Business Travel Tips for Indonesia

Top cultural tips for an Indonesian business trip

••• Indonesia flag. Quinn Rooney / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

You may  not know it, but Indonesia is actually one of the world's largest countries. It's currently 4th in population, just behind the United States and ahead of Brazil. That means it's definitely a place that business travelers might land one day.

In order to help business travelers avoid potential cultural problems when traveling to Indonesia, Business Travel Expert David A. Kelly interviewed cultural expert Gayle Cotton, author of the bestselling book, Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication.

For more information on Ms. Cotton, please visit

With her expertise, Ms. Cotton was happy to share a variety of tips with readers to help business travelers avoid potential cultural problems when traveling to Indonesia.

What tips do you have for business travelers heading to Indonesia?

  • Indonesia is a country of many cultures, although greetings amongst all Indonesians are conducted with stateliness and formality, in a slow, deliberate manner. A hurried introduction will be perceived as disrespectful.
  • The majority of Indonesian businesspeople are Chinese, and they are likely to be prompt for meetings and appointments. Other businesspeople and many government officials are ethnic Malays, and they may place less of an emphasis on efficiency, punctuality and deadlines.
  • Among Indonesian Chinese, handshakes are the standard greeting. Most Indonesian handshakes have a gentle grasp and last for 10-12 seconds. For subsequent meetings, it may also be appropriate to bow rather than initiate further handshakes. Bow your head, lower your eyes, and smile while saying the Indonesian greeting "Selamat", which means "peace."
  • The traditional greeting for Hindu Indonesians involves a slight bow with the palms of the hands together, as if praying. Older, traditional Hindus often use this greeting, called the "Namaste". It is also an acceptable alternative to a handshake when a Western businesswoman greets a Hindu man.
  • Among both Muslim and Hindu Indonesians, the left hand is considered unclean so, whenever possible, it should not be used in public. The right hand should be used exclusively to greet, accept gifts, hold cash, eat meals, and to touch people. These guidelines apply even if you are left-handed. However, you may use your left hand when there is absolutely no other realistic alternative.
  • Physical contact between people of the same sex is perfectly acceptable. You'll likely observe men holding hands with men or even walking with their arms around each other. These displays are viewed strictly as gestures of friendship.
  • There is a belief in Indonesia that the office is the only place to discuss business. Therefore, refrain from discussing business in a social situation, unless your Indonesian companions bring up the subject. Meals are often enjoyed with very little conversation.
  • To successfully hold a conversation, it's essential for Indonesians to know if they are speaking with a person who is their superior, inferior or equal. Generally, they will feel uncomfortable until they learn your status, so there is a tendency to ask very personal questions.
  • Be careful when asking an Indonesian Chinese a question. For example, English speakers would give a negative answer to the question "Isn't the document available?" by responding "no." The Chinese interpretation is opposite. The answer would be "yes," meaning "Yes, the document is not available."
  • Although many government officials will speak some English, they may prefer to hold meetings in Bahasa Indonesia. Fortunately, English-speaking translators are usually easily accessible. Presentation material and company literature should be also translated into Bahasa Indonesia.
  • When you receive another person's card, make a show of carefully examining it for a few moments and then remarking upon it before putting it in your card case or on a nearby table. Accepting a business card and then immediately stuffing it into your back pocket will be perceived as disrespectful.
  • Indonesians tend to be very friendly and you should reciprocate this immediate friendliness. They are more likely to buy from people who they genuinely like. Taking the time to develop solid, long-term personal relationships is of vital importance. In Indonesian business culture, relationships are based on respect and trust.

What is important to know about the decision making process?

  • Meetings and negotiations tend to be on the formal side. The Indonesian participants will enter the room based on their hierarchical position and then take a seat. You will be expected to remain standing until this ritual concludes.

  • Negotiations are discussed among those present, however should be directed to the highest ranking individual in the meeting

Any tips for women?

  • With the exception of handshakes, there is no public contact between the sexes in Indonesia. Hugging and kissing, even between husbands and wives, are forbidden in public. Moreover, if a woman touches a Muslim man, he must ritually cleanse himself before praying again.

Any tips on gestures?

  • Since the foot is also considered unclean, do not use this part of the body to point at, move or touch things. Also, refrain from resting your feet on desks or table. Do not show the soles of your feet or shoes. You can cross your legs at the knee, but not with one ankle over your knee.

  • Be aware that many Indonesians believe that the head is the "seat of the soul." Consequently, never touch someone's head, not even to good-naturedly pat the hair of a child.

  • To beckon someone, you hold your hand out, palm downward, and make a scooping motion with the fingers. Beckoning someone with the palm up and wagging one finger, as in the United States, will often be perceived as an insult.

  • Point with an open hand rather than with your index finger, which is considered rude.

  • Chewing gum in public is discouraged.

What are some good suggestions for topics of conversation?

  • What are some good suggestions for topics of conversation?

  • Talk about Indonesian traditions, culture, and architecture

  • Families and friends is always a welcome topic

  • Food, especially discussing the variety of local cuisine

  • Sports in general is always a good topic

  • The success and or future plans of your organization

What are some topics of conversation to avoid?

  • Commenting on Indonesian customs that you find unusual

  • Human rights, politics, the Military influence, bureaucracy, corruption

  • Sex, and roles of the sexes

  • Over emphasizing your personal successes

  • It’s best to avoid religion and your personal religious preferences