17 Indonesian Cultural Norms You Have to Know

Cultural norms are the unwritten rules that people do on a day to day basis. They serve as guidance for people. The norms teach people how to act and speak in society. They are either taught by parents or picked up through the social environment.

In Indonesia, the cultural norms are particularly strong. People stick by them and pass the knowledge down to the next generation. They believe that the cultural norms shape them as Indonesians. These 17 Indonesian Cultural Norms are the most common ones. People of all ages are expected to carry them out with good intentions.

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1. Respecting Elders

It’s one of the cultural norms in Indonesia to respect the elders. When a young Indonesian meet an older one, they must adjust the way they behave. Their words and their mannerism must show respect. Most elders uphold this norm very highly while some are more relaxed. However, it is always better to show them respect as to not cause any offence and trouble.

2. Serving Guests

Guests who come to house are always treated very generously. They are always made sure to feel at home. It’s not unusual for the owner of the house to serve the guests. They often serve drinks, snacks or food even if the guests say no. As for the guests, it would be polite to accept the offer.

Read also: Facts about Indonesian Lifestyle

3. Being Late

It’s extremely common for Indonesians to come late. They see it as a normal thing. That’s why most people would often told to come sooner than the actual time. This is a good way to avoid any delay. Even though this is a cultural norm and to be expected from Indonesians, many have tried to break the habit.

4. Eating with Bare Hands

Eating with either a fork, a spoon or a knife is often seen as proper. However, Indonesians are perfectly fine eating with their bare hands. They will wash their hands before and after they eat. It’s enjoyable for Indonesians to devour their meal with their hands. They may eat like this at restaurants, homes or offices.

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5. Sitting on the Floor

Another Indonesian cultural norm is sitting on the floor. People who are not raised in Indonesia may see this as unusual but it’s normal for Indonesians. Indonesians would usually sit on the floor with a cover or without it. The cover that is usually used is a fabric carpet or a large woven bamboo mat. Even clean floor tiles would do.

6. Addressing People with Respect

People in Indonesia usually call one another with an added ‘name’. It depends on their gender and their age. An older man may be called with ‘Mas’ or ‘Bapak’ which can then be followed with their name. As for the women, they would be called ‘Mbak’ or ‘Ibu’. This way of addressing people is meant to show respect and politeness.

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7. Using the Right Hand

In Indonesia, the right hand is the ‘good hand’. One must always use that hand to give or receive something from another person. It is only okay to eat and shake hands with the right hand. Using the left hand must be avoided at all cost. Some people may take it the wrong way. They can see you as rude and uncivilised.

8. Excusing Oneself while Passing Through

It’s the norm to say ‘excuse-me’ or in Bahasa ‘permisi’ when an Indonesian is walking in front of someone. Saying that is also necessary when trying to pass through people. This is to show that you are being polite while trying to get pass people in public with tight spaces, a small neighbourhood and others. It becomes even more necessary when the you are walking in front of an older person.

9. Lack of PDA

Indonesians rarely show public display of affection in public. This is highly applicable when they are a woman and a man who are not married yet. They don’t kiss, hold hands or even hugs. Showing such affections in public may invite unwanted attention or even scolding by strangers. However, people of the same genders are permissible from this norm as it is seen as more usual.

Read more: Public Display Affection in Indonesia

10. Greeting by Shaking Hands

The cultural norm of greeting someone in Indonesia is by shaking their hands. Some Indonesians would shake hands with someone and might direct that hand to their heart. Besides shaking hands, another norm would be to raise both palms together, nod and smile. To avoid confusion, one can wait for the other person to do the gesture first.

11. Being Superstitious

Many Indonesians are still highly superstitious. It’s a cultural norm for a lot of them to be this way as most of the superstitions have been taught ever since they were children. Some are even tightly related to the culture and the tradition. It’s normal to see Indonesians avoid doing certain things because they believe that it will invite bad luck. On the contrary, they may do things that are quite unusual just because they believe that they will receive good luck.

12. Speaking Quietly

Indonesians are encouraged to speak quietly or in the normal tone of voice. The cultural norm is to maintain harmony while conversing. To raise one’s voice is seen as unnecessary and uncivilised unless it is extremely necessary. Indonesians would speak quietly and slowly as to show respect towards one another. Speaking quietly can help Indonesians to avoid disturbing the people around them.

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13. Using Polite Language

Politeness is highly valued in Indonesia. Everybody is encouraged to use polite language at all times. It’s no wonder that many local languages may have different levels of politeness depending on who they are talking to. Most Indonesians see that using polite language as something that an educated and civilised person would do.

14. Wearing Modest Clothes

Modesty is still the cultural norms in Indonesia. This is a must in small villages or certain regions with strong traditions.Modest clothes are also required when visiting holy temples, religious buildings or traditional rituals. Wearing clothes that are too revealing may cause quite a bit of a problem. To avoid misunderstanding or unintentional offence, it is better to do some research over the area that you are going to visit.

15. Using Thumb to Point at Things

Indonesians still find it better to point at things with their thumb than their index finger. Using the index finger might cause offence or misunderstandings to some people. Indonesians are also discouraged from pointing at people in public spaces.

Read also: Misunderstanding of Culture in Indonesia

16. Friendly with Everyone

Indonesians are sociable people. The cultural norm would be to be friendly to everyone, even those who are strangers. In Indonesia, a person who smiles is seen as nicer than those who don’t. People who are not friendly may be labelled as anti-social or rude.

17. Communal Working

Communal working is a cultural norm that has been passed down from generation to generation. It’s often called as ‘gotong royong’ in the country. Here, Indonesians would work with their neighbours toward a specific goal. They may get something out of it but they might also do it for free. What matters is that they will reach a specific goal for the greater good.

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One must never underestimates these cultural norms. They are a part of Indonesia’s culture. Indonesians must display them and foreigners are expected to show their respect.