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Doing business in Indonesia (part 3)

Communication guidelines
The best time of year to schedule business trips is between February and June, and again between September and early December. July and August tend to be a major vacation period for Indonesians who can afford to travel. On no account try to get stuck into some involved and detailed business discussions during Ramadan, which occurs over a period of four weeks sometime during December and January, when energy and focus are distracted by religious observance and fasting. In Bali, it is best to schedule a morning meeting as people like to get work done early to avoid the afternoon heat.

As both Malay and Chinese Indonesians have great respect for age, status, and position you should be equally sensitive to those factors at meetings and social engagements associated with business. Defer to older more senior people by standing when they enter and letting them sit down first, etc. If a particular meeting involves a very senior Indonesian (often the final meeting), it is seen as respectful that your organization has a very senior person available to attend.

You should be punctual at all times even though your Indonesian counterparts may not be so. Indonesians often use the phrase jam karet ("rubber time") as an excuse for lateness.

Indonesians generally shake hands all round and give a slight bow of the head. You should do the same. They will smile a lot during these introductions, but during meeting can use smiling not just a sign of pleasure, but to reflect sadness, nervousness and embarassment. So, don't always assume that a smile is an indication of positive feeling or approval. The handshake is usually less strong than a Western one and on occasions very similar to the Malaysian handshake which often degenerates into a touch of the hands. Additionally, the Muslim influence can be noticed after the hand shake as Indonesians bring both hands back to the chest, as if to symbolize that the greeting is from the heart.

Most Indonesians often have just one given name. Older, socially superior, or politically higher Indonesians may be referred to courteously by preceding the name with bapak for men, which means "father" and ibu ('ee-boo') for females, which means "mother". Both are similar to the English Mr or Mrs. Traditionally, these terms were used only between Indonesians, but overseas person who has developed a close relationship may use the terms. It is also acceptable and safe to use the English Mr or Mrs, or a title. Conversely, as an honorific and courteous title, some Indonesians may call you tuan or nyonya, in place of Mr or Mrs respectably.

You should exchange business cards immediately following the first greeting. Since status, credentials and titles are important to Indonesians, you should make the most of your position in the organization, and your professional qualifications. Overseas business women are generally well received if they have status and qualifications. However, there still a few more traditional and conservative Indonesians who may not regard a woman as the suitable representative of an overseas organization. This situation should not arise among better educated and qualified internationally oriented Indonesian business person.

Following the Malay Islamic manner, people who are rude, boastful, impolite, aggressive, or pushy are not respected. You will make your mark with an Indonesian and improve your chances of success with your endeavor if you show polite, well mannered, refined and respectful behavior and additionally demonstrate an interest in the country and its language and culture.

During the first meeting and at the beginning of all later meetings, it is important to engage in polite social and general conversation. Suitable topics include the weather, your travels, your appreciation of some aspect of Indonesian culture, or common contacts. Unlike other Asian cultures where personal questions are not only permitted but expected as part of the getting to know your routine, such questions are not the done thing in Indonesia. So, stay off questions regarding your counterpart's salary and perks or his material goods, such as his home or car, and they will not inquire about your situation either. Indonesians prefer to discuss their culture and their national sporting activities such as badminton, soccer, volley ball, tennis and bicycling. If someone compliments you, do not simply reply "Thank You". It is important to be humble. Try to invoke self-effacing responses like "Thank You, but it was a very little/not very important/ no effort."

Never raise issues concerning internal politics, East Timor, bribery or corruption, religion or Indonesia's ethnic troubles or divisions, as these can be sensitive topics. At the end of every meeting, it is appropriate to say terimah kasi, sampai jumpa lagi which means "Thank you. I look forward to our next meeting." This helps in building and strengthening a warm business relationship.

Some nonverbal behaviors to be aware of :

  • In general men go through door first or sit down first at a formal gathering. The most senior person goes first, with others following in descending order of seniority.
  • Crossing your legs is usually inappropriate, particularly in the presence of senior people. However, if you choose to cross your leg, do so only at the knee or ankle.
  • Never prop one foot on the other knee. The sole of your foot should never face another person, as the soles of the feet or shoes are considered dirty.
  • It is considered rude to sit on a desk or to prop your feet up on desk or table.
  • Never touch an Indonesian woman except for the initial handshake.
  • Members of the opposite sex may walk hand in hand, but public contact between the sexes is minimal.
  • The left hand should never be used in any situation.
  • It is considered rude and threatening to point your finger. If Indonesians need to point to something, they use their thumb held over the fist.
  • Do not stand with your hands in your pocket or on your hips as this signifies a sign of defiance or arrogance.
  • Beckon by using the whole hand, palm facing down and fingers pointing away from  you, but moving toward you in a scratching motion. Wherever possible, avoid beckoning anyone except for a taxi, a becak (pedicab), or a child.
  • Do not pat anyone on the head, for Indonesians believe that this is where the spirit resides. Backs are considered private as well.
  • Indonesians sometimes show approval by a pat on the shoulder, but it is better to refrain from this gesture.

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