Expats arriving in Indonesia might experience a sensory overload. This is especially true for those moving to Jakarta, a big, grey city with a population of more than 10 million. Poverty and shanty towns are a common sight in Indonesia and this might contribute to culture shock and prove to make expats’ adjustment to life in Indonesia more difficult. The slums are in stark contrast to the more modern office buildings which scrape Jakarta's skyline.

Traffic in most major Indonesian cities is a huge problem and the congestion is some of the worst in the world. Cities are not pedestrian friendly and sidewalks are often uneven or obstructed with roadworks. 

Another large adjustment for expats moving to Indonesia is the quality of the air in the cities. Pollution is a concern, particularly for those with respiratory problems. 

On the plus side, though, Indonesians are friendly people with a good sense of humour. Expats should feel safe and welcome in their neighbourhoods. 

Time in Indonesia

Time is very flexible in Indonesian culture, so much so that the phrase Jam Karet or “rubber time” has become famous in the country. Expats can expect to have meetings cancelled without notice and for business associates and local friends to be late quite often. 

Indonesians are generally very relaxed about time and would rather spend extra time speaking to someone and building a relationship than being on time for their next meeting. 

Alcohol in Indonesia

Alcohol is legal in Indonesia, though the sale of alcohol to Muslims is prohibited. The minimum legal age to buy alcohol is 18 but there is no legal age for the consumption of alcohol. 

Drug laws are very strict in Indonesia and there are severe penalties for the possession and trafficking of drugs. These penalties include life imprisonment and the death sentence. 

Language barrier in Indonesia

The official language of Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia. English is also spoken and the most widely spoken local dialect is Javanese. 

It is important that expats take the time to learn a few phrases in Bahasa Indonesia as it will make day-to-day tasks, like directing a taxi driver, much easier. 

Meeting and greeting in Indonesia 

The most common greeting in Indonesia is a handshake, although this differs in certain circumstances and in the interactions between different genders. When a man is greeting a man, a handshake with the right hand is the most common form of greeting. Handshakes are often accompanied with a slight bow of the head.

At times both men will put their palm to their heart after shaking hands as a sign of respect. Another way of showing respect is to put their hands in front of their chest in a prayer position. 

When a woman is greeting another woman, a handshake is common 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. Men and women should not kiss or hug in public. 

A slight bow is an acceptable way to greet or say goodbye to a host. 

Personal space in Indonesia

The concept of personal space in Indonesia is different from that in Western countries. People tend to stand much closer to each other, so expats should not be alarmed when someone comes right up behind them when waiting in a queue. 

Dining in Indonesia

Table manners in Indonesia are quite relaxed, but expats should behave more formally at a formal occasion. For example, when arriving at someone’s home for a meal, expats should always wait to be shown their place at the table as they will usually have an assigned seat. 

Food is usually served from a dish in the middle of the table and the host will serve. It is not considered impolite to go back for seconds. At very formal occasions, men are served before women. Guests should always wait to be invited to begin eating. 

Communication in Indonesia

As in many Asian cultures, it is very 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 and always telling someone what they want to hear, even if they have no intention of following through. 

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

Despite the fact that Indonesia boasts a powerful economy, bureaucratic red tape is still a problem which 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. 

Religion in Indonesia

Indonesia has the world’s largest population of Muslims and it might be daunting for expats from the West. However, while foreigners would do well to dress modestly and respect Muslim customs, the religious differences should not greatly affect their day-to-day lives. 

Dress in Indonesia 

Women in Indonesia should avoid wearing short skirts and tight clothing as this may cause offence. It is also advisable to cover the tops of one's arms when possible. It is even more important for women to dress conservatively when visiting the Visa and Immigration Office in Indonesia. If not dressed in modest clothing expats may simply be turned away. 

In business environments men should wear conservative, dark-coloured suits. A tie is not always necessary. A traditional long-sleeved batik shirt is also appropriate. 

Businesswomen should wear suits or dresses that are feminine but not tight-fitting, short or sleeveless.  

In some industries, more informal attire is acceptable. 

Women in Indonesia

In the workplace, women are technically equal to men, but because Indonesia is a patriarchal society, men are still generally favoured for higher positions, better salaries and more responsibility within the business world. 

Women are expected to dress modestly and wear minimal makeup in the business place. Many expat women find that the level of respect they are used to in Western society is not present when they move to Indonesia. Women might find themselves ignored by Indonesian men when they are in the company of their spouse. 

Expat women will also need to grow accustomed to the toilet facilities in Indonesia. Many public toilets are “squat toilets” and toilet paper is rare as Indonesian women typically wash with the hose that is provided. 

General etiquette tips for Indonesia

  • If receiving a gift, it is polite to open it in private and not in front of the person who gave the gift

  • When giving a gift do not give knives, letter openers, pork or alcohol

  • Do not pass anything over the top of someone’s head, as the head is viewed as sacred

  • Do not show someone the soles of one's feet when seated, as this is seen as offensive