If you are a man packing your suitcase for your first trip to Indonesia, make sure to pack suits, long-sleeved shirts and proper shoes despite the high temperatures. Whether you wear a tie or not depends on the situation in Indonesia. Pack a few, it’s better to be safe than sorry! Please also note that in Indonesia, social status is expressed through clothing. For example, it is important for men to wear a watch of the highest possible quality.
If you intend to stay in the country for a longer period of time, you could also invest in a high-quality traditional batik shirt which you can then combine with dark trousers. This is perfectly suitable business attire for men in Indonesia. It’s even okay for the sleeves of a batik shirt to be short!
Women are best advised to wear a skirt or trouser suit for business meetings. If you choose to wear skirts, please make sure that they cover your knees. An opaque blouse with a moderate neckline will complete your outfit. If you are wearing a sleeveless blouse, keep your jacket on. Apply make-up discreetly and choose your handbag and jewellery carefully. Indonesian women attach great importance to their accessories.
You should not wear open-toed shoes for business meetings. This is true for both men and women.
Jam karet or “rubber time”
While in many countries it is considered extremely impolite to arrive late for a business appointment without a good excuse, in Indonesia there is something called jam karet, “rubber time”. If the business partner is late because he happened to meet his brother on the street, this is considered to be more important than being on time. This has nothing to do with rudeness, but with the fact that things are valued differently in Indonesia. As far as your business partner is concerned, he can still get to his appointment; it’s just a lucky coincidence that he was about to meet his brother as well. Time and punctuality are secondary to the events of the day. It is first and foremost a question of ensuring that everyone makes the best possible use of his or her day’s opportunities.
If you come from a country known for its punctuality, you cannot plead “rubber time” as an excuse, because your reputation precedes you. Therefore, be punctual, but by no means over punctual. Only those who are unimportant show up for a meeting ahead of schedule!
Greeting each other
In Indonesia, people shake hands to greet each other. However, your handshake should be very gentle, even almost limp, as many Indonesians find a firm handshake to be extremely unpleasant. Women are also greeted with a handshake, but it can happen that an Indonesian rejects this form of greeting and instead folds her hands in front of her breast and bends slightly. In this case, incline your head slightly as well.
In Indonesia, people tend to avoid touching. Men only touch each other on their forearms or shoulders when they know each other well. Kisses are never given. Men and women hardly ever touch each other in public.
Forms of address
Please note that there is no division into first names and surnames in Indonesian. If, for example, you meet someone named Anton Herotomo, Herotomo will not be his last name; his name is simply Anton Herotomo. As a rule of thumb, it is best to use the first name and put a Mr. or Mrs. in front of it, as you will probably be talking in English. So, Mr Anton. Often your Indonesian business partner will offer you a first name that has nothing to do with his actual name. Then just use this one. You may also ask your conversation partner how you should address them when you first get to know them.
You can simply introduce yourself with your first and last name. Indonesians are quite familiar with this principle. Nevertheless, you may be referred to as Mr John or Mrs Jane.
In Indonesian, there are two very practical words that you can also use for salutation. If you don’t know or have forgotten the name of the person you’re talking to, just use pak to speak to a man and ibu to a woman. Indonesians will appreciate your language skills! However, do try to remember names, because Indonesians usually have a very good memory for them.
Finely nuanced hierarchies and social status matter a lot in Indonesia. For this reason, your Indonesian business partners will always try to place you correctly. Aside from dressing well, your business card is also rather important. It should look very professional and display a logo as well. Titles are also important; Mention a doctorate and any other professional titles and degrees that might make an impression. By the way, make sure that you only use your right hand when handing over your business card. The left hand is considered to be unclean by the largely Muslim population of Indonesia.
Small talk generally follows this first greeting. Indonesians will not enter into a business relationship without first ensuring that they have a good personal relationship. Small talk is therefore time well invested. By showing personal interest in your counterpart through small talk, you also show your respect and that you are interested in dealing with them in a spirit of trust. The point of small talk is to create a harmonious environment in order to establish a dialogue based on the partnership at the business level as well.
Some topics that are suitable for small talk are topics of consensus, such as compliments about the country and its people, the hospitality offered or popular sports (football, badminton, table tennis, etc.) as well as celebrities. You can also score points by saying a few words in the local language. It is essential to avoid all topics that might lead to disagreements, such as religion, politics, history, corruption, criticism of the country and its leadership, ethnic and religious conflicts, human rights, sexuality, environmental sins or the treatment of animals.
Determine social status
You can also expect to be questioned in depth by your Indonesian business partners. On the one hand, they are genuinely interested in your life. On the other hand, small talk is also a way to determine your social status. Questions might be: Where are you from? What do your parents do? Where do you live?
There will also be questions about your wife or husband and your children. To be married is a given in Indonesia and if your business partners find out that you are not married or have no children, then they will inevitably ask “When will you marry?” or “When will you have children”. You can easily avoid these questions by saying from the beginning: “I am not married yet.” or “We have no children yet”. It is better to evade than to confront Indonesians with other lifestyles. Remember: Good personal relationships are crucial for your professional success in Indonesia! However, if you absolutely do not want to talk about a certain topic, just say so. No one will hold it against you.
If, even after these initial conversations, you are still uncertain as to how to classify an Indonesian in terms of his position or how, in turn, you have been classified, simply try to make eye contact. If your counterpart does not reciprocate, you can assume that he or she is below you in the hierarchy. Indonesians lower their eyes when they feel that they are hierarchically inferior. Please note, however, that too intensive eye contact is generally perceived as provocative in Indonesia.
Relationship before business
After these first informal conversations, you won’t necessarily get deeper into business issues. It’s much more likely that you’ll go out for dinner together! Take this opportunity to further build goodwill and friendship.
Don’t expect any promises or decisions after your first business meeting in Indonesia. At this point, you will have reached a stage where you have succeeded in establishing a good relationship with all those involved. You will subsequently be invited to many other events.