Indonesia is a nation comprising a great variety of peoples and cultures, all of which are being affected by Western, “modern” values and attitudes purveyed through the media, films, satellite television, the internet, education, commerce, and tourism. Nevertheless, the basic family and social values remain and form a basis for interpersonal relations and public behavior. Despite their diversity, similar values underpin all Indonesian societies and the comments below apply to all.
The family is Indonesia’s central institution. It defines one’s position in life and provides security, status, and identity. The extended family is alive and well in Indonesia, and family relationships are clearly defined. The recognized head of the family is the eldest male, affectionately known as bapak, and members are ranked by age rather than sex, down to the newly born. Infants remain in close contact with their mothers and are carried everywhere. Fathers are affectionate to their children, who are taught to respect and honor them, though the relationship becomes more distant as they grow up. Where there are a large number of children, the elder siblings may spend some time away living with other relatives. An older relative may take a mentoring role as “uncle” or “aunt”, but the parents retain the position of highest honor.
The communal aspects of living in an extended family provide security but also responsibilities. In particular, children are expected to care for their parents throughout their life and, if living away, to contribute to their welfare. Elder children look after their younger siblings and, when working, are expected to contribute toward their education. To a certain extent the individual is restricted by these duties; on the other hand, the family provides refuge and safety.
Linked to these obligations is the concept of communal property. Many family members may live in the same house, their ages spanning the generations. Members of the family may come and go. Wealth and possessions are shared, and there is little regard for what the Westerner regards as personal or private property. The strong sense of family and community means that individual interests are subordinated to the collective, producing a higher degree of conformity than in Western societies.
Outside the family a similar respect for age and hierarchy prevails. Indonesians will attempt to establish your place in the order of things. You will be questioned politely about your own family, whether you are married and have children, your occupation, and your general background. This may appear inquisitive, but is not meant as an intrusion. Indonesians regard it as good manners and will be genuinely interested in the details you disclose. Perhaps more importantly, they will be able to treat you with what is in their terms proper respect. In their eyes, it would be discourteous to you and shameful to them if they did not properly address you and treat you as your social position warranted.
Once your status has been established you may have bestowed upon you a title relating to your age or status or, if you become friendly with the family, a kinship term. You may in this case also be drawn into some of the obligations of family and kinship. Indonesian society is made up of a web of such interactions, hierarchies, and obligations, and there is a higher degree of conformity than in Western societies. These attitudes affect social behavior in both public and private life. The visitor needs to be aware of what constitutes good behavior in order to avoid unintentionally giving offense.
Getting To Know You
If asked questions about your personal life, be prepared to respond politely and to ask similar questions. It is courteous to do so, and those you ask will feel that you wish to know and understand their status in their society in order to define their status within your life. It also provides a ready topic of conversation when you first meet people.
The Importance of Harmony
Indonesians place great value upon social harmony, and behaving according to custom maintains harmony. Indonesians dislike a “scene”. The concept of “face” is important and no one should be treated with less than respect in public. Bluntness is rude, loudness is vulgar, and aggressiveness is bad manners.
In practical terms, whether it be planning a joint activity or reaching a business decision, discussions and making decisions can take more time than many Westerners expect. Indonesians express differences of opinion in a manner that you might find irritating and devious. For example, Indonesians are reluctant to say “no”. There are politer ways to express a negative or to indicate that something has not been done. Indonesians are sensitive to nuances of speech and expression and will understand what to you may remain vague and opaque. It follows that if you infer correctly that something has gone wrong or a task has not been completed on time you should yourself be careful how you respond. In general, in any situation, the aim is to arrive at a consensus that satisfies “face” on all sides.
The process may, however, produce delays in and adjustments to the execution of decisions. While this may be frustrating, losing your temper would only cause embarrassment, be unproductive, and lower the respect in which you are held. The best resource is to retain a sense of humor, accept the elasticity of time, and be firm in maintaining your own position with courtesy, while seeking a compromise that involves no loss of face for either party. Not liking to say “no”, themselves, Indonesians dislike blunt rejection of their own view and proposals. They will, though, eventually accept a compromise.
In Indonesia, time is elastic. People operate to a different sense of time. Punctuality is not ingrained. Relationships are more important, so a friend never needs to make an appointment, nor is it polite to bring a meeting to an end hastily. Government offices apparently have set hours, but the individuals you wish to see may keep to more flexible times. Things get done, but not necessarily to a timetable. If a meeting has been arranged, or if you have reason to deal with a government department, take a book and go with the flow.
ATTITUDES TO FOREIGNERS
Courtesy to strangers is normal. Indonesians will regard you as a guest in their country and if you live and work there you will soon have Indonesian friends. In tourist areas courtesy may be tinged with commercial expectations, and touts or scalpers may be a problem, but generally foreigners are treated as welcomed guests. Away from areas where foreigners congregate you may be an object of curiosity, but Indonesia has for centuries been a center of trade where foreigners have been well received. Whatever tensions may arise within Indonesia between peoples and regions are not directed at foreigners. Terrorist incidents are as abnormal in Indonesia as they are in London and horrify the average Indonesian.
MAKING THE RIGHT IMPRESSION
Relations with your Indonesian hosts can be smoothed if you understand and respect their sensibilities. In the tourist resorts certain behavior is tolerated, though not admired, but people who offend local susceptibilities will receive less respect. Whether you are a tourist or are working in the country, you will improve your standing if you conform to local norms of behavior.
In most of Indonesia, what to wear is largely determined by the Muslim code of dress, which is that both men and women should dress modestly. In general terms this means that most of the body should be covered. Clothing should not be tight fitting or revealing. In practical terms, shorts may be worn by children, bather, and for sport, but not in the street. In private you can wear what you like and in tourist areas and beach resorts scanty clothing is accepted. When visiting conservative Muslim areas it is only polite to dress modestly.
General dress for men is a loose cotton shirt worn with light trousers and comfortable shoes or sandals. Women should wear a cotton blouse with (long or short) sleeves and a skirt reaching below the knees, or a dress providing similar covering, and light, comfortable shoes or sandals. A bra should be worn at all times.
When meeting Indonesians in some official or formal capacity or attending a business meeting, men should wear a lightweight suit or a long-sleeved shirt and tie. Women should wear a below-knee-length skirt and smart long-sleeved blouse, or a long-sleeved dress.
For formal social occasions such as weddings and receptions, dress code is usually indicated on the invitation. Men may be permitted to wear a long-sleeved batik shirt. These are of cotton and are colorfully patterned, smart, and cool.
If visiting a mosque, women should cover their heads and legs. Men should not wear shorts. If improperly dresses, you may be required to wear a voluminous gown or not be allowed in at all. In Bali you will need to tie a scarf around your waist in order to enter a temple; many provide these.
In some areas and in some circumstances codes do differ, but first impressions are important and it is better to err on the side of caution. Dress conservatively until you can gauge the attitude of your Indonesian hosts and companions.
The camera-laden tourist has become a comic cliché. Indonesia, particularly Bali, offers a wealth of photo opportunities, but remember that then ceremonies and rites you come across are not staged for your benefit. Unless you are an invited guest, keep a discreet distance. There is always a balance to be struck. In tourist areas there are staged performances, which you may photograph and film at will.
Balinese at Besakih Temple
Always ask permission before taking a photograph of a person, unless your telephoto lens is good enough to do so without intrusion. Most Indonesians cannot afford cameras and in some areas will happily be photographed. Unfortunately, they may take this as a very serious and solemn occasion. Usually a quick second shot will catch them relaxed and smiling. If people have allowed you to photograph them, take their names and addresses, if possible, so that a copy may be sent—and do so if at all possible.
Among Indonesian friends the situation is obviously different, but remember that you remain a guest. The arrival of the cheap digital camera has made photography available to an increasing number of younger Indonesians, so in some quarters attitudes are relaxed.