Expats arriving in Indonesia might experience something of a sensory overload. This is especially true for those moving to Jakarta, a big, bustling city with a population of more than 10 million. Poverty and poorer areas are a common sight in Indonesia and starkly contrast the more modern buildings that shape Jakarta’s skyline. These scenes are striking images of Indonesia’s diverse socio-economic landscape, with a spectrum of backgrounds and outcomes.
Traffic in most major Indonesian cities is a huge problem, and the congestion is among the worst in the world. However, initiatives like carpooling rules and constructing mass rapid transit systems are underway to alleviate the congestion. Cities are not pedestrian-friendly, and sidewalks are often uneven or obstructed by roadworks. Another significant adjustment for expats moving to Indonesia is the air quality in the cities. Pollution is a concern, particularly for those with respiratory conditions.
On the plus side, the local culture in Indonesia is defined by an attitude of genuine friendliness and openness. As a result, expats should feel safe and welcome in their neighbourhoods, and making local friends is a great way to feel more at home. Crime statistics in Jakarta and other major cities indicate a relatively safe environment, particularly in neighbourhoods popular among expats.
Time in Indonesia
Time can be a flexible concept in Indonesian culture, so much so that the phrase "jam karet" (rubber time) has become famous in the country. Expats can expect meetings to be cancelled without notice and for business associates and local friends to be late often. This flexibility stems from the cultural emphasis on relationships and understanding over strict schedule adherence.
Indonesians are mostly relaxed about time and would rather spend extra time speaking to someone and building a relationship than being on time for their next meeting.
Language barrier in Indonesia
The official language of Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia. English is also spoken, and Javanese is the most widely heard local dialect. Apart from Javanese, several regional languages like Sundanese and Balinese are spoken in different parts of the country. We recommend expats take the time to learn a few phrases in Bahasa Indonesia as it will make day-to-day tasks, like shopping or giving directions to a taxi driver, much easier. It's also a great way to build rapport with locals.
Meeting and greeting in Indonesia
The most common greeting in Indonesia is a handshake, although this differs in certain circumstances and the interactions between genders.
Greeting etiquettes are deeply rooted in Indonesia’s cultural values of respect and humility. When a man is greeting a man, a handshake with the right hand is the most common. Handshakes are often accompanied by a slight bow of the head. Both men sometimes put their palms to their hearts after shaking hands as a sign of respect. When a woman is greeting another woman, a handshake is standard, but sometimes just a nod of acknowledgement is used.
When men and women greet each other, handshakes are acceptable, but the man should always wait for the woman to initiate it. If a woman puts her hands in front of her chest in a prayer position, it means she would prefer not to shake hands. In this case, the man should return the gesture.
Communication in Indonesia
As in many Asian cultures, it is important for Indonesian people to ‘save face’. This means never publicly criticising or reprimanding someone. This custom also often results in Indonesians being quite vague if they have a problem or telling someone what they want to hear, even if they have no intention of following through. For instance, rather than a direct refusal, an Indonesian might say "maybe" or "we’ll see", prioritising harmony in interactions over the immediate goal.
Face-to-face interactions are highly valued, especially in the business world. Expats are more likely to get attention and results from a face-to-face business meeting than from an email or phone call.
Bureaucracy in Indonesia
Even though Indonesia boasts a robust economy, bureaucratic red tape is still an issue that hampers economic growth and potential for investment. Besides slowing down day-to-day tasks, this bureaucracy also causes problems for expats trying to get entry visas or work permits for Indonesia. To navigate these bureaucratic intricacies, expats often find it beneficial to seek local guidance through friends, colleagues or professional services.
Religion in Indonesia
Indonesia has the world’s largest population of Muslims. While foreigners would do well to dress modestly and respect Muslim customs, religious differences shouldn’t affect their day-to-day lives too much.
There are also significant Hindu communities in areas like Bali, as well as Christian and Buddhist populations. Awareness of major religious holidays, such as Eid for Muslims or Nyepi for Hindus, can also aid in understanding local customs and planning one’s activities.
►For first-hand accounts from expats living in this vibrant archipelago, see Expat Experiences in Indonesia
What do expats say about adapting to Indonesian culture?
"One of the first things I learned when I moved here is that the second you show frustration or raise your voice, you lose. And believe me, you will get frustrated a lot! Is it worth it in the end? I would still say yes. The people, food, geographical location and history is amazing. You just have to learn to live on rubber time." Read more about American expat Jennifer's life in Indonesia.
Are you an expat living in Indonesia?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Indonesia. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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