Social Rules in Indonesia

Assimilating with local social group
Assimilating with local social group. Photo from

It’s holiday, my friends! A long one. Have you considered to spend a nice vacation in Indonesia? Oh, you must. Or, in some other holiday perhaps. Fine too. Indonesia will be right here, not going anywhere 🙂

However, before you take a step to the airport heading to Indonesia, it would be better if you learn the local character and culture. Because what is beautiful about Indonesia is not just the view, but the people and the cultural products they’ve made as well. If you don’t have time to learn, at least keep reading this article.

Thanks to movie industries and Internet, people in every corner of the globe can understand each other culture now. So in fact, it’s not difficult to survive socially in Indonesia. We share common values with other civilizations. But, when you go further or deeper to the regions, I mean the smaller cities or regencies in Indonesia, maybe there would be still some huge cultural gap among the native and the tourists.

You have to put your feet to the water to understand every single detail. Every region has its own values about what you should do and what shouldn’t. Even an Indonesian like myself don’t understand half of them. Or 10% of them. Or even 1% of them! But, I am 100% sure, there is always a general rule. The rule that might be valid in other countries in South-East Asia too.

The General Rule

It’s something too common like don’t give or receive anything with the left hand, for it’s not polite. Like its name, the right hand is right. A good hand. In the meantime, the left hand, you should have left behind.

In Indonesia, a woman and man doesn’t touch, or kiss, or (excuse me) pet, each other in a public places. Just shaking hands is excluded. That’s also for man and man. Don’t do man-to-man kissing, even it’s just on the brow or cheek. Of course, unless you are parent and children. Maybe in Middle-East, man-to-man kissing is an expression of deep friendship or brotherhood. But in my country, by doing that, the community might see you as a gay. For woman, the rule is less strict. Women can kiss each other, as long as it’s not on the lips.

Beside those things, you need to understand that one of the differences between Indonesian culture and Western culture is the way people interact. In the Western, people appreciate “independence” and “do things by yourself”. Meanwhile in Indonesian society, we go almost everywhere in group.

When you are sitting or walking alone, you will not be seen as “having some quiet time” or “enjoying the personal space”. Instead, people will sympathize on your lack of company, then try to “help” you. Maybe by coming and making conversation with you.

Please understand, we are Eastern tend to be more social. I don’t think it’s totally positive or negative. It’s just… it is. So, don’t be surprised when in the initial meeting, the Indonesian ask you, “How old are you?”, “What do you do to make a living?”, “Are you married?”, “How many children do you have?”, “What is your religion?”, et cetera.

Don’t get upset. Be patient. Because if you reply such questions with, “None of your business!”… you’re death! Your head is going to cut off!

😀 Just kidding!

What I mean “death” is for your conversation and relationship. You’re not going to make any friend by that. It’s too bad, isn’t it? So, whatever the question, answer it as you want. What if you don’t want to be honest or talk about that? Easy, just change the topic, or give a funny answer. You know what, they usually don’t really need your answer. They are just happy to make a conversation with you.

Whose game you play?

Some of my Western friends complained about those private questions. I don’t know if the word “complain” is proper, because actually they laughed too while telling their annoying experience. I told them, “If you didn’t understand the game, no wonder you got uncomfortable.”

This works same with Indonesian when a Western child who has just met and is far younger, call her only by name. It’s an uncomfortable situation for who don’t know the game in Western society.

It’s pretty much like in French culture. Unlike English language, in French, there are tutoiyer and vuvoiyer for second person pronoun. Tutoiyer is “you” (tu) mode that sounds familiar. It is used between friends and close family. And vuvoiyer is “you” (vous) in the mode of respect. There is a distance (maybe due to social status) among the participants of conversation. It is used between the strangers, or an employee when address his bosses.

But this rule of language is not like bahasa Indonesia either. A French child speaks with her mother using “tu” (in Indonesian “kamu”). In bahasa Indonesia and its social practice, no matter how intimate you to your mother, it is rude to tutoiyer her. You must vuvoiyer (use the word “Anda”).

So, who have to adjust who?

Of course, it depends on the situation. I saw in French Cultural Centre, the Indonesian (i.e. employees and students) are the ones who adjust to the French culture. No question, there, we play a French game. But when a French is traveling or dealing a business somewhere in Indonesia, it’s her or him who has to adapt. It is Indonesian game there.

Oh, by the way, make sure to use only one rule for one game. I remember reading an article by Jennifer Noesjirwan (1986). Once upon a time, an Australian and an Indonesian was in dispute. They were friends, but now very angry to each other. The Australian kept shouting and held his hands up. The Indonesian was just smiling and kept speaking in lower tone. But the more he was smiling, the more the Australian got angry and noisy.

So, the friendship didn’t get restored. It was getting worst, instead.

Do you know where is the problem? It is at how each person overcame the situation. Australian culture used to cope such situation with this recipe: be frank. Face people you hate openly. Express your angriness directly, but without violence.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian culture taught one to copes such situation with this: don’t be frank yet as it will aggravate the conflict. Step back for a while, handle the problem later, maybe through a mediator. Don’t ever show your angriness. Keep smile to cool yourself and people you hate at the moment.

See, each person then reacted to the same situation with the different manner. Each of them reacted with the manners that just added up a stress factor for another. Ha-ha. If they applied just Indonesian rule (or Australian rule only), the situation would not be that bad.

So, next time you have problems with the local (hopely not), step back for a while. Then decide to solve that social problem with whose game. If you use your own game, make sure people in front of you understand your game. Because if they don’t, you will end up just like an Indonesian and Australian in Jennifer’s article.

Oops, I planned to write this article quick and short. But look at this now. How come it is this long? All right, let’s end this now. Have a happy holiday, guys!


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