car, insist on getting one with a seat belt.


15.    Be aware that possession of pornographic literature is a crime, and nudity is not appreciated by the locals.


16.   Be sure to buy accident insurance when you rent a motorcycle in Bali – and make sure it includes coverage to airlift you to Singapore if you are in an accident, as medical care on the island is poor.


17.    Purchase a sarong and waist sash if you are planning to visit Balinese temples. Otherwise you will have to rent them at the door (and they aren’t as stylish).


18.   Expect to give small tips in exchange for taking someone’s picture.


19.   Dress conservatively.

Despite the warm climate, most locals wear long clothing as opposed to shorts and t-shirts. Women will receive more unwanted attention if they do not dress conservatively especially away from the tourist destinations. If visiting a mosque or temple, it is essential to cover up as much as possible; entry may be denied if you turn up without your shoulders and legs covered. Before entering also remove your footwear and leave it outside. This goes for when visiting somebody’s house as well services and talent market in Indonesia.


20.  Stay calm and cheery.

Foreigners appear to Indonesian s as a hurried and stressed people. The local population tends to be extremely relaxed; Confrontation is avoided at almost all costs, so shouting and getting angry will not produce results if things don’t go your way. With the transport system and climate as they are, staying calm and unhurried is the only way to enjoy the country.

1.        Don’t be offended if Indonesians inquire about your religion, your marital status or number of children.

Those are common questions Indonesians ask each other, too. These topics usually occur during chit-chat. These questions are the opening conversation to get closer and more familiar to the persons they speak with.


2.       Don’t give, receive, and eat with the left hand.

To give, receive, and eat with the left hand is unacceptable and considered impolite. The left hand is toilet hand. They usually use their left hand to cleanse up after urinating or defecating. That is why they consider the left hand dirty.


3.      Don’t touch or pat on another’s head.

The head is sacred and should be respected. Patting on another’s head is not done among adults and even should be avoided with children.


4.      Don’t spit in the presence of people.

When an Indonesians are disgusted at seeing the filth or something disgusting, they usually spit. They will think that you insult them or that you are disgusted at seeing them. Spittle is also considered nauseating.


5.      Don’t put your head up when you are in front of them.

It is better to make eye contact with them with friendly smile. If you put your head up, they will think that you do not want to see them. They will think that you are arrogant.


6.      Don’t show anger.

Pointing your finger to people to show anger is impolite. Indonesians are also sensitive to the high stress intonation and impolite behavior. If you feel angry or impatient about something don’t show it as you may loose face. Shouting at them harshly is considered impolite. It makes them uncomfortable and decreases their morale. They will be afraid to talk with you or prefer to avoid you. Even if you do not meant to be personal, they will feel it is personal and you do not like them. It also makes them nervous and their performance may get worse. Avoid over criticism and scolding them in the presence of other people, especially their friends or subordinates because it they will feel disgraced. If you do it, you decrease their self-esteem, especially if you do it to the older man. “Saving their face” is wise action when you criticize them. Evade shaming them openly and avoid losing their dignity. Avoid the use of rude or taboo word because they tend to judge the people based on the way they speak. If you want to warn them, try to use polite way and interpersonal approach, give suggestion and guide them.


7.       Don’t be offended if Indonesians ask question about your private life.


8.      Don’t kiss in greeting and in front of public.

It is not common in Indonesia to greet each other with a kiss. It is only applicable in their immediate family. It is acceptable to give small kiss your spouse if there are other people. However, kissing your spouse or your fiancé passionately in the presence of others is considered taboo. Kissing your friends is not common in Indonesian’s culture even less is kissing those who are of different sex. Be aware of your touch. Giving a hug to or putting your arm around your friend of different gender is uncommon in Indonesian culture.


9.      Don’t hold arms akimbo.

People will consider person, with his/her arm on the hips and elbows bent outwards, showing arrogant way. Indonesians label it as cocky stance. In maintaining relationship, Indonesians prefer low profile person to arrogant persons.


10.   Don’t ever drink the water from the tap, at home or at the hotel; regardless of what the hotel tells you.


11.     Don’t expect to be served alcohol by your hosts if it is an Islamic holiday.


12.    Don’t expect wrapped gifts to be opened in front of you – it’s considered impolite.


13.    Don’t sign traveler’s checks unless the cashier watches you sign.

Indonesian banks may refuse to cash your check if they weren’t watching every stroke of the pen.