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Business Across Cultures: Etiquette at Work

The unspoken but assumed behavior that conveys politeness is strongly based on culture. One of the easiest ways to inadvertently cause offense is either to violate a cultural taboo or to fail to follow one of society's rules of polite behavior.

Whether for Indonesian business men traveling in the West or for foreign professionals working in Indonesia, it is important that you take the time to learn about and follow the assumed rules of politeness. Many foreign professionals in cross cultural training programs comment that they thought that politeness was universal. Meaning that, if you act politely based on your own understanding of what is polite, people in other cultures will understand the attempt. Generally, I would agree with that if the foreign professional also takes the time to learn about the specific cultural ideas of politeness that do vary between cultures. In Indonesian business, there are a few specific rules that foreign professionals should be sure to know about and follow. Perhaps the most important of these is the giving of refreshments in meetings.

Traditional Indonesian society considers the giving of refreshments to guests a very important display of respect and politeness. If you are the host of a meeting with a Bapak, you should make sure that some refreshment is offered. If you are the guest you will most probably be offered tea or coffee. It is normally advisable to accept even if you are not thirsty. A guest should wait for the host to indicate that it is permissible to drink. Quite often there may be a delay between being served and being asked to drink. Being invited to drink can even indicate that the business portion of the meeting is over. Be patient and follow your host's lead. If you really are thirsty, ask permission to start drinking. This custom is modified during the fasting month of Ramadan.

Most foreign professionals already know that the left hand is considered unclean in many countries. That is also true in Indonesia. Never hand anything to another person using your left hand. If this makes the action somewhat cumbersome by having to change hands, take the time to do it anyway.

Dress in the office should be formal. I have seen problems develop in multicultural offices because the foreign professionals wore blue jeans and T-shirts to the office. The Indonesian co-workers perceived this as informal and disrespectful on the part of the expatriate. How, they asked, can the foreign professionals expect respect when they look like tourists?

The giving of gifts is quite common in Indonesian society as it reflects the communal nature of traditional life. Souvenirs or small food items are usually given to co-workers when a manager returns from a long trip. There is little that is subtle about this common practice. Secretaries and other personal staff may greet a returning manager with questions about oleh-oleh. It is a much appreciated gesture and foreign professionals are well advised to attempt to comply with this custom. This also translates to bringing small gifts when visiting someone's house and even giving mementos of special training or business trips.

There are a few differences in the use of hands and feet for indicating actions or getting attention. The proper way to call someone is to use one of the Indonesian words Pak, Mas, Bu, Mbak and make a scooping motion toward you with your hand, fingers facing down. Crooking the index finger as is common in the West is not polite here. Also, be observant of where you position your feet. Exposing the sole of your shoe can be impolite as is pointing with your foot to indicate an object. Shoes should be removed when entering mosques or, usually, when entering someone's home. If you are unsure, ask.

Lastly, foreign professionals should keep in mind the importance of status in Indonesian society. In Indonesia everyone has status, but that status is situational. A low-level employee in your office may have very high status in his home community either through leadership ability or religious training. Try to understand the different situations that arise in day to day office activity and modify your personal behavior to meet those situations appropriately.

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