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Business Across Cultures: Selamatan

To better understand western and Indonesian business cultures, it is useful to compare the two cultures graphically. Anthropologists have for years used cultural models to help define cultures. A basic model plots a culture by asking several questions. These questions address issues like the culture's view of the relationship of man to nature, the concept of time, and the structure of social relationships.

In some of these areas, western and Indonesian cultures are quite far apart. For instance, many Indonesians believe that life is determined by external forces; a person cannot surpass the conditions that life has set. Most western cultures believe that man's challenge is to conquer and control nature.

A westerner may believe that a good grain harvest is the result of climatic conditions, fertilizer and pesticides. A Javanese farmer may just as surely believe that the harvest is a result of following the properties and ceremonies to maintain harmony with nature. It is the faulty preconception of how another person is looking at a given situation where one projects one's own cultural interpretation onto another culture that often causes conflicts in multicultural settings.

This difference in opinion as to whether man is the master of nature or is subject to nature carries over into the workplace. In Asia there is a strong belief that karma, fate, or the natural order of the universe is the reason behind particular business problems. For a Western executive trying to determine and understand the rational cause of a situation, this can be a frustrating attitude.

In a recent cross cultural training program, a participant mentioned the he was surprised to find out that the new, modern office building in which his company was located had a water buffalo head buried in its foundation. When that building was dedicated, a ceremony was held to insure that events flow smoothly and nothing bad occurred to the tenants of the building. This kind of ceremony is called a Selamatan.

A Selamatan is a ritual meal in which members of a group participate to sustain, maintain or instill order. There are many kinds of Selamatan. One kind may be held during the building of a new home, after the recovery from a sickness or to mark any important event in a person's life. At this level the meal usually consists of Nasi Tumpeng, a rice cone. For larger endeavors, such as the dedication of the office block, a more elaborate ceremony involving the sacrifice of live animals may be required.

Selamatan are also performed whenever a need is felt by the members of a group. Should an office or company experience a string of bad luck, some members of the staff may suggest that a Selamatan be held to reinstill the harmony of the office.

This is an important request and one that a foreign manager should not treat lightly. If invited to a Selamatan, the foreigner professional should show respect for the ceremony that it is. It is a recognition of the importance of the group and of the importance of respecting the balance of nature. The meal may be preceded by prayers and include some sort of speech or sermon. As a foreigner, one should participate so far as he or she feels comfortable.

Although there has been a simplification of communal celebrations in the various cultures of Indonesia, the belief in and respect for the power of nature remains. However, as modern life pervades Indonesian society, you can also see the proud owner of a 1998 BMW request a Selamatan to ritually purify the car before he drives it away.

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