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Culture Religion and Ethics

Indonesia Culture, Religion and Ethics

culture religion & ethnic

“Bhinneka tunggal ika”, the national motto of Indonesia, translates as “many yet one”, and is an acutely representative statement to define both the diversity and cohesive national pride of Indonesian people.

Indonesia’s long struggle for independence from colonialism is a significant contributing factor to the cohesive national identity of Indonesian people who, historically, have maintained entirely distinct cultures, languages and ways of life. The same nationalist movement that expunged the colonial rulers also led to the establishment of Bahasa Indonesia as the country’s first national language in 1945. This shared language allowed Indonesians to identify and communicate with one another in a way that wasn’t possible previously and, consequently, nurtured the national identity that Indonesians all share today. Yet still, as a testament to the bewildering diversity of cultures in Indonesia, there are still more than 700 languages spoken throughout the archipelago. One of the most thrilling things about travel in Indonesia is the sometimes bewildering feeling of having gone from one country to another while hopping to various islands. As a travel destination and an experience, there’s no place on earth quite like Indonesia.

As regular travelers around the region, we’ve made quite a few faux pas on foreign shores. And we’re not counting the times that the kids have stuck chopsticks up their nostrils either. So we thought it was high time we shared that you don’t have to make any.


Greetings and Etiquette

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  • Shake hands and give a slight nod when meeting for the first time. Greet people with a slow and sincere “Selamat”, which means peace.
  • Do not put on public displays of affection. A man does not touch a woman in public except to shake hands.
  • Do not touch a person’s head as it is thought that this is where the spirit resides and is therefore considered sacred.
  • Personal space and privacy is not considered important. There is actually no word in the Indonesian language for ‘privacy’.
  • Curiosity is normal and Indonesians are comfortable asking personal questions.
  • It is common for people of the same gender to hold hands when walking together. This is merely a sign of friendship, not sexual preference.
  • Public displays of anger (shouting, hands on hips, rude looks, slamming of doors), are regarded as offensive.
  • The Indonesian way to deal with problems is behind closed doors, so that no one loses ‘face’.
  • Honour and respect for the individual is the basis of Indonesian culture.


Personal Habits

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  • Burping is regarded as a sign of appreciation after a good meal and so Indonesians generally do not excuse themselves after burping
  • Sometimes knowledge of how diseases are spread has not been taught so people may openly cough or sneeze without attempting to cover their mouth or nose
  • Most Indonesian men enjoy smoking. There are many public spaces where you will inevitably have to breathe in cigarette smoke
  • Spitting is common among some Muslims during the fasting month as it is part of the daily cleansing ritual, particularly prior to prayer
  • Squatting is a very natural position for Indonesians and they learn from infancy to assume this position
  • Because squatting is comfortable, squat toilets are common even in some luxurious shopping malls and office buildings.
  • Red welts or dark red marks on necks or faces are the result of a custom called Kerok. It involves rubbing a coin on a person’s skin to break blood vessels and relieve aches and pains.
  • A very long nail on Indonesian men is an indication of his status as a non-manual labourer or worker.


Eating and Meals Etiquette

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  • Most Indonesians are Muslim and consume no liquor or pork.
  • Fingers are still used for eating in some places.
  • The left hand is used for personal ablutions and is therefore considered unclean.
  • Don’t hand something to another person with your left hand, especially food or drink
  • If your right hand is occupied, switch the item to your left prior to receiving an object.
  • If you’re forced, due to circumstances, to hand something to someone with your left hand, acknowledge the unavoidable cultural slight by saying “Maaf, tangan kiri.” (Sorry, I had to use my left hand).



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  • Keep both feet on the floor when sitting. Do not cross your legs, especially not with an ankle over the knee.
  • Sitting with good rigid posture and both feet on the floor is a sign of respect.
  • Don’t allow the bottom of your feet to face or point at another person.


Spirituality and Places of Worship

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  • When visiting temples, both men and women are expected to wear shirts that cover shoulders and part of the upper arms.
  • “Sarongs” around legs and a temple scarf around the waist are mandatory when entering a temple place (these items are usually rented out at most temple entrances).
  • When entering a Moeslim Mosque or Hindu temple always remove your shoes and have the toes pointed outside
  • A woman visiting a temple or mosque should cover her head with a scarf.
  • Do not enter any temple if you’re menstruating, have an open sore or bleeding wound, as this is considered impure.
  • Do not step on offerings (canang sari) in the street as it considered deeply offensive.
  • Keep both feet on the floor when sitting. Do not cross your legs, especially not with an ankle over the knee.
  • Sitting with good rigid posture and both feet on the floor is a sign of respect.
  • Don’t allow the bottom of your feet to face or point at another person.


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