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Business Across Cultures: Bapakism II

At the general meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce, William Fish and Townsend Simley found themselves seated at the same table. Townsend, although British, is a member of the American Chamber because it is such a good source of business information and contacts. William and Townsend introduced themselves to each other and naturally started to discuss their respective experiences working in Indonesia.

“I was in a meeting recently with an official at Bulog, the national logistics board”, said William. “I was surprised and confused by the actions of the Bapak that I met with. I had read that Indonesian Bapak are very formal and that we foreigners need to be careful dealing with them. This one, however, was very open, asking me about my family and my time so far in Jakarta. He really made me feel at home. Before I knew it we were comparing stories about our teen-aged sons.”

Townsend explained that Bapak are indeed formal in many ways. One must respect their status and position, but they are also informal in many other ways. Indonesians are often described as a friendly and smiling people. We have seen that the complexity behind that outward friendliness can be confusing. However, in polite business conversation, most Bapak will be very interested in who the Western businessman is. Westerners are fairly unique in Indonesia. They may seem ubiquitous on Jalan Sudirman and Jalan Rasuna Said, but for a Bapak in a traditional Indonesian government office, talking to a westerner may be an unusual activity.

There are questions that westerners often hear: Where are you from? How long will you be here? Are you married? How many children do you have? The interest usually goes beyond these initial questions. If you, are trying to open a relationship with a Bapak, use his natural interest to your advantage. Indonesian business relationships are personal relationships and the more you know about each other the easier it will be to develop and cement that relationship.

Think of the Bapak that you have a relationship with now. Do you know if they are married? Do you know how many children they have? How deep does your knowledge of their personal life go? In the West, there is a certain impersonal aspect to doing business. Some Western cultures, like Holland, are more personal while others, like Germany, are quite closed and rigid. While foreign professionals are in Indonesia, they need to make an effort to open up with the Indonesians that they have relationships with. This does not necessarily mean inviting them out socially, although it may involve that. However, the expatriate business person must realize that sitting, talking and taking the time to get to know one another is more important in Indonesia than it is in the West.

Indonesian business relationships involve looking out for one another's interests. Looking out for the interests of a traditional Indonesian Bapak may involve areas that Westerners are uncomfortable with. The acronym FCPA comes to mind. Topics of conversation may eventually come around to what you can do to help the Bapak. Advice on foreign schools and corporate internships for the Bapak's children would certainly be appreciated.

If you want to invite a Bapak out socially, it is often best to keep the meeting public. This means that you should meet at one of the major hotel restaurants in Jakarta and avoid inviting him to your house. Invitations to houses often encourage a comparison of the lifestyle between Indonesians and their Western colleagues.

Unless you know the your guest well, this probably should be avoided. If you receive an invitation to the Bapak's house or vacation home, know that these usually are not informal gatherings. Shorts, singlets and a general bar-b-que on the beach mentality is usually not what is intended. Indonesian social gatherings often take on what a Westerner would call the aspects of a ceremony and a fairly formal atmosphere is expected.

William turned to Townsend and said, “My ancestry is English, although my family has been in America for hundreds of years. I do feel uncomfortable taking cross-cultural business relationships to a personal level. Actually, this is one aspect of doing business in Indonesia that I wasn't expecting, although I will try to adapt.” Townsend thought to himself that this was one Yank that just might make it here.

This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.