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Business Across Cultures: The Fasting Month

Ramadan, the fasting month, is an event of great importance to the Indonesian and the world's Muslim community. Being one of the five pillars of Islam, observance of the fasting month is the priority in the devout Muslim's life during this month. Fasting involves a change in the daily routine of the Muslim faithful and represents an expression of their deep belief in God.

Many Indonesians look forward to Ramadan as an opportunity to test and develop their inner, spiritual selves. The fasting regimen is rigorous. No eating, drinking or smoking is allowed after the first prayer in the morning until the opening of the fast in the evening. Prayer times change based on sunset and sunrise, so the exact timing is different every day. The morning prayer usually comes around four-thirty. Before this time, a Muslim family must rise and consume the last food or drink that they will have for the next fourteen hours. The opening of the fast, or Buka Puasa, occurs around 6 o'clock in the evening. At this time, all fasting Muslims will break the fast by drinking, eating and attending prayers.

Business people often note a loss of work efficiency during Ramadan. Secretaries may become forgetful. Drivers can be observed sleeping in the car. Employees may often leave the office early and arrive for work late. Lunch meetings are not scheduled and it may be difficult to contact Bapak or government officials. An important question for foreign professionals in Indonesia is: What is the proper behavior and attitude toward this widespread religious observance?

I spoke with Bapak Sumartono Sumarsidik and we discussed the best attitude for foreign professionals to take towards Ramadan and its effect on business. Pak Martono is one of the most astute observers of Western Indonesian relationships that I have encountered. He is, as you may be able to tell from his name, from Java, and has worked in cross-cultural work situations for all of his long and distinguished career.

Indonesians are not supposed to use the month of Ramadan as an excuse to avoid work responsibilities. The importance of this fasting month is to develop the inner self. The execution of normal work responsibilities should not be affected, noted Pak Martono. It is true that in Indonesia, business is not affected as severely as it may be in other countries. Restaurants and entertainment establishments may appear closed or have reduced hours, but you do see people eating and drinking during the month, especially after the first few days. He continued, Indonesians don't usually impose their fasting on non-Muslims. Foreign businessmen should be able to continue on as they normally would. However, a polite, tolerant respect for those who are fasting is always appreciated.

Foreign professionals should realize that they are essentially guests in a predominately Muslim country. The majority of the Indonesians that they work with will be fasting. The most important thing is not to show intolerance or disrespect to the concept of the fasting month. Food and drink will probably not be set out in the office. At meetings, refreshments may not be served. A foreigner should try to be discrete in the consumption of food and drink. If possible, keep your tea and coffee in your office and don't walk around or bring it into meetings. Feel free to go out to lunch as normal, but don't invite a fasting Muslim to join you. Try to be observant of those around you.

Realistically, because of the change in the schedules of peoples lives, there is an effect on business. Although it shouldn't be used as an excuse to reduce activity, employees are often tired because of disruptions in their normal patterns of eating and sleeping. This often results in a loss of efficiency if nothing else. While no one should say I can't do that report or attend that meeting because I'm fasting, the lack of energy and enthusiasm is often obvious to the foreign professional. One must never say: Why don't you just eat something, then? or make comparisons to the type of fasting found in other religions. This is a serious, religious undertaking and the foreign professional needs to be tolerant and respectful of this fact.

For devout Muslims in Indonesia, the month of Ramadan is a time to face sacrifice, but along with that sacrifice, comes a sense of fulfillment. During the fasting month, Muslims are prohibited from eating, drinking or smoking from Subuh, the morning prayer at around four-thirty, until the call to Magrib, the prayer just after six in the evening. Because the stricture for the fast only goes until Magrib, Indonesians can look forward to an evening of food, drink and socializing. There are additional prayers and sermons in the mosques and a general up-beat atmosphere prevails. After having fulfilled their religious duty for the day, devout Muslims are allowed to enjoy that accomplishment and reflect on the meaning that it has for their lives.

I would like to address the social obligations imposed on the devout Muslim and foreign professional alike. For many reasons Buka Puasa, or the Breaking of the Fast, is a social and business event. There is a switch in emphasis that occurs during this month. Lunch meetings will no longer be held and the invitation to the Breaking of the Fast becomes the main social event of the day. This is conducted on several levels. For some, it simply means that the family is all together and they may celebrate their love and devotion. On another level, much business is conducted and many relationships are reaffirmed by invitations to Buka Puasa gatherings.

Many organizations have events scheduled for the Breaking of the Fast. Some Mosques, like Istiqal and Al-Azar have events every evening. Similarly, most businesses or government offices will organize some special events for employees, colleagues and clients. It is not unusual that a company or office will extend an invitation for a Western colleague, and perhaps his family, to attend one or more of these celebrations.

Knowing that such events are a good time to bridge the gap between Indonesian and West culture, I asked my good friend and advisor Pak Martono about the proper response toward such an invitation. He noted, If you receive an invitation to a Buka Puasa event, treat it as a sign of respect and acceptance. You must be careful in agreeing to or refusing such an invitation. Either response will have meaning to the Bapak who extended the invitation

If you or your family accept an invitation to a Buka Puasa, there are several things that you should observe and be aware of. Primarily, treat it as the honor that it is and not some sort of informal picnic although you should be prepared to sit on the floor during dinner. Floor seating is the traditional Indonesian method; it allows more people in and avoids the necessity of setting up tables. There are probably two different kinds of settings that you can expect -either a ceremony at an office or a ceremony at a Mosque.

After the Breaking of the Fast with a sweet drink and a small snack, those invited join in group prayer. Unless you are Muslim, you will not be expected to join in to the communal prayer session in the Mosque or Musholla. If this is the case, it is best that a foreigner stand or kneel in the back, observing a respectful attitude. Should you be invited to the main prayer area, perform whatever prayers are within you. Indonesia is a tolerant country religiously, but there is an assumption that everyone has a religion and prays to God. Regardless of personal beliefs, do nothing to disturb this assumption.

Food will not be served in the main prayer area so everyone will move to another area for dinner. Whether or not you were uncomfortable during the prayers, now is the time to relax a bit. The Breaking of the Fast is a time of fellowship. Remember all of the cultural rules that you have learned about respecting face and status, but this is a time to enjoy. You would not be invited unless you had a relationship with someone there. If things seem unusual or even uncomfortable, keep in mind that this is one of the seminal events in the Indonesian calendar. By your actions, you have earned enough respect to be included in Buka Puasa. This is an honor not to be taken lightly.

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