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Business etiquette in Indonesia

Hello everybody,

As you know, professional habits may differ from one country to another. In order to help newly arrived expats better understand their new professional environment in Indonesia, we warmly encourage you to share information and insights about the do’s and don’ts in the workplace.

For instance, are there office manners? How do you greet your co-workers? Do you greet your management differently? Is there a dress code? Particular rules to observe? Maybe a professional body language?

On another level, what is key for a successful professional meeting? Are there any steps to follow? How do you a start a negotiation?

In other words, what are the most important things to know for a successful professional integration in Indonesia?

Thank you in advance for sharing your experience!

Julien

Hi Julien,

I’m surprised that in over a week, none of the “Jakarta folks” have responded to your inquiry.  This forum surely has an excellent representation by way of membership coming from Jakarta, several of them being in business there.

My input can only be limited to how business and business etiquette applies in Bali…and I assure you, it isn’t the same as in the “Big Durian” (Jakarta) as the center of international business in Indonesia.  By that, what I essentially mean is that high level business, especially with foreign companies/individuals, is considerably more formal in Jakarta than here in Bali where a multimillion dollar deal is most likely to be consummated at beach side with gin and tonics…or on a golf course, than a board room. 

For example, it’s a pretty rare sight here in Bali to see anyone dressed in a business suit.  In fact, anyone seen here so dressed really stands out in a crowd.  On the other hand, in Jakarta, as with any major business center throughout Asia and SE Asia…a business suit for men, as well as correspondingly appropriate business attire for women, is the norm.

As for manners…regardless if one is doing business in their swim suit, or their business suit…and once again, typical of all of Asia and SE Asia, manners count a great deal…and this is especially important when the parties engaged to conduct this business first establish their relationships. 

No question…manners, politeness, respect and being soft spoken are key elements in business etiquette, (as well as day to day social etiquette).

There are so many variables that is a hard topic to deal with. It doesnt do justice to write a short answer without going deep on each variable and contingency issues you might be dealing with, since the topic is rather broad.
So I would not "teach a business communication study" in a forum space.

I would highlight 2 things only:
~ Women to dress conservatively. Mini skirt and shorts is a no no. Wear shoes and no slippers/thongs. This is required as well for visiting government offices.

~ Get used to the local food fast. Dont just eat western food, there are poor choices to have in Jakarta if you only eat steak, burger etc.
I deal with foreign visitors quite often since we are sole distributors of many products and has relations with many factories.
One day, one company sent a technician support to Indonesia. The person have not travelled anywhere before and when I asked what food he would like, he chose burger since he doesnt eat rice. It makes for an awkward lunch.

A knowledge of Indonesian habits' including eating habits would be a very good move.
Something as simple as using a fork and spoon rather than a knife and fork is something that could easily make a difference.

This isn't Indonesian, but it shows the point.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UitdxX9yr0

Another big one is the left hand. NEVER pass anything with your left hand - it won't go down well at all.

I go along with Fred regarding the let hand. As a left hander working there I had to be very careful.

I used to be like that too Stump. But nowadays more people here understand that lefthanders possess special talents and some of them actually prefer me to pass things with my left hand in the hope that some of my talent will rub off on them. My father who was ambidextrous and colour blind and an amazing sportsman and intellect always used to say that with talent comes great responsibility.

Naturally my family and relatives here all accept me as a lefthander and no longer care whether I use my left or right hand. They are the smart ones because what they do with their own left hands is what I do with my right hand. My son is also a lefthander but he has the luxury of being able to learn to use his right hand for certain things from an early age.

However, yes, with strangers mostly I need to keep reminding myself to use my right hand. Thank goodness we shake hands with our right hands and not the left.

Indonesians are very polite ppl. , never talk Loudly.. when handling buisness card or a document prefered to use both hands as a sign of respect. ....Keep smiling all the time unless they will think u are snub.... when explaining to indo bzns client or partners need to talk in details need to spend more time ... No one is in hurry in this country everyone works in slow pace.

Salem_SBY :

Indonesians are very polite ppl. , never talk Loudly.. when handling buisness card or a document prefered to use both hands as a sign of respect. ....Keep smiling all the time unless they will think u are snub.... when explaining to indo bzns client or partners need to talk in details need to spend more time ... No one is in hurry in this country everyone works in slow pace.

Yes that's quite a good analysis, although of course not everyone works at a slow pace. The ones that work at a fast pace, and I don't just mean the Chinese Indonesians, seem to do very well in business.

“No one is in hurry in this country everyone works in slow pace.”

Here in Bali we call this, “Bali time.” 

For each and every expat I know here in Bali who is in business, this is at the crux of their greatest frustration.  And this frustration is only exacerbated when each and every attempt to impart western ideology, such as “time is money” continually fails, because it almost always does. 

But, on the other hand, that’s the culture here, and in my opinion it’s a far healthier and more practical approach than the constant rush to “keep up with the Jones’s.”   

As an ex-New Yorker, well immersed into the corporate business scene in those days, and now thankfully long past, I still find myself occasionally frustrated by an almost non existent sense of urgency on any level.  When that happens I’ll ask myself, “where you happier then, chasing the dollar as though it was the singular source of your happiness and feeling of contentment?”  The answer to that always comes up, as a resounding, “no.”

IMHO, the Balinese and most all Indonesians I’ve gotten to know have an ideal handle on this.  They don’t just occasionally stop to “smell the roses” rather, they smell the roses each and every day…savoring all aspects of their lives as best they can.

Actually it's true. I've always found the Balinese to be a bit slow. They seem to have no urgency in their lives which must be wonderful. Ceremonies, cock-fighting and simply enjoying life comes first. And the heat and humidity doesn't help.

When I think about it, even at home I get pretty lazy when it's too hot. But switch on the aircon and I feel active.

But in some other parts of Indonesia such as Jakarta and Bandung this slowness is not so prevalent. Time is money. Classic example can be seen in manufacturing. If you don't meet the deadline big customers impose a penalty for each day of delay which is written into the contract. A weeks delay could mean 5% or 10% discount on the total order price for the factory. If manufacturers in Jakarta and Bandung took this slow path to work as they do in Bali then they'd probably end up losing all their big foreign clients.

It could be an interesting anthropological study to compare the longevity of a Balinese rice farmer to a Javanese factory worker.  I have my suspicions that the Balinese rice farmer would fare better and with a generally longer life, but that’s only based on opinion.  But then again, surely, logic would dictate a much healthier life style for the Balinese rice farmer.   

Just so you know, cock fighting in Bali isn’t anywhere at the level it used to be.  Thanks to our Governor, I Made Mangku Pastika, who was orphaned as the result of his father’s excessive gambling debts, cock fighting is very limited these days, and only in conjunction with certain temple ceremonies.  These days I rarely come across a cock fight, but years ago, it was an almost every day occurrence. 

Heat and humidity?  That all depends on where in Bali one is living/working.  In the southern coastal areas, it can be oppressive, but head up to Ubud, and further north, one often needs a sweater, especially at night.  For us, 17+ years…and no air conditioning, aside from in our Kijang of course.

Not too many years ago, when driving down to Ubud from a temple ceremony in Batur at 4 AM we ran into some fog which was freezing on our windshield.  That was a problem, and it required frequent stops to clear the windshield.  Kijangs are great…but there is no defrost element built into their climate controls...not the classic ones anyway.

Yup Kijangs are nice. Everyone can afford one and they are cheap to run and last a long time.

And they run forever, and cheap to maintain, as parts are easily available and most any mechanic can work on them. 

That Toyota/Indonesia deal way back was brilliant. 

Best of all, they hold their value.  A well maintained 5 year old Kijang sells today for very close to its original price.

And let's not forget how wonderfully functional they are. Whether you want to transport 7 or 8 people or whether you want to put down the seats and load up some furniture, the Kijang can do it all. It's the perfect car for Indonesia.

Yes!  An excellent point!

I totally agree with you!  I have to laugh some times at other “fortunate expats” with “money to burn” buying all sorts of high end SUV’s here. 

It’s rather comical how so many of them driving around in these hundred thousand dollar and up models…“showing off” while totally discarding any considering of what is practical, and what makes common sense.  And to that end, in fairness, I have to add some of the more well off Balinese in my neck of the woods as well.  What can I say?  Some of our less than best western attributes seem to have taken hold on some of them as well.   

Mind you, I love cars, and when I lived in the states, I once had a modest, but nice collection of classic cars…but hey…this is Bali. 

Same goes with bikes.  For example, the ultimate status symbol for them here in Bali is a classic Harley, BMW, or Indian. 

That said, I must acknowledge the right of “to each, their own.”   

I’m “with you” on this discussion.  A car is like a tool for me.  And, if a five dollar hammer can do the same job as a twenty dollar hammer…I’ll take the five dollar hammer any day! 

Cheers!

Ubudian :

It could be an interesting anthropological study to compare the longevity of a Balinese rice farmer to a Javanese factory worker.  I have my suspicions that the Balinese rice farmer would fare better and with a generally longer life,

That may or may not be true, but I'll bet a factory worker's life seems longer to the factory worker, especially on Monday mornings.

One of the things that seems totally and absolutely wrong with development resisted by the locals, every bugger bleats on about how much money is to be made, but no one asks about quality of life.

Ubudian :

It’s rather comical how so many of them driving around in these hundred thousand dollar and up models…“showing off” while totally discarding any considering of what is practical, and what makes common sense.

I overtook a Porche yesterday whilst driving my Luxio.
We we both flat out as far as traffic conditions allowed, but I made him smell my exhaust because my lane in the traffic jam was moving slightly less slowly.

Ubudian :

Yes!  An excellent point!

I totally agree with you!  I have to laugh some times at other “fortunate expats” with “money to burn” buying all sorts of high end SUV’s here. 

It’s rather comical how so many of them driving around in these hundred thousand dollar and up models…“showing off” while totally discarding any considering of what is practical, and what makes common sense.  And to that end, in fairness, I have to add some of the more well off Balinese in my neck of the woods as well.  What can I say?  Some of our less than best western attributes seem to have taken hold on some of them as well.   

Mind you, I love cars, and when I lived in the states, I once had a modest, but nice collection of classic cars…but hey…this is Bali. 

Same goes with bikes.  For example, the ultimate status symbol for them here in Bali is a classic Harley, BMW, or Indian. 

That said, I must acknowledge the right of “to each, their own.”   

I’m “with you” on this discussion.  A car is like a tool for me.  And, if a five dollar hammer can do the same job as a twenty dollar hammer…I’ll take the five dollar hammer any day! 

Cheers!

I've never owned a classic car collection before. I thought only celebrities like Jay Leno and Rowan Atkinson could afford them. Some of those cars are worth millions of dollars. Did you display them at some of the classic car shows?

Personally I'm content to have a comfortable car that's not too shabby but which doesn't attract attention. But I've never actually owned a Kijang before but they are very practical. And of course Toyota are good for resale.

Fred :

I overtook a Porche yesterday whilst driving my Luxio.
We we both flat out as far as traffic conditions allowed, but I made him smell my exhaust because my lane in the traffic jam was moving slightly less slowly.

Had he broken down or was he just driving slowly?  :D

Hansson :
Fred :

I overtook a Porche yesterday whilst driving my Luxio.
We we both flat out as far as traffic conditions allowed, but I made him smell my exhaust because my lane in the traffic jam was moving slightly less slowly.

Had he broken down or was he just driving slowly?  :D

Jakarta at 5 in the afternoon - everyone drives slowly, regardless of what their pointless supercar can manage on an open road.
He did get past me when I pulled into a shopping centre because I couldn't be arsed to drive in a jam and I saw a Dominos pizza restaurant.

“I've never owned a classic car collection before. I thought only celebrities like Jay Leno and Rowan Atkinson could afford them. Some of those cars are worth millions of dollars. Did you display them at some of the classic car shows?”

Same as art work…paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts, there are those items which are at the top end, and like you say “millions of dollars” and those at the lower end…as in less than 100K each. These days I concentrate far more on fine antiques and works of art if for no other reason than the immensely cheaper alternatives in shipping, if and when I sell those items.   

Some of my cars were displayed at classic car shows, but none of them ever took home a first place trophy…but they always found an energetic new owner. 

The same logic applies to another of my passions, that being rare coins…from ancient Greek to 20th century American and foreign. 

I “collect” what I love, and from a keen knowledge and well trained eye.  I sell the same, now and then, and always for a much greater profit than my community bank pays…which is a guaranteed return of 12% a year.

The actuary in me understands very well the solid economic principle of “spreading the risk”, and that applies to investments as well…or in a word…diversification.  The fun, or real joy for me comes from asset accumulation which are “cash assets” free of “big brother” knowing exactly what you hold.   

And then of course there is the unmistakable visual pleasure of a great item, glorious and beautiful to live with and enjoy as opposed to all those numbers on sheets of paper.

Ubudian :

A car is like a tool for me.  And, if a five dollar hammer can do the same job as a twenty dollar hammer…I’ll take the five dollar hammer any day!

I'm not a fan of cars, only having one because I need to.
My first in Indonesia was a small Daihatsu Ayla, the perfect car for the job in hand. It was small, easy to park and used a cup full of fuel per week.
The growing family and change of need to something that would trip us off into Java and the coast every so often moved the goal posts.
I needed something with a bit of space, and the Luxio does the job without spending daft money on what we don't need. The Suzuki was also nice, but it costs a lot more brass and there's no gain for me over the Luxio.
Six months of driving the Luxio has proven my choice to be the right one.

The supercar people spend a fat sack of cash to get their lovely cars but get absolutely nothing that I don't have with my 120 million job, except they commonly aren't as comfortable as I am in a traffic jam.

That's great and I agree. I think everybody should have a hobby.

I collect paintings by Singapore artists such as Leo, Tay Bak Koi, Ang Ah Tee, Wan Soon Kam and a few others. I have about 18 of them so far but always keeping an eye open for more. I also collect commemorative silver and gold coins, no big value but I will pass those on to my kids as my father passed them on to me. I also have about 30 antique carpets and kilims mostly from Iran and Afghanistan that I picked up at auctions. Wish I hadn't bought those....since difficult to maintain.

And of course I collect authentic Indonesian artefacts and objects from Sumba, Timor, Kalimantan etc, statuettes, tribal, ikats, tongals, primitive jewelry etc. I don't put a lot of value on those but seems much more difficult to find the authentic ones especially at a good price. I also have a fair amount of Naga Jewelry which I've collected for years but again quite difficult to find the authentic ones.

So yes, I agree, a man's gotta have a hobby. Collecting things is nice and of course we learn a lot through researching.

I’m not so sure I’d call any of this sort of serious collecting, “a hobby.” 

I’ve always regarded a hobby as a sort of “pass time” sort of thing…much like the young kids of today regard their smart phones, and computers.  For me, it’s a hobby, or pleasant past time to go fishing…but it can be as serious as a heart attack when investing/collecting world class art, antiques and collectibles.  So, that is no sort of “hobby” for me.  Rather, this is a very serious investment strategy that I have lived by most all my life.     

For example, over the years I put together a pretty significant collection of philatelic material (stamps) which could well mean a massive collection of postage stamps…none valued more than a few dollars each.  But that wasn’t the case for me.

Rather, my specialty was inverted center stamps…like this one from the US…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inverted_Jenny

Many of my past holdings are now illustrated in Martin Sellinger’s catalogue of Inverted Center Stamps of the World. 

Not long after moving to Bali it was painfully apparent to me (painfully because I loved these rarities), that I needed to sell them.  The climate here is not friendly to any valued object which is paper. 

I too love oriental rugs, especially old Persian (Iranian) rugs, and we have nine “room size” Persian carpets in our home…all dating from circa 1930 and earlier.  But they too also have suffered by being here in Bali, and not in a more regulated “friendly” climate.  But for them, they are the souls of the rooms they grace, and so be it that they deteriorate over time.  For me, their present value as they well define a room, with "soul" is far greater than any potential future monetary value they will have.

And of course, if only by way of living here in Bali, Indonesia, a very important  part of our collection consists of local tribal arts, as well as ancient artifacts…our pre-Majapahit bronze collection being well known, as well as our vast collection of Chinese ceramics from the Tang Dynasty to the Chin Dynasty.  Not too many years ago we were able to amass a collection of several thousand pieces of shipwreck recovered pieces from Indonesian waters, albeit unofficial, but eventually catalogued and certified by the Indonesian Department of Archaeology.  Today, most of those pieces reside in museums in Singapore, and of all places…Belgium.

But, with all of that said, I must reiterate…none of that activity was anything liken to what I would call, or consider, “a hobby.”

Oh hobby is just my own personal term for things I like to do. They also include reading books and playing guitar.

But Wow! If I had a vast collection of Ming ceramics, several thousand pieces of treasure from shipwrecks, and pieces of art hanging in museums and art galleries around the world, I also wouldn't call it my hobby, I'd call it my assets, and I'd quickly sell it all off and give the proceeds to my children before I snuff it. I'd also buy a Rolls Royce and spend the rest of my days traveling around the world.

Hmmm, if you sold off your collection, how could teach your children the joy of ownership of wonderful works of art? 

So far, the only Rolls Royce I’ve seen in Bali is the one owned by The Mansion just down the road from us in Sayan.  They use it to pick up VIP’s at the airport, or to take VIP guests to dinner.  It’s way over the top, and I suspect the guests are disappointed since the majority of locals don’t give it a second look. 

At this point in my life I’m well satisfied with my world travels.  Moreover, I get way, way too home sick whenever I absolutely have to leave Bali.  What’s that other famous line from Dorothy in the Wizard of OZ?  Ah yes, “there’s no place like home.”

Ubudian :

Hmmm, if you sold off your collection, how could teach your children the joy of ownership of wonderful works of art? 

So far, the only Rolls Royce I’ve seen in Bali is the one owned by The Mansion just down the road from us in Sayan.  They use it to pick up VIP’s at the airport, or to take VIP guests to dinner.  It’s way over the top, and I suspect the guests are disappointed since the majority of locals don’t give it a second look. 

At this point in my life I’m well satisfied with my world travels.  Moreover, I get way, way too home sick whenever I absolutely have to leave Bali.  What’s that other famous line from Dorothy in the Wizard of OZ?  Ah yes, “there’s no place like home.”

The owner of one of the Marriott Hotels on Bali has a Rolls Royce. No idea if it's the same one as you've seen.

The most absurd cars I’ve seen on Bali are the two Ferraris that are here.  Both are supposedly owned by very rich Balinese, but aside from running up and down the toll road, I doubt they ever get out of third gear that often.

Yup agree with that.

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