Get to Know the Indonesian Language & Culture

Whether you would like to live, do business or travel in Indonesia, it's important to know the Indonesian language and culture.

Indonesia: A Country Full of Diversity

Before we get into anything further, it is best to understand that Indonesia is a complex society. There are more than 300 ethnic groups, each having their own custom and culture, as well as language. However, this doesn’t mean that there are no similarities between one another, but always keep in mind the diversity that exists in Indonesia. What is usually considered as Indonesia’s culture is, in fact, a representative of a majority or dominant ethnicity of a certain place. As an example, let’s take 3 ethnic groups: the Bataks, Javanese, and Balinese for examples. Each of them has their own custom, culture, and language. Predominantly, the Bataks are Christian, the Javanese are Muslim, and the Balinese are Hindu.

Despite all of the differences, the Indonesian language is used as the common language in public. Knowing the Indonesian language is enough for you to get by and start establishing your network with Indonesian people although you need to understand the respective ethnic’s custom and culture, or even the language, in order to establish a deeper relationship.

Understanding the culture of this exotic archipelago will also ensure a more pleasant traveling experience. From social habits to religious belief, here are the things worth your time to discover about Indonesian culture.

Social Registers

There are formal and informal registers in the Indonesian language. The formal register is used in formal occasions such as speeches, publications and educational materials. The informal register is used in daily conversations, and there may be some influences from local languages.

If you have experience with learning the Indonesian language from textbooks or classrooms, you may find that the native speakers usually don’t talk in the way you learn from textbooks and classrooms. For instance, many learning resources teach “Apakah” as a question marker, such as in “Apakah Anda mau makan?” means “Would you (formal) like to eat?”, and in fact, you will seldom hear a question starting with “Apakah” said by a native speaker. The word “Anda”, which means “you (formal)”, is rarely used by native speakers as they use “Bapak” for male and “Ibu” for female.

Nevertheless, it is always better to be too polite than otherwise.

Collective Society

Same with other Eastern peoples, Indonesians have always been communal since its earliest history. Cultural values emphasize the principles of collectivism. It is no wonder that Indonesian people are considered some of the friendliest in the world.

Indonesians tend to keep close relationships with their family members no matter how independent they are. They can even live closely, if not together, with the extended family in the same neighborhood just to be close to one another.

Religious Practices

The whole world usually knows Indonesia as a country with a huge Muslim population. This is because Indonesia has the world’s most Muslims despite it being a secular country by law. There are actually six official religions registered in the country — Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Indonesians, in general, are very spiritual. This can be seen in the ceremonies and rituals, and there are even magnificent ancient temples spread out in Java island, such as one of the Seven Wonders of the World — Candi Borobudur.

Every citizen must believe in one religion and it is written in their identity card. Any conversation related to religion should be performed with caution since it could turn out to be a sensitive topic for certain people.

Spicy Food

CNN Travel once announced “Rendang” from Indonesia as the World’s Most Delicious Food. It is cooked with coconut milk and a mixture of galangal, lemongrass, turmeric, garlic, chilies, and ginger, then left to stew for a few hours. The meat used can be chicken, beef or pork, depending on the occasion.

The archipelago of Indonesia is famous for its rich spices and herbs. This is reflected in the mouth-watering local dishes, which may come out strong to foreigners’ tongues. Indonesia is really the country of chili, you can find many kinds of chilies, such as the shrimp-paste chili, little green chili, and locally made chili that contains a mixture of spices, etc. that will certainly make you sweat while eating.  

Face Culture

As an Asian nation, Indonesia also has a “face culture” but it is not as strict as that of East Asia. If you are new to “face culture”, it means avoiding the cause of shame or creating social embarrassment to others. If you have any concerns about someone, it is better addressed privately. Indonesian can tend to communicate indirectly, which means that they don’t always mean what they say. For instance, they may ask for time to think about your request instead of expressing the rejection directly.

In business practice, numerous visits are often necessary before making a deal to an agreement. Indonesians are not fast decision makers because this is perceived as not showing adequate thought on the matter. Indonesian’s attitude towards time is somehow relaxed. There is a term “jam karet” (rubber time) which means approaching matters slowly. In other words, just relax and take your time, as everything has its time and place.

It is best to live in Indonesia to fully understand its “culture” although you will find the custom and culture of one city differ from that in another city. Nevertheless, being able to speak Indonesian will help you much during your stay and socializing with the locals. Avoid discussing sensitive topics, such as politics, religion or sex in public.

Lastly, if you are a nature person, you will not regret visiting Indonesia. This country has an abundance of amazing nature and food as well as year-round sunshine.


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