Are you planning to take vacation in Indonesia? Or maybe you have scheduled business trip to Jakarta? Before going to any country, it’s better to learn a little bit about its social customs and norms. Learning the culture before coming to a country is useful to avoid misunderstanding because your country’s social norm might be different from your visiting country. As visitor, you need to respect the social norms that applied in the country you are visiting. So here are seven social norms of Indonesia you should know about:

Johannnindito Adisuryo (Yohanes Nindito Adisuryo) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Johannnindito Adisuryo (Yohanes Nindito Adisuryo) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

1. Don’t Call by First Name

If you come from the U.S., Europe, or any other country where hierarchy is not considered as necessary, you should be aware of this social customs. In Indonesia, the hierarchical relationship is based on age. The younger one should call the older one with title before his/her name. There are several titles

Mas: Mas is the most common word to address older male in informal way. Some regions have its own version of “Mas” such as Bang in Jakarta or Kang in West Java.

Mbak: It is used to address older female in informal way.

Kak: Kak is a gender neutral word to call both of male or male who is older than you.

Ibu/Bu: This title is used to address older female in formal way.

Bapak/Pak: It is used to address older male in formal way.

Usually when people meet for the first time, they tend to consider that their interlocutors are older to avoid rudeness. In my case, when I first started my job I call all my coworkers by Mbak or Mas to avoid the rudeness. Later, when I know that they are younger than me, I started to omit the title.

2. Greeting

The most common greeting expression in Indonesian language is similar to English. It is “Halo” and “Hai” which means “Hello” and “Hi” in English respectively. You can use “Halo” or “Hai” anytime you meet your friends from Indonesia. Halo is also used for greeting on the phone. It’s equal to Yeoboseyo in Korean and Moshi-moshi in Japanese.

Indonesian language also has four different greeting expressions depending on time of day. The time of day in Indonesia is divided into four parts. First, when you greet people at 4 AM to 10 AM, you could say “Selamat pagi” which means “Good morning”. Second, from 10 AM to 2 PM, you could greet people with “Selamat siang” which means “Good afternoon”. Third, if you want to greet people during 2 PM to 6.30 PM, you could say “Selamat sore” which has equal meaning to “Good evening”. Lastly, you could say “Selamat malam” which means “Good night” when you greet people at 6.30 PM to 4 AM.

3. Handshake

While you can greet Indonesian people by halo, hai, or one of greeting expressions mentioned above, what kind of gesture you should make? Well, the greeting gesture in Indonesia is quite similar to most of countries in the world which is handshaking. If you are greeting someone you consider them as your close acquaintance, you may have a light hug.

Indonesia also has unique kind of handshake with respectful people such as teachers. You can see this handshake in most Indonesian schools. Student shakes teacher’s hand and put it to their forehead as sign of respect.

4. Public Display Affection

Most of Indonesian people are still keeping the conventional social norms which forbid to show Public Display Affection in public places. However people in metropolitan citiy such as Jakarta started to abandon this conventional social norm.

5. Tolong, Terima Kasih, Maaf

Thank you, sorry, and please are three words which everyone must know as basic of good manners everywhere around the world, including Indonesia. Do not let people accuse you as bad mannered because of lack knowledge of those basic words.

These are the essential words of basic manners in Indonesia: Tolong (please), Terima kasih (thank you), and Maaf (sorry).

6. Right Hand and Left Hand

Indonesian people take it seriously when it comes to the proper hand. Right hand and left hand has its own proper function according to Indonesian people. So let’s get started with the right hand.

Right hand is considered as “good hand” for Indonesian people. When you give things to other people or receive things from people, you are not allowed to use the left hand. Both of giving and receiving things must be conducted by right hand. If you give something to other people using left hand, you would be considered as impolite.

Another proper function of right hand is for eating. Most of Indonesian people prefer eating by right hand rather than using left hand.

Maybe you are wondering why Indonesia people adore rather than left hand. As I said before, each hand has its own proper function and according to Indonesian people the appropriate function of left hand is for cleaning up after “going number two”. Indonesian people tend to separate the hand for eating and the hand for cleaning up of dirt.

7. Eating Manner

You have learnt the first eating manner in Indonesia from the first point that Indonesian people prefer eating by right hand. Other than eating by right hand, there are several eating manners you need to know.

First, do not get shocked when you see Indonesian people eating by their bare hands. It’s perfectly normal to eat by bare hand in Indonesia. Usually restaurants provide a bowl of clean water called as kobokan so that customers can wash their hand easily before eating. Even some of dishes are better eaten with bare hands. If you come to padang restaurant, you will find mostly of the customers eat with bare hands.

Second, knife is rarely found on Indonesia’s diner table. Regularly, you will find spoon and fork only on the diner table. Most of Indonesian food served on the diner table do not require cutting by knife because it’s already chopped into small appropriate size. Even if you need to cut the food, you can easily cut it with spoon and fork. The other reason is because sometimes Indonesia people eat with bare hand.

Third, finish everything on your plate. Of course this is only applied when you eat as guest in your friend or acquaintance’s house, not as customer in restaurant. When you have leftovers on your plate, it implies that you do not enjoy the food served by the host. So when you are invited over dinner, it’s better to take appropriate portion you can handle to avoid having leftover on your plate.

Welcome to Indonesia

It’s not a problem when you get shocked, misunderstood, or even make mistake according to the social norms of Indonesia. Indonesian people would understand since you are a foreigner. But it’s always better to get prepared through learning Indonesia’s social norms in advance. So that you would never hesitate to visit Indonesia.

By Ilham Mubarok, ASEAN Correspondent from Indonesia