Social customs PART 1 – what you can expect from Indonesian people and how they may view you

Thailand has long claimed the title of the Land of SmilesBut if the Thais are world champs, then the 276 million gracious, smiling, and welcoming people of Indonesia must rank as the number one title contenders. Because they are among the most hospitable people on earth.

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A SMILE AND A HELLO will bring a beaming response from men, women, and children alike. If you can manage a few words of Bahasa Indonesia, then the response will be even warmer.

It’s part of what makes Indonesia special.

Any initial shyness is usually followed by a dash of friendly familiarity or a curious interest, especially in us Westerners.

Westerners are referred to as Bules, a not quite pejorative term for white foreigners. It’s pronounced Boo-lay.

Smiling Indonesian woman
Smiling Batak man from North Sumatra in traditional costume
President Jokowi with broad smile

More than just casual smiles – they beam. When Indonesian poeple offer a smile of welcome you know they really mean it, including Presidents.

Indonesian social customs and values you need to know about

Smiling Indonesian women picking coffee beans

So after the welcoming smiles (triggered by you smiling first) what kind of potentially surprising social situations can you expect to encounter?

Perhaps more importantly, what will your Indonesian hosts expect from you? How will they see you?

First, a BIG qualification – the Indonesian national motto translates as Unity in Diversity and, given all the ethnic groups and languages discussed elsewhere in these pages, the word diversity should be heavily underlined.

There is no typical Indonesian – rather this ‘nationality’ consists of the most extraordinary mix of social, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds somehow woven together into what has been labelled an “imaginary” nation.

To describe all Indonesian ethnic variations and their different characteristics and cultural norms would require volumes (and most of a lifetime).

Amazingly the unlikely mix works!

Amazingly, by and large this unlikely social mix has worked. Over the generations from 1945 most of the country’s population has subscribed to the dream – they feel and see themselves as Indonesian.

And that’s a characteristics that make Indonesia one of the most interesting countries in the world for anyone from a typical Western background who takes the time to look, and think about it.

To truly appreciate and understand social behavior and expectations in Indonesia you do need awareness.

The following are tips on what you may encounter across much of Indonesia. Plus, some hints as to what may be expected of YOU.

It’s a big topic, so I have divided it into two parts. Once you have absorbed this lot please check out –  Social customs PART 2 – Etiquette Do’s and Don’ts to be appreciated and avoid offence in Indonesia

Expect to be asked many questions, maybe flooded with them

Wherever you go, you will be asked surprisingly direct questions in a way you would never encounter in ‘polite’ Western society.

Your interrogators are not being nosey – Indonesia is an hierarchical society. The questions are to determine how important you might be so people can behave appropriately towards you.

Please don’t take offence. This is the norm and certainly not considered impolite.

The odds are that most Indonesians will consider you to be much more important than you think you are (or you really are), especially if you behave appropriately.

Be gracious. Answer casually without going into detail. Speak slowly and clearly, thank folks for their interest, and their efforts to speak English. Offer a compliment on how well they are doing.

And smile, smile a lot …. enjoy the opportunity to experience what it feels like to be a celebrity!

Try asking your new friends some of the same kind of questions as they are asking you. They are likely to be flattered by your interest.

Expect also to be photographed and asked to pose for 'selfies' - often

Indonesian’s who happen to be near or passing by will quite likely ask if they may take a ‘selfie’ with you., especially young people.

For them there can be a certain cache in having a Bule ‘friend’, especially in rural areas.

You might even find yourself feeling  like one of those movie stars haunted by papperazzi.

Be gracious – oblige and once again enjoy the momentary celebrity. The picture will most likely be circulated to their Indonesian friends and family on Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, or some other social media.

They will be delighted if you ask them to send a copy to your phone or email. (PS – Remember to SMILE)

Angry man yelling and pointing

Certainly not yelling like this – better not at all – Pic-

Remind yourself to always think ‘calm and consensus’

NEVER shout at an Indonesian – do so and you will embarrass the person you target and yourself, perhaps irretrievably. It certainly will be counterproductive.

Most of us know deep down that we should not yell at anyone. But in Indonesia public displays of anger or emotional outbursts take on more significance, especially on the Island of Java.

Indonesia has a consensus culture, and such displays are not acceptable behavior. Those who overstep are greatly diminished.

Criticisms or disagreements should be handled in private, and preferably quietly. Remember to do it with a SMILE.

Understanding the difficult and important concept of FACE

Face is an important concept and behavioural constraint in Indonesia and throughout most of Asia. Sometimes Westerners are not even aware they are causing offence – Pic

Try to understand the importance FACE in Indonesian society – the nebulous, sticky concept at the heart of behavioural norms across much of Asia.

Though it can be a difficult idea for Western people to grasp, at least be aware so you can avoid inadvertently causing offence.

Face is about a person’s reputation, dignity, influence, and honor.

Compliments, praise, empathy, and consensus all enhance face.

Disrespect, disagreement, and criticism crush it.

Consequently, Indonesians tend to speak and act with caution and restraint to protect their self-esteem and foster their standing in the eyes of peers.

To Indonesian eyes, harmony, cooperation, belonging, and loyalty are key values and standing out from the crowd is to be avoided.

Appropriate conduct is to be gentle, courteous, polite, respectful and indirect, even where there is disagreement.

It might be nice if Western societies could adopt some of the same values.

The other laughter - the laughter of embarrassment

Despite your best intentions, you may happen to lose your cool and flare over some real or imagined mistake or failure. If so, then you can often expect the person you target to laugh.

If this happens then avoid reacting with more anger – the laughter is not being directed at you and is not an indication of defiance, disdain, or flippancy.

Indonesians will often laugh when embarrassed or anxious. A nervous smiling laugh and averted eyes will be a signal of embarrassment – and, perhaps, inner hurt.

Prepare to be patient – because hurry just doesn’t work

The preferred Indonesian way, at least across the most populous islands of Java and Sumatra, is quiet and indirect, and requires extended discussion, leading to consensus and cooperation.

Simple matters can take an inordinately long time to conclude. Westerners can find the process truly tedious.

(Learning to not be in a hurry is probably the most important and worthwhile attribute I have learned over my years in Indonesia.

My friends may tell you I have a long way to go … but I am now patient enough to not let that worry me.)

An irony is that while the ordinaries of life can proceed so slowly and be made so complex, the nation of Indonesia as  a whole is rushing towards developed status. It’s weird.

The expatriate manager of a big international fabrication company operating in Batam once told me his estimators routinely multiplied the man-hours needed for a project in the USA by up to 2.5 when quoting projects in Indonesia. And they would still expect the job might take longer!

However, the quality of the work would be fine, and lower salaries and other costs would mean big overall savings.

The magic concept of ‘rubber time’

Indonesians have a relaxed view of time and punctuality. You may find many people are almost habitually late, sometimes very late.

So much so that Indonesians have coined the phrase jam karet (rubber time) to describe it. The idea is that if you just stretch the time a little, then, by definition, you will always be on time.

Close-up section of clockface

Illustration –

Best to get used to it. If you are someone who likes to push ahead and get things done quickly and efficiently, then prepare to be frustrated and exasperated.

Take a few deep breaths, calm yourself, and activate your patience button … remind yourself this is just the way things are here. Oh, and remember to SMILE.

For all that, should you have a problem (and provided you maintain your cool), you will find local people will go out of their way to help and guide you, if sometimes a little slowly.

Perhaps we harried, hurrying, hustling Westerners would do well to learn from Indonesian society and embrace a more relaxed and steady way of doing things.

Stand by for stares – Westerners are seen as an interesting oddity

There are still wide areas of Indonesia where Western visitors are few. So, expect to be stared at with open curiosity in remote and rural areas, particularly by children.

People will stop what they are doing to stand and watch as you walk by, and it can feel a little uncomfortable. Simply respond with a wave, say hello and SMILE.

Staring is generally not considered impolite in Indonesia, so don’t feel singled out or threatened.

You also may experience nervous giggles when you interact with people like shop assistants.

They are unsure of just how to deal with strange aliens from across the seas like you and are worried they might embarrass you or themselves. You can bet their brief interaction with you will later be a topic of conversation with their family and friends.

Once again, in all these situations, a smile and a simple hello will break the ice. Then stand by for fumbled phrases and lots of questions as people try out their few words of English.


When travelling or perhaps dining at a restaurant you will find Indonesian people often start happily chatting away with others at nearby tables like old friends. In truth, they quite likely have never even seen each other before.

Indonesians may sometimes be shy about starting a conversation with you as a Bule. But they will probably be delighted if you start the ball rolling.

As a visiting Westerner you can expect to be viewed as Rich

As a Westerner you usually will be viewed as RICH, and the reality is that in comparative terms you probably are!

A few Indonesians, not unnaturally, can be jealous of your perceived affluence, particularly if you are seen as SOMBONG – it means aloof, proud, ‘pushy’ or arrogant.

Very occasionally you may hear a muttered rude comment. But usually, it will be spoken in colloquial Indonesian, so you won’t understand it anyway.

Regardless, just SMILE, be gracious and otherwise ignore.

You will be visiting a nation of vibrant young people

About half of Indonesia’s people are under the age of 30. There are kids, teens, and young adults everywhere.

You would have to have a heart of stone not to find their smiles, laughter, and bubbling enthusiasm a joy.

Apart from the social vibrancy they bring, these age demographics have important implications for Indonesia’s future growth and development.

The challenge for national and regional Governments is to provide the education, employment opportunities, and the infrastructure these rising generations need.

The education system is improving but struggling –  though basic literacy rates among the young are claimed to be as high as 95%, by international measures student performance across key areas is poor, even compared to other Southeast Asian countries. (3) (4)

Indonesia is said to have the fourth largest school system in the world with more than 50 million students, 3 million teachers and 300,000 schools.

A system of religious schools, mainly Muslim, parallels the State system. There is also an overlay of non-sectarian and international private schools.

Assembly of primary school students in uniform

It’s uniforms in the national colors for primary school students attending government schools across most of Indonesia – Pic

There are more than 120 State-funded universities, plus around 260 polytechnics. A handful are ranked internationally, but well below the educational institutions of Western countries.

There are also more than 3,000 private universities and colleges of varying size and quality. Most operate as for-profit institutions or rely on religious groups for funding. 

Sadly, the performance of the Indonesian education sector remains pedestrian and plagued by corruption.

An opinion survey a few years ago suggested Indonesian people viewed the national Education and the Religious Affairs Ministries as among the nation’s most corrupt institutions.

Indonesian high school students sit exam

Indonesian high school students sit for a national exam – Pic wikiwand.cen

I have been given first-hand accounts of private university lecturers simply handing out notes and not bothering to turn up for lectures or tutorials.

And of students also not attending but never-the-less achieving high passes in return for appropriate ‘gifts’.

Bemused expatriate trainers from reputable international organizations tell of students expecting that the award of certificates or diplomas will be automatic so long as they have paid their fees.

As a result, Indonesian qualifications, other than those from highly ranked State and reputable private institutions, are regarded with skepticism.

Children sent overseas to study

Indonesian parents who can afford the fees are sending their children to private schools and the well-to-do send their sons and daughters to study at universities and colleges abroad.

But there is a counterbalance to the education challenget – Indonesia’s young are bringing energy, innovation, adaptability, optimism, aspirational mindsets and increasing tech savvy in the age of digital learning outside the mainstream.

It’s worth pondering the likely economic impacts of Indonesia’s young demographic over the decades ahead compared with the consequences of aging population trends of Western and North Asian countries. 

With even modest improvements to the education system,  today’s smiling, optimistic youngsters, and teens can be expected to contribute to a future of rising affluence, comfort and confidence in a way that could not have been imagined by their parents.

Many in the wider world who are unfamiliar with Indonesia are going to be in for a big surprise.

Be prepared to sometimes encounter beggars

Child beggar with baby

Child beggar with sibling – a product of tragic circumstances or something else? It’s a conundrum you will sometimes face. Pic

Beggars are few in Indonesia compared with many other countries, but you may encounter them in the street, perhaps around traffic stop lights or in food courts.

Often, they are clearly disabled and depend on the goodwill and generosity of strangers.

Sometimes an aged or disabled person will be trying to sell a small item or perhaps offering to shine shoes. Sometimes a family member or friend will be leading a blind person holding a collection cup.

They are there because the welfare and social security support most Westerners enjoy are non-existent or limited in much of Indonesia.

But there also are occasional media reports of ‘professional beggars’ being detained by authorities with large amounts of money and assets.

And in some cities organized bands of children, recruited from poor families and controlled by adults, will prowl the streets at night asking for money.

Use your judgment and follow the lead of how you see local people responding. But remember always that a small donation can make a big difference in these societies.

You will probably notice that ordinary Indonesians – those at the lower end of the soci0-economic scale – will typically give most and most often to others in need. Giving and charity is a major tenet of the Muslim faith.

Expect that you will often find you are part of a crowd

Crowds at a Jakarta shopping mall

Crowds at a Jakarta shopping mall – the social consensus in Indonesia seems to be ‘the more the merrier’ and being alone is considered sad.- Pic

Indonesians love lively, crowded places and that’s probably just as well given the population densities in some regions and cities.

In the markets, the malls, the food courts, and on the roads, you will typically be surrounded by people, lots of people. Indonesians describe these lively, crowded places like markets as ‘ramai.

You also will rarely see Indonesians walking around alone. They will almost always be part of a group.

Indonesian enjoyment of crowds is not surprising. After all, the island of Java has one of the world’s greatest concentrations of people.

As of 2021, more than 147 million people called Java home. Yet Java is 10% smaller than New York State (which has only 20m people).

Java is barely more than half the size of the smallest mainland Australian State of Victoria, which has a population of 6 million.

You may find your home is THEIR castle

If you are a Western expatriate with an Indonesian partner, you soon find even your home is almost as busy as the streets around it.

The importance of extended family and the familiarity of friendships is demonstrated constantly by the number of people who breeze in and out.

They will often come unannounced, and at any time of the day or night. Just for a chat, maybe over a coffee or a sweet cup of tea. Or seeking a favor.

Indonesians who visit quiet, leafy suburbs in places like Australia are astounded and puzzled at the lack of people and activity. It is such a stark contrast to their busy and lively world back home.

They may even express their sympathy for you and your neighborhood, remarking on how few people they see and expressing sorrow that you must find it ‘so sad’.

Maybe they have a point.

We Westerners live in an age where urban families in the cities of countries like Australia and America can live for years without ever knowing their next-door neighbor, or the occupants the of the apartment across the corridor.

Be aware that three quarters of Indonesian men are cigarette smokers

Travel YouTuber Drew Binsky sums up the scourge of cigarette smoking in Indonesia in this short but informative video. See his other travel videos HERE.

Prevalent, pervasive cigarette smoking is probably one of the most unwelcome aspects of the Indonesian lifestyle. Avoiding second-hand smoke can be a challenge.

According to the World Population Review more than 76% of Indonesian men are smokers. Only around 4% of women smoke, but the overall numbers mean Indonesia smoking rates rank in the World’s top 10. (2)

Anti-smoking campaigners claim that as many as 265,000 people die in Indonesia each year from tobacco-related ailments.

Yet the industry is poorly regulated and ubiquitous. Cigarette brands are heavily advertised, including on TV.

There are few bans on smoking in offices, restaurants, or bars and any that exist are poorly enforced. However, you will see No Smoking signs (Dilarang Merokok) in health care units, educational precincts, some places of worship, aircraft, and public transport systems.

Smoking also is usually prohibited in the cabins of ferries, but deck space is allocated for those who must have a puff.

Low tax regime an historic contributor

Indonesian tobacco taxes have historically been among the lowest in Southeast Asia, meaning cigarette prices are cheap.

But the Government lifted Excise charges as a health and revenue measure in December 2021. Total tax collections on cigarettes have since been reported as representing about 63% of retail prices.

I have not been able to establish the basis for this claim or which individual taxes it includes. But even with the tax increases packs of cigarettes range from around AUD$1.60 for local clove cigarettes to around $3 for a pack of 20 Malboro.

Young Indonesian boy smoking a cigarette

According to ABC News in Australia, as many as 1 in five Indonesian boys aged between 13 and 15 are smoke cigarettes. They can buy them individually for a few cents – Pic

In Australia excise taxes on tobacco products have been used to deter smoking. That pack of 20 Malboro costs around AUD$26.

Taxes payable total about 80% of the retail price with the excise on cigarettes levied at more than $1.12 per stick (as at 2022).

Indonesians smoke more than 300 billion cigarettes a year, more than any nations other than China and India. Many smokers prefer the local foul smelling clove-flavored cigarettes.

An estimated four million young Indonesians between the ages of 10 and 14 take up smoking each year, despite a legal age of 18 for purchasing tobacco products. Youths can buy single cigarettes at neighborhood warungs for a few rupiah.

Tobacco companies target young people in their advertising, with an emphasis on extreme sports and peer group status. Their marketing includes liberal sponsorships of sports, pop concerts and popular bands.

In the face of rising anti-smoking measures in their home countries, big American and British tobacco companies, and their Australian executives, have moved into the Indonesia tobacco industry to push their products.

Implications for visitors? – Better hotels offer non-smoking rooms, but you may be hard-pressed to find them in lower-cost accommodation.

If hiring a car, then let the driver know if you would prefer that he or she did not smoke. The magic words are “Tolong, Pak/Ibu tidak (pron Tee-dar) merokok– Please Sir/Madam, do not smoke.


There is much that is different about and within Indonesian society and most visitors with a keen eye for people watching find it fascinating.

However, sometimes less experienced travelers can find culturally accepted activities and events in a new country confronting – classic culture shock.

The first trick for coping is to learn and to be aware of what to expect before you travel. Then remind yourself that the very reason that most of us travel is to see and experience what is different and unusual in other cultures and societies compared with how we live and think.

Look for the odd and the interesting and celebrate it. Step out of the shell of your preconceived ideas of how the world should work and enjoy the novel and the different. Loosen up and go with the flow

Who knows, you may even find yourself questioning and reshaping some of the old values you have inherited and taken for granted.

You certainly will have a much better understanding of how the people in the societies you are visiting think, and what they consider important. And that can be a very satisfying and worthwhile outcome.

Go enjoy the differences and expand your mind!

SEE MORE about Indonesian customs and etiquette in this comprehensive related  post –

Social customs PART 2 – Etiquette Do’s and Don’ts to be appreciated and avoid offence in Indonesia

References -

    1. The World Population Review 2022 –
    2. Smoking rates by Country – The World Population Review 2021 –
    3. Andrew Rosser – Improving Education Quality in Indonesia is no Easy Task –
    4. Katrina M Tehusijarana – Not even mediocre? Indonesian students score low in math, reading, science –PISA report – The Jakarta Post, 4 December 2019.