Doing business in Indonesia

Fear of loss of face and a great need for harmony, especially whilst establishing important personal relationships in business, is one reason why Indonesians tend to communicate rather indirectly.

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This communication style is characterised by soft and implicit phrasing which preserves a good atmosphere at any time.

In a very open, heated, confrontational and solely fact-based debate, however, Indonesians often quickly feel cornered. They experience a loss of face and as a direct consequence sometimes even terminate talks. 

Avoid harsh words

In the same way, direct criticism, even if it only refers to the facts, quickly upsets harmony and can lead to loss of face on both sides.  

At worst, business contacts in their initial phase or even long-term collaborations are revoked completely. Once the personal relationship is damaged, the working relationship can no longer be maintained.

Circular course of conversation

Characteristic for their relationship-orientation is also the fact that Indonesians are inclined to a circular course of conversation: topics are raised, dropped and picked up again at a later stage. 

This is primarily exercised when it comes to important and difficult subjects which can quickly lead to disagreement and a disruption of the harmony. As soon as the dust has settled, the sensitive issues are brought up again.

Yes or no?

Knowing this, it is not surprising that you will rarely hear a direct “no” in Indonesia; instead, Indonesians use numerous alternative ways of communicating refusal in a more polite manner and without loss of face. Consequently, a “yes” does not always equal approval, but can be meant as goodwill so as not to offend the negotiating partner. 

All in all, the Indonesian style of communication can be quite a challenge for business people visiting from abroad for the first time. However, once they have gained a deeper understanding of the Indonesian business culture in general, finding the right words and understanding indirect phrases correctly becomes a lot easier.  

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