Business Etiquette

When conducting business in Indonesia, one must observe and respect the cultural norms that dictate business etiquette, as it could be the defining factor between success and failure. Hierarchy is very important in Indonesian society and a great degree of emphasis is laid on respecting people’s status. This forms the overarching structure within which business etiquette is modelled. There are certain subtleties to Indonesian culture that are important to know. For example, one must avoid using the left hand in any form of interaction with others as it is considered a sign of disrespect. Indonesians believe the left hand is the one that is used to cleanse oneself after using the washroom and, therefore, the right hand or ‘the good hand’ should be used for all interactions. 

Another important example would be the dignity and respect with which business cards are handled. Your business card represents you and your enterprise, and, can be considered the face of what you’re offering. Thus, in Indonesia, as in most other Asian countries, business cards must be handled with great care.

Greetings – In Indonesia a loose, light handshake is preferable to the hard, determined one used in Western countries. A bow of deference is also popular with greetings directed to the most senior member of your local contact team first. These people are normally presented to you and greetings can be formal. Handshakes come with a sincere ‘selamat’ meaning peace. Do not use the left hand, or reach out for body contact, as slaps on the back or touching is also frowned upon.

Negotiations – Any business deals take time here. Nothing is rushed, which can cause frustration at times. The generally slower pace, group-thinking and the fact that decisions are made at the top all combine to result in a long wait for a deal to be concluded. Also, many negotiations and deals are done with so-called ‘friends’, so developing a strong bond and relationship is crucial before anyone will sign on the dotted line. Trust is paramount. Price and details are secondary to strong relationships when it comes to negotiations.

Dress code – The business dress for initial meetings can be quite formal. Suits and ties for men, skirts and blouses for women. However, as this is tropical Asia, the heat and humidity can be high. Jackets can be removed if your host is less formally dressed. 

For instance, the traditional batik shirt worn by men is commonplace in the office now and is considered proper business attire. Women should be aware of Muslim sensitivities around female attire and should not wear revealing clothing.

Business cards – Business cards are primarily exchanged after the initial handshake, introductions and greetings. As with many Asian countries, business cards are taken seriously. You must present them with both hands and reach out to your host with yours. They will be received with dignity and respect. It’s also good to read the business card with interest. Cards are tokens of prestige and should be dealt with accordingly. Do not throw them about with one hand or toss them over to your host. If in a meeting with a table, keep the cards laid out in front of you.

Sealing the deal – Patience, patience, patience – a crucial characteristic when doing deals in Indonesia. Compromise is everything and everyone has to give a little. ‘Yes’ may mean ‘no’, so you or your counterpart does not lose face in the negotiations. There are many ways to say yes and no in Bahasa Indonesia. It is best to enter into deal-making once you’ve established a strong local bond with your business counterpart.

Entertaining – Direct business and deals are often not discussed the first time you meet a prospective business partner. This ‘getting to know you’ phase also extends to entertaining, which usually involves a meal. Expect shared dishes eaten in a relaxed atmosphere at a restaurant or at a person’s home. Wait to be seated. Forks and spoons are often the only utensils. Hierarchy is also important at the dinner table in terms of who is speaking and the subject of conversation. This is a great chance to get to know your host and form a long-standing relationship. Expect questions about family and culture. Focusing on the minutiae of deals and business is not expected during an entertaining dinner.


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