Etiquette in Indonesia

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Various codes of etiquette in Indonesia govern the expectations of social behavior in the country and are considered very important. Etiquette demonstrates respect (Indonesian: hormat ), and is considered one of the key factor in social interactions. Like many social cultures, etiquette varies greatly depending on one's status relative to the person in question. Some conventions may be very regional practices, and thus may not exist in all regions of Indonesia. The following are generally accepted contemporary customs in Indonesia.

Cultural overview[edit]

Indonesia is a vast tropical country of sprawling archipelago with extremely diverse culture and demographic make-up with over 300 ethnic groups,[1] and speaking more than 700 living languages.[2] Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. Indonesia also has considerably significant numbers[clarification needed] of Christian Protestant and Catholics population, also Hindu that mostly inhabit the island of Bali, and Buddhist that mostly Chinese Indonesians. In some remote areas, tribal animism still survives.

Each of these Indonesian ethnic groups has its own culture and tradition and may speak their own mother language. Each of them may adhere different religions that have their own rules. These combinations made Indonesia a complex mixture of traditions that may differ from one place to another.

Some ethnic groups such as the Javanese have a complex set of etiquette behaviors and are rather constrained in expressing their true feelings, while others, such as Batak and Betawi people, are more open and straightforward. Nevertheless, there are some similarities and common traits that can be used as a guide to interact with Indonesians.

Most Indonesians regard harmony as important, so direct confrontation is best avoided.[citation needed] Yet today, in the relatively new atmosphere of democracy, expressing disagreement, performing demonstrations, and arguing in open debate are becoming more publicly acceptable.[citation needed] However, if done too harshly or with excessive rudeness, such behaviors might draw public condemnation.


Most Indonesians initiate social contact with a smile, it is a sign that you are approachable, such as shown here by military personnel in Aceh.

When interacting with other people, one should avoid expressing negative air of resentment, arrogance or hostility. Smiling, even toward strangers that you are interacting with, or someone that accidentally met your eyes, is considered polite and could be a social ice-breaker and to sign that you are approachable. Probably that is why Indonesians are rated highly as the most smiling people in the world.[3]

Hierarchy and honoring the elder[edit]

Indonesians are family and group (community) oriented. Several ethnic group has knit-tight relations that its member are expected to involve actively in many of their community events. Individualism, especially among traditional community is considered arrogance and shunned upon. Politeness as well as respect, modesty and loyalty, is prevalent in the culture. As with most group orientated cultures, hierarchy plays a great role in Indonesian culture. Hierarchical relationships are respected, emphasized and maintained. Respect is usually shown to those with status, power, position, and age. Elders are must be respected through performing salim, for example when shaking the hand with older persons, such as parents, grandparents and teachers, the youngsters are expected to touch the top of the elder's palm with the tip of their nose or forehead to express respect to elders. This salim gesture is similar to how a gentleman kissing the hand of a lady, with exception it is only tip of nose or forehead that touch the hand, not the lips. This can be seen in both the village and families.

The ritualized gesture of paying respect and honoring the elders is the sungkem gesture. It is the utmost gesture of respect in Javanese and Sundanese tradition, mostly performed between parents and children. The parents place their hands on their laps and the children hold their parents hands and bow deep to put their nose in their parents hands, almost placing one's head upon the elder's lap. Ritualized sungkem often performed in wedding or during Hari Raya Eid al Fitr. Senior is expected to make group decisions, although Indonesians are advocates of group discussion and consensus. This ties back to the idea of maintaining strong group cohesiveness and harmonious relationships.[4]

Saving face[edit]

Saving one's face means one should carefully consider others' dignity and avoid them experiencing shame or humiliation. Openly airing your displeasure at certain circumstances would be considered extremely disrespectful and bad etiquette. In the event that you are disgruntled or angry with a person, it is best to discuss the matter privately. This way you are allowing them to ‘save face’ and retain their dignity and honour amongst their peers.[5] Openly correcting or pointing out one's mistake in front of other people would cause someone to feel ashamed, and humiliating someone is considered extremely rude.

Everyday Manners[edit]


When greeting or introducing oneself, smiling, handshake (salam) and slightly nod is a good gesture. A medium handshake grip is sufficient, since gripping too hard could be considered rude or an act of aggression, while on the other hand passive 'dead fish' handshake is considered not interested or unenthusiasthic. Salam is also a standard greeting between Muslims, and it would perhaps be considered polite to follow this form of salutation. Generally in Salam, the equivalent of the handshake is to proffer both hands and gently touch your counterpart’s extended hands, before finally bringing one’s hands back to the chest to demonstrate that you welcome from the heart.[5]

Using hands[edit]

Both the Muslim and Hindu faiths somewhat abhor the use of the left hand. It is considered ‘unclean’, left hand is traditionally perceived as the hand used to clean yourself in the toilet. So when shaking hands, offering a gift, handing or receiving something, eating, pointing or generally touching another person, it is considered proper etiquette to always use your right hand.[5]

Paying respect to elders and obeying the teacher are expected among Asian youngsters, such as shown here in Indonesia. The students are quietly listening to their teacher's explanation during school museum excursion.


Speaking softly but clear with somewhat subdued tone is recommended, while on the other hand speaking too loud are considered rude. However it is worthy to note that the tone standard is not the same across Indonesia. Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese are speaking softly, Minang and Malay are medium toned, while people of Batak, Betawi, Bugis and Makassar, Ambonese, Chinese Indonesian and people of Eastern Indonesia speak slightly louder.

Social titles[edit]

When youngsters call someone who is older, they must use titles "Pak", "Mas", "Bu", and "Mbak" (Mr, Mrs, and Ms, in order.) before their names. If it is the same age, you can call it by their names only. It is uncommon to call someone older with their names only, since most Indonesians pays respect on people whose social titles are higher. These are the highest titles given automatically by Indonesians: "Pak Haji", "Ustadz", and "Kiai". Those social titles are given when somebody have done the Hajj, must be written in front of their names and use those titles before calling their names. In government hierarchies, it is also a good manner if you call someone with their working titles, such as "Pak RT", "Pak RW", "Pak Camat", "Pak Lurah", "Pak Bupati", "Pak Walikota", "Pak Gubernur", "Pak Presiden", and "Pak Menteri". Not only during governmental hierarchies, but also during business hierarchies. "Pak Manajer", "Pak Direktur", and "Pak Kepala" are the most commonly used. Note that "Pak" can be changed into "Ibu" according by gender.

Dress sense[edit]

Overall, conservative and modest dress sense are adopted in Indonesia, however it might differ from one place to another. For example, Aceh that adopt Sharia law are more strict and conservative compared to Bali.


Business dress code are pretty much the same as international standard. Most of Indonesian offices are air conditioned, so the heat is not a problem on wearing suits indoor. When in Indonesia, by and large a conservative and modest dress sense should be adopted — especially by women. Skirt hemlines should fall below the knee and the shoulders should always be covered. Business attire is generally conservative. Women should dress conservatively ensuring that they are well covered from ankle to neck.[4] Tight fitting clothes are best avoided. Indonesia is hot tropical country, so cotton or at least light clothing is best.


Attending parties, dinner, wedding reception or official event with international standard dresscode are acceptable, such as to wear suit, shirt and trousers for men and dress for women. However wearing batik shirt for men and batik dress for women, or any Indonesian traditional textile are recommended, since it demonstrate your appreciation to Indonesian culture and your commendable effort to blend in.


  1. ^ Kuoni - Far East, A world of difference. Page 88. Published 1999 by Kuoni Travel & JPM Publications
  2. ^ Lewis, M. Paul (2009). "Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition.". SIL International. Retrieved 2009-11-17. 
  3. ^ David (8 May 2009). "Smiling People, Smiley Faces". Indonesia Matters. Retrieved 9 April 2012. 
  4. ^ a b "Indonesia - Language, Culture, Customs and Business Etiquette". Kwintessential. Retrieved 2 April 2012. 
  5. ^ a b c Lucy Debenham BA (27 July 2010). "Etiquette in Indonesia". Travel Etiquette. Retrieved 2 April 2012.