The first point you absolutely need to get as you move to Indonesia, is that – unlike what you were used to in other countries – you are not going to find a defined set of cultural codes or rules here.
Indonesia is a huge (and when I say huge, I really mean huge) archipelago composed of over 17,000 islands; not all of them are inhabited – but those which are, welcome 350 different ethnic groups speaking about 700 among languages and dialects.
In Indonesia, you can expect immense skyscrapers hosting top-class shopping malls where the AC would kill a penguin, and, on the other hand, remote islands without electricity or running water.
Although you will likely to be working in a micro-culture, depending on where you are based, you should always keep in mind that:
● Democracy is still a relatively new concept in Indonesia.
● Diversity within the country is huge.
● The recent stark economic growth has led to a lot of contradictions in the country.
Hence, you need to be extremely patient and should not expect things to be the way they are elsewhere!
After meeting dozens of locals and expatriates living and working in a number of different industries in Indonesia, I have put together 10 golden rules to work (and survive!) in Indonesia that work for all of them; so, chances are that they will work for you, too.
Hierarchy in Indonesia is just as important as tidiness is in Germany: know where your place is and act accordingly.
2: The group comes first
The group really does come first. Never praise or blame an individual: always refer to their team or group.
3: Be cheerful
Indonesians look happy and cheerful most of the time, so maintaining a cold-hearted attitude is not recommended (and well… people there already do have enough AC to keep them fresh 😉 ) When you are at work, just warm up and smile.
4: Don’t be intrusive
If you are the boss: don’t try to bond with your employees all the time. While a bit of interest in their personal life is appreciated, too much intrusion is not recommended. Be up for an informal chat when you arrive at work, but don’t ask them to go out for lunch together every single day.
5: But get social!
At the same time, don’t underestimate the importance of socialisation, as this is vital for Indonesians. From time to time, invite your colleagues out for lunch, organise a stress-free get-together to your place for a special occasion, and so on. They’ll appreciate your effort, you will all have fun together, and the whole working environment will benefit from some little out-of-the-office team building activities.
6: How to give working instructions
Be clear and concise in giving working instructions as Indonesians don’t feel at ease with vague and unclear directives or unwanted involvement into management decisions. If in doubt when managing a team, it’s best to give orders rather than asking for the employees’ opinions.
7: Gifts, presents & co.
I can’t stress enough how important this is. You are likely to receive a gift after participating in each and every celebration, event, conference, dinner, concert or show. The freebie can often be a bag filled with anything, from toothpaste to block notes; you could also be given some art & craft specially hand-crafted for the occasion. Gifts, presents and offers play a huge role into Indonesian culture. You should never return empty-handed from a trip abroad: a little present, preferably something special to eat from the place you have visited, will be extremely appreciated: it’s really the thought that counts. Likewise, try not to forget birthdays and other special occasions, and regularly offer a little something to join the celebration.
8: The issue
Road traffic is a severe issue in most Indonesian towns, and it certainly is the issue in Jakarta, so don’t expect punctuality from your colleagues, clients and business partners. Moreover, Indonesians often have two or more different jobs, so that they might be juggling between things and tasks all day long. Find your personal balance between being demanding and letting things go.
9: WhatsApp or die!
If you don’t have a WhatsApp account yet, get one immediately! WhatsApp is crucial to communicate effectively in Indonesia. Indonesians prefer WhatsApp over phone calling and talking in person, and you will spot them using the app everywhere, at any time, including when waiting at traffic lights.
10: The importance of pictures
Indonesians just adore pictures. Never ever underestimate the importance of pictures. Locals especially love taking pictures with a bule (a foreigner) and expect to be invited to take part in the… photo-shoot more often than not. They also lose no occasions of taking group pictures in any possible location. Be a part of that click, and they’ll love you! And after a little while, you will probably want to make sure that you don’t forget your camera… so you can WhatsApp them the pics you make on the way 😉