Things to Keep in Mind
Indonesia is about 90% Muslim. The majority of the rest of the population is made up of members of the other officially recognized religions: Christians, Catholics (their own distinction), Hindus, Buddhists and Confucianists. North Sulawesi, Papua and West Papua are predominantly Christian, while Bali is predominantly Hindu. The rest of Indonesia is mostly Muslim, sometimes fused with traditional beliefs. It is therefore a good idea to have some basic idea of Islamic culture and mores.
Indonesia's government is secular. That is to say that the country, although populated nearly exclusively by people of the Muslim faith, is not governed by religious law. Besides Islam, the Indonesian constitution recognizes the five religions mentioned above. Outside of Aceh, the semi-autonomous province in northern Sumatra which imposes sharia law, most Muslims are devout, but moderate in their religio-political views and tolerant in their social interactions. Nonetheless, simple courtesy suggests that one behaves in a manner that demonstrates respect for the traditions, culture, and religion of the vast majority of the people of the host country. Learn about the five prayers every day, the fasting month of Ramadan, the five pillars of Islam and the major holidays. Learn to respond to 'Salam aleikhum' (peace be with you) with 'aleikhum salam' (right back at ya).
Indonesia is a very hierarchical society. Great respect is shown for age and position. You will be treated with respect and courtesy by your household staff and store clerks, and virtually everyone except government officials; you should, as quickly as possible, identify the neighborhood chiefs, clerics and others entitled to deference from you. If in doubt about the proper way to mete out or to accept the deference that goes along with age and position, just remember to smile a lot and be genuine and courteous.
People shake hands all the time. When coming into a room, you should shake hands with the oldest or most senior person first and then with everyone else in the room. Same process on the way out; shake hands with everyone. Young, old, male, female. The Eastern handshake is likely to be interpreted at first as limp or wimpy. That's a mistake. It is true in most cases that a handshake is not the firm clasp that is expected in the West, but that is because a hard grip is considered to be aggressive, even hostile. Bear in mind that even if you are shaking the hand of a martial arts instructor, there might be only a slight touch with very gentle pressure. Mistake that for wimpiness at your peril.
If people come to your house it is certainly polite to offer them something to drink or eat. The first offer will probably be refused, but go ahead and ask several times, even apply slight pressure; the first refusal is courtesy. Even if you don't have a full bar or larder, go ahead. A glass of water is considered a reasonable refreshment to be offered6 If you provide a drink of any sort, just serve it at room temperature unless you ascertain that your guest genuinely wants it cold or with ice. If you have passed around food or drinks, your guests probably won't eat or drink until they are invited to do so. The normal drill is serve everyone and then say 'silakan minum' (please drink), or 'silakan makan' (please eat).
As a general rule, Indonesians, out of politeness, will not presume to do anything without being invited to do so. If someone drops by to visit, they might well stand outside talking to you over the gate until you actually ask them in. They might then even refuse out of courtesy the first time they are asked, so ask more than once. To ask someone in, say 'silakan masuk'.
Indonesians are comfortable having no scheduled or even contemplated plan of activities for a social call. Just sitting around enjoying one another's company, even in the absence of food or drinks and despite conversational lags, is often sufficiently engaging for them later to report that they had a wonderful time. Most people's experience is that Indonesian people seem to have a marvelous inherent sense of timing on social visits. They rarely stay a moment longer than you want them to and will generally stand up as a group and simply announce, 'We will go home now'. It is polite to ask them to stay. If they are just testing the waters of your patience and hospitality or gauging your fatigue level, they'll accept. Otherwise they'll tell you that they wish to sleep or take a bath. If you genuinely would like them to stay and you feel that they are merely offering a courtesy, ask more than once.
It is fair to say that in general, Indonesians are modest in their dress and proper in their sense of social demeanor. Their social and sexual morality is more restrictive than that of Westerners. For example, it's extremely rare for people of opposite sexes to live together without benefit of marriage and those who do so are iconoclasts. Indonesian culture, perhaps because of the density of the population, at least on Java, is very prone to what we might consider unseemly interest in the personal comings and goings of their neighbors and gossip is a national pastime.
As a foreigner, expect to have your every mood, word and nuance discussed among your neighbors and their families. Indonesians will unashamedly transmit any personal information you have shared with them to anyone they speak with. And they will unabashedly ask you for some pretty personal information to transmit. If you have a little introductory chat with someone in your new neighborhood, fully expect every detail to be etched in all local residents' memories and expect the conversation to be referred to at later dates.
To engage in any level of romantic relationship with an Indonesian of the opposite sex is to start on the road to marriage. Either asking someone out a number of times or accepting such an invitation is considered to be making some level of commitment. Many foreigners have been dismayed to find themselves being described as a 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend' of someone with whom they have only spent a few hours on two occasions.
Indonesian women are heartbreakingly beautiful and fond of wearing very tight clothes; jeans and tee shirts are worn everywhere outside of work, but an Indonesian woman wouldn't think of going without a bra, no matter what kind of shape she's in. Despite tight clothes, it's considered slightly risqué to reveal bare shoulders or allow glimpses of armpit except at the beach or in very casual circumstances. Men generally wear slacks and shirts with collars at work, ties if it is relatively formal. Batik shirts for men are always an acceptable substitute for business attire.
Indonesians worship children. They virtually never raise their voices and don't even give them dirty looks. They admire one another's kids and 'ooh' and 'ah' over babies. Tell a mother how beautiful her child is and you'll be rewarded with that earth-moving smile that has caused Indonesia to be known throughout Asia as 'the land of the smiling people'. Never ruffle a child's hair. It's okay, perhaps even called for, to stroke a child's head gently, but remember that hair is a source of pride and considered just this side of sacred.
The basic thing to remember is that Indonesian people genuinely like foreigners and are remarkably tolerant of their differences. If you don't forget that you are the stranger and they are the people with the inside track on proper behavior, lapses will be treated with humor and gentle amusement. As long as your behavior isn't due to arrogance or contempt, the Indonesians will, by and large, put up with more from us than we would from foreigners.
One other thing. In your first week in Indonesia, everything seems alien and odd. In two months it will seem natural. In fact, just as the Indonesian language makes much more sense than English (it is almost purely phonetic, there aren’t dozens of synonyms for every word, most tenses are understood from the context), after a very short time, you will come to appreciate the logic of the way things are done in Indonesia. In the meantime, you will have a glorious time finding your way around in what is probably the most exotic country on the planet.
Contributor: Patrick Guntensperger