How to Survive in Indoensia: An Introduction

General Information About Indonesia

Indonesia is a country consisting of about 13,500 islands. About 237 million people live there who speak over 250 different languages. Bahasa Indonesia was therefore introduced as an official language although only 12% of the population speak it as a native language. It was derived from the Malay language and used to be an important commercial language especially in cities with harbors. Since almost 90% of the population are Muslims, Indonesia is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. Other major religious groups are Christians, Hindus and Buddhists.

The Importance of Hierarchy

The Indonesian society is very hierarchical, usually depending on status and age. You can see this already on the words which are used for ‘you’ such as father, mother, older or younger sibling and this is only a small collection of words as there are many regional differences. For example you often do not say how are you but you would say how is father, how is mother and so on. Another difference during conversations is that the younger one usually looks down and not in the other ones eyes. Keeping constant eye contact as we do to show interest means in Indonesia that someone is extremely curious, rather in a negative way or even angry.


Greeting someone in Indonesia is very similar to Germany, you shake one’s hands when you meet someone for the first time, although the hand shake should be soft. Often afterwards the hand is put on the chest to show respect for the other one. If it is a larger group you shake the hand of the oldest and most senior person first. Another common way to greet someone is called salim. Here the younger one takes the hand of the older one and puts it to the head.

Getting to Know Each Other

When you get to know someone in Indonesia it is always important to find out the other one’s name in the beginning of the conversation. So you will be asked for your name but you should also ask for the other ones name. Another common question that will arise in the beginning of the conversation is if you are married. And if you say ‘no’ they will often continue asking why and when you are planning to get married. If you answer ‘ yes’, they often ask about how many children you have and so on. In the West it is increasingly common to say that you do not have a religion, in Indonesia, however, they cannot imagine there are people who do not believe in anything. Therefore you should say something, otherwise they may regard you with suspicion and keep distance.

Being Invited by an Indonesian

Being 30 minutes late is completely acceptable and normal over there. Foods and drinks are often refused the first time and should always be offered several times. Also do not be surprised if you pass around food and drink and nobody starts eating or drinking. You should invite them by saying silakan diminum (please drink) or silakan dimakan (please eat).

Eating Habits

Usually people think in the Jakarta area that the food was good if you eat a lot. But make sure that you do not have to throw anything away. To them that means that they spent all that time cooking and preparing the food for you and you just throw it away, which is very impolite. Also the left hand is considered and unclean and should be left on your lap. Only use your right hand to eat. It is a good general rule to forget you have a left hand and to do everything with your right hand. In Indonesia you will get rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner since for them a meal without rice is not a meal.

Appropriate Clothing

Women should cover their shoulders and make sure their clothes are not too short in general as in other Islamic countries. Men should also wear long pants as shorts are considered to be the clothes of poor people who cannot afford long pants. Since you could already buy a plane ticket to Indonesia you are considered to have enough money to afford long pants. Shorts are usually only acceptable during leisure time.


In supermarkets and malls you will usually find fixed prices but everywhere else it is common and expected to bargain. Of course white people usually get the worst prices, but if you speak some Indonesian they think that you know more about the local prices and therefore they will often give you better prices.