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Building business relationships

Business etiquette is likely to be somewhat mysterious when you first arrive in Indonesia.  

Joining an expatriate society of some kind will help you to navigate the new cultural expectations you will encounter.  It is important to openly and actively try to understand and respect the differences that you experience, but it is equally important to have a support network and a way to reflect on your new environment.

Indonesian culture emphasises relationships and harmony over deadlines and productivity.  Indonesians strive towards consensus and try to deal with conflict behind closed doors to avoid loss of face. Maintaining the appearance of consensus can be more important than actually solving a problem, so problems may be ignored or downplayed.  Conveying bad news is a particularly fraught problem for your Indonesian colleagues, and Indonesians often prefer to adopt indirect communication methods to avoid confrontations.  For instance, they may use euphemisms, or employ third parties to convey messages.  

Status is important in Indonesian culture. There are certain expectations to be met in relationships between people of different status, and knowing your relationship to someone is likely to smooth your relationship considerably. Making requests of a higher status person may be frowned upon, as would keeping them waiting or not being available to them at short notice.  It is also traditional for a lower status person to shield a higher status person from bad news, which may run counter to the expectations of many people in a business setting.  Developing sensitivity to these questions of status will be essential to understanding Indonesian business culture.  Read this helpful and detailed guide to cross-cultural interactions.

Flexibility is vital

There is a useful Indonesian phrase jam karet, meaning ‘rubber time’.  This is used to mean that time must be treated flexibly and plans must be easily adjusted.  Things happen (and are cancelled) at very short notice.  This is often very hard for Westerners to accept at first. As a foreigner (and therefore guest in Indonesia), you will be expected to be on time to meetings, while your hosts may be rather late.  Arriving an hour late for a meeting is quite normal if you are Indonesian. Forgiving this is a way of respecting your hosts.  Travel issues on rural roads, domestic flight unpredictability, and the traffic in Jakarta, all mean that one must be very understanding of lateness in general whilst in Indonesia.

Westerners are not common in Indonesia, and as a foreigner (or bule) you may be somewhat of an object of curiosity.  Be ready to deal with open staring (women in particular will be subject to open staring and comments) and many questions. Also, be ready for an open exchange of personal information that can help to build a good relationship. In fact, good relationships are the foundation of doing business in Indonesia, so be as open to questioning as possible. It’s best not to discuss politics, since this can be a sensitive and tense subject, particularly in the present international climate.

It is wise to arrange social meetings with Indonesian colleagues in public places rather than at your home, where any differences in standards of living may be readily apparent.  When hosting a meeting, it is very important to offer tea or coffee (unless it is Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims), and if you are the guest it is important to accept.  The host should indicate when it is acceptable to drink, and as a guest you should be patient.

During Ramadan, business may be slower than usual, as many people are fasting and struggling with the demands of working life. As a guest in a predominantly Muslim country, if you are not Muslim yourself, it is crucial to be respectful of this important time and be discreet in any food or drink you consume at work.

Business dress is smart, with jackets and suits required for formal meetings.  It is not appropriate to go to work in shorts and a t-shirt, or a sleeveless vest and a short skirt, no matter how warm it is. Bespoke tailored clothing can be made easily and relatively cheaply in Indonesia and many expats take the opportunity to expand their formal wardrobe.

On Fridays, it’s generally acceptable for Muslim males to take a long lunch to go to the mosque. Crooking the index finger to summon someone is considered impolite, and it is more appropriate to turn the hand palm down and scoop the fingers or hand towards you.  Exposing the sole of your shoe or foot is impolite, and shoes should be removed when entering a mosque or home, and some other buildings.

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