The importance of good personal relationships, a strong need for harmony and the fear of losing face are the reasons why Indonesians tend to communicate more indirectly. Their communication style is characterized by soft and implicit wording to avoid any form of confrontation or negative statements.
Yes or no?
This is why you will rarely hear a direct “no” in Indonesia, but you will come across a huge amount of different ways of skillfully paraphrasing “no”. If your Indonesian business partner responds rather vaguely and evasively, e.g. with “maybe” or “let’s see”, you can take that to mean “no”.
In Indonesia, “yes” does not always mean complete agreement either but can be meant as a non-binding concession in order not to offend the interlocutor.
In order to determine whether a statement is meant as consent or rejection, ask several questions, but vary the wording to avoid giving the impression of being a know-it-all as well as putting pressure on your partner. As more concrete statements, agreements, dates and invitations are made by the Indonesian side, the more you will be able to rely on them.
By the same token, Indonesians find it difficult to deal with directly voiced criticism. They barely distinguish between factual and relational levels, so criticism is always taken personally. Criticism disturbs harmony and can lead to loss of face, both of the criticized and of the critic.
As a consequence, Indonesians rarely if at all address critical issues. Sensitive topics are instead “smiled away” and ignored or at most described in flowery terms and toned down. Conversely, you may not even notice that you have responded much too critically to the Indonesian sentiment because your counterpart will keep on smiling!
The danger in Indonesia is therefore that you will not notice such faux-pas until much later, as Indonesians will ignore them with a smile until the topic has been resolved by itself or there is simply no more contact. So be careful of what you say!
If you cannot avoid criticism, you must be extremely diplomatic. The best thing is to wrap your criticism into a little anecdote in which you play the leading role. Self-irony is very much appreciated by Indonesians. Alternatively, use the sandwich strategy: Begin by praising everything that’s been done well. Then encourage possible improvements instead of directly criticizing them. Conclude the conversation with even more praise. Use positive language that actually means the opposite. Indonesians will understand exactly what is meant.
There is also the golden rule that a person or their performance must never be criticized in front of third parties. Open or hidden suggestions in front of others are also avoided. Instead, go for the “kinship” approach by directing your criticism towards the entire group instead of at a single person.
Problems and conflicts
Even existing problems or conflicts are only indirectly addressed in Indonesia, i.e. the issues are minimized in discussions. You do not search for the culprit and you do not assign blame. Instead, a common solution to the problem is sought. The basis for this is the relationship level, which must be able to endure the conflict. So, use “we,” not “I,” and not “you.” The goal is to find a consensus. To Indonesians, a consensus is a success and not a compromise.
Indonesians prefer a circular dialogue: topics are touched on, dropped and later taken up again. This is especially the case with important and difficult topics, which might lead to discord and a disturbance of harmony. As soon as things have been smoothed out, sensitive issues can be tackled again.
You should therefore not insist on sticking to your point of view. It is always better to either drop the sensitive subject quickly or change it. In a very open, heated, confrontational and argumentative discussion-based exclusively on facts, Indonesians will quickly feel cornered. They will feel that they have lost face and may break off the discussion.
Pay particular attention to repetitions. These have a special meaning in the indirect communication style that Indonesians favor. If a topic is of particular importance, it will be returned to several times during the discussion. This is also true for agreements, invitations and dates that have been agreed.
Maybe you think of yourself as a very patient person who never gets upset, especially not at work. Whether you believe it or not, in Indonesia you may still find yourself in situations where you lose your composure. Please try to stay calm anyway! The only way to embarrass yourself in Indonesia is to yell at someone. Indonesians regard this as an absolute faux-pas that cannot be excused.
It is far better to switch to happier topics. Indonesians like to make below the belt jokes. Wordplay, which is also frequently used in business, is particularly popular. If you are here for a longer period of time, you will certainly get to know these Indonesian word games and perhaps even start using them yourself. A very simple one, for example, is “ABS”. Indonesians also know this abbreviation as the “anti-blocking system”. But in Indonesian it also stands for “Asal Bapak Senan”: “Always do what the boss thinks is right”. So you can say in Indonesian: “Please do not ABS at this point”. Or a “laporan kecap” is a “report that’s no good”, a “ketchup report”, so to speak.