Indonesia: Public Behaviour – Part 1


Acceptable public conduct

Generally, greetings among all Indonesians are conducted with stateliness and formality, in a slow, deliberate manner. A hurried introduction can be perceived as disrespectful.

Handshakes are the standard greeting. Actually, most Indonesian handshakes bear a greater similarity to handclasps, since they are quite limp and last between 10-12 seconds. You can bow your head, lower your eyes, and smile. It is often inappropriate to touch a woman wearing the Islamic headdress. When introduced, allow the woman to initiate the handshake and be sure to keep any handshake limp.

The traditional Hindu greeting involves a slight bow with the palms of the hands together, as if praying. Older, traditional Hindus often use this greeting, called the ‘namaste.’ It is also an acceptable alternative to a handshake when a Western businesswoman greets a Hindu man. However, this is only prevalent on the Island of Bali.

With the exception of handshakes, there is no public contact between the sexes in Indonesia. Hugging and kissing, even between husbands and wives, are frowned upon in public.

Conversely, physical contact between people of the same sex is perfectly acceptable. You’ll likely observe men holding hands with men or even walking with their arms around each other; these displays are viewed mostly as gestures of friendship.

When someone asks you ‘Where are you going?’ you can answer ‘down the street’ or ‘for a walk.’ In Indonesian culture, this question is similar to ‘How are you?’, so a detailed account of your daily plans is not expected. A local idiomatic response to this question is ‘I’m eating the wind.’

Be aware that many Indonesians believe that the head is the ‘seat of the soul.’ Consequently, never touch an adult’s head.

Traditionally, the head should not be held higher than that of a superior or older family member. For example, Indonesians often go so far as to lower their heads or drop their shoulders when passing ‘superiors’ on the street. This does not apply to business situations.

Among both Muslims and Hindus, the left hand is considered unclean, and whenever possible, should not be used in giving or receiving. The right hand should be used exclusively to eat, accept gifts, hold cash, and touch people; these guidelines apply even if you are left-handed. You may, however, use your left hand to handle objects by yourself.

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