Culture, customs and traditions: Greetings in Indonesia

Posted on 19 January, 2015

One of the most difficult experiences in living in a new country involves learning about the culture, customs and traditions of that country. Indonesia is no exception. In fact, Australians often find it difficult to adapt to Indonesia due to cultural and religious differences. AIYA caught up with Brahm Marjadi to discuss some of the common greetings and celebrations for Indonesians in the hope of discovering how some of these cross-cultural miscommunications may be explained.

Brahm1
Brahm (left) in 1999 at Great Besakih Temple in Bali. Photo: Oken.

What is an appropriate way to greet someone in Indonesia?

In general, a handshake is the most common way. Most Indonesians would not hug except for family members. A social cheek-to-cheek (muah-muah) is popular among women, but never between men and women (except for close family members) or among men.

Some Muslims wouldn’t touch people from the opposite gender except for family members, but we cannot always judge this from outward appearances, such as how they dress. Neither can we assume this based on areas of origin or local geography; in my trips to Aceh where the Shariah Law is in place I keep finding women in jilbab, old and young alike, who initiate a handshake with me. Similarly I found Acehnese men who initiated handshake with my female Australian co-researcher. When in doubt, let the other party make the first move: if they initiate a handshake then go for it; if they just put their hands together in front of their chest, you should follow suit.

Indonesians may not shake your hand as firmly as many Australians do, but this is not a reflection of lack of confidence or comfort – it’s just the way we do it.

Some Indonesians would take their hand to their chest after a handshake, which reflects the sincerity of the greeting. You may try to do the same.

Younger people and/or students may take your extended hand and touch the back of your hand to their forehead. This is called salim and reflects a special respect from the young to the old.

Finally there are some specific traditional greetings that locals would love to teach you, such as the nose-touching greeting in Sumba.

Indonesia is a very multicultural country. How do Indonesians accommodate the traditions and holidays of other religions?

In comparison to the Australian calendar, the Indonesian calendar is full of religious holidays of the six major religions (Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism) that are acknowledged as public holidays. Religious celebrations are reported on mainstream TV channels and printed media, often with a summary of messages from prominent religious (and sometimes political) leaders.

I have witnessed a few occasions when two religious holidays occurred on the same day, and local congregations were able to compromise their practices so as not to clash with each other.

When is it appropriate to attend ceremonies from other religions?

Be it attending a Christmas liturgy or worshipping in a temple – you should wait until you are invited, and then it is up to how comfortable you are to take part. Beware that certain ceremonies may contain “members only” components (such as receiving the Holy Communion at a Catholic Mass) but in many cases you can sit back for any component you may not be comfortable doing.

I once attended a Hindu celebration at the Great Besakih Temple in Bali. Being a non-Hindu, I asked my Hindu friend who took me there which parts of the ceremony I was expected to take part, which parts were “members only”, and what the meaning of each part was, so that I could decide whether it would be appropriate for me (from my own religion’s point of view) to participate. Such open communication made both my friend and I more comfortable with my participation in the ceremony, and we went home with a much better understanding of and respect for each other’s religious practices.

Do these attitudes vary? Why?

What I described above is a practice that was taught to all of my generation in school in the national curriculum of Pancasila (Indonesia’s Five Principles). Basically, we respect each other’s holidays, congratulate/greet each other for the holidays and take part within the boundaries of each other’s religion. However, in the early 1990s I noticed a shift when certain religious leaders proclaimed that their followers must refrain from greeting certain religious holidays because it was decided to be against their religious principles.

While this exhortation is adhered to by some followers, others keep the practice based on their own conscience and keep greeting other religion’s holidays. However, in public fora such as in social media these inter-religion greetings sometimes have to be relegated to personal communication (japri) for fear of negative comments from their fellow religious observers.

It is interesting to note that in my travel to remote Indonesian areas and islands people are, as a rule, not fussed about this issue – somebody’s celebration is everybody’s celebration, and any celebration is a good reason to have a party!

To be on the safe side, some people append their religious holiday greetings with “…to those who celebrate it”. While this appendage may make it politically (or religiously) correct, some people would still prefer a generic greeting to all (particularly in broadcast greetings).

What are the most common mistakes/faux-pas made by westerners?

I haven’t seen many at all, but the best thing to keep in mind is to ask if you are uncertain, and not to go overboard in order to respect another’s custom. When I was invited to Besakih Temple I was offered to go in full Balinese attire, which I gladly accepted; however it would have been equally acceptable if I just wore smart casual western attire.

In Malaysia and Singapore, it’s customary to take part in “open house” events on religious holidays. Would this be considered appropriate in Indonesia?

It is certainly appropriate to attend when you are invited. Feel free to ask your host (or Indonesian friends) what people are expected to bring – and what not to bring (obviously a bottle of wine should never be given to a Muslim family).

Generally speaking you are not expected to host an open house, unless your office or your predecessor (if you hold an esteemed position) has or had that tradition.

What are the most important things for foreigners to understand about the way religious holidays are observed?

Indonesia is a very complex nation, and there are often different levels of observance and different interpretations of the same religion. This is the case with any religion. If you ask someone, their answer depends largely on their own interpretation, and there is always a chance that you will meet somebody of the same religion who may disagree. The good thing about being a foreigner is that Indonesians are extremely tolerant to slip-ups and they know you mean no harm. So just keep asking questions to locals and soon you will figure out the richness of religious practices in Indonesia.

What can we do to better avoid cross-cultural misunderstandings?

Cross-cultural discussions are a must. Groups like AIYA should regularly discuss cross-cultural issues like this greeting matter and many more. If I am not a Muslim, should I respond to the greeting Assalamualaikum? What should I do if offered a delicacy that was meant to show utmost respect but I do not normally eat it? When is it okay to wear open-toe shoes or sandals? When is it appropriate to ask about somebody’s personal life (marital status, spouse, children, religion)? Also bear in mind that different areas in Indonesia might have different customs and expectations.

For those who plan on going to Indonesia for a longer period, particularly with immersion in the broader community (such as community development volunteers), a short course or even a day spent with somebody with good knowledge of the area is preferable. However, Indonesians are very tolerant and friendly toward visitors (both from overseas and other parts of Indonesia) so you really have nothing to fear! Most slip-ups are easily forgiven with a big smile and a sheepish “I’m sorry”.

Learn more about customs and traditions in regional Indonesia with Rivaldy Pandie’s look at celebrating Christmas and the New Year in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, or Diyanti Koroh’s exploration of Easter in the same city.