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10 Cultural Differences That Will Shock You in Indonesia

Explore the unique cultural landscape of Indonesia and discover the traditions and social mores that set this Southeast Asian nation apart. From communal living to elaborate ceremonies, uncover the cultural nuances that will leave you surprised and enchanted.

Illustration of a compilation of 10 Indonesian cultural elements that stand as contrasts to Western culture. No humans should be in the picture. Depict symbols representing traditions such as the Balinese masks, the uniquely shaped Kris swords, Wayang Kulit (shadow puppet), traditional music instruments like Gamelan, temples such as Borobudur Temple and other rich cultural hallmarks. Do not include text or humans in the picture.

Understanding Indonesian Cultural Etiquette

Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago of over 17,000 islands, is as diverse culturally as it is geographically. Its multifaceted society dictates a distinct set of etiquettes and customs, often surprising visitors. For example, when greeting an Indonesian, a gentle handshake followed by touching your chest is a sign of respect. The subtlety of traditional greetings can be quite unexpected to those accustomed to more casual interactions.

Communal Living & The Importance of Family

In Indonesia, familial and communal bonds hold greater significance than the western concept of individualism. It is common to see extended families living together under one roof, sharing responsibilities and resources. This close-knit living situation promotes a tight community fabric that is shocking to those from cultures that prioritize personal space and independence.

Religious Practices & Daily Life

With the prevalence of Islam in Indonesia, religious practices are deeply interwoven into daily life. The call to prayer echoes five times a day, and seeing people stepping aside to pray is commonplace. For tourists, witnessing this devotion often delivers a profound cultural shock, as it is a sharp contrast to the secular public life experienced in many other parts of the world. Visitors should be aware of religious customs, such as dress codes and behavior when visiting temples or mosques.

Mealtime Etiquette

Dining in Indonesia comes with its own set of traditional practices that can stun foreigners. In many homes, meals are taken on the floor, with bare hands used in place of utensils. The concept of communal eating from a central dish rather than individual plates is another point of cultural variation that may startle those new to the region. It is important for visitors to follow suit respectfully and to always use their right hand when eating, as the left is considered unclean.

Ceremonial Dress & Attire

Traditional clothing in Indonesia is commonly reserved for ceremonies and important events. Intricate batik fabrics and the kebaya dress demonstrate Indonesia’s rich historical tapestry. Foreigners often find the level of formality and adherence to traditional dress codes during these events surprising, as it reveals the deep-rooted cultural pride present in Indonesian society.

Unique Indonesian Time Concept

Time is perceived differently in Indonesia, often referred to as ‘jam karet’ or rubber time. This concept can be jarring for those from punctuality-driven societies. It is not unusual for events to start significantly later than scheduled, with deadlines being more flexible than what some may be used to.

Indonesian Hospitality & Generosity

One might be shocked at how generous and hospitable Indonesians can be, often going out of their way to make visitors feel welcome. Invitations to homes are common, and it is considered rude to decline such offers. Gifts are frequently exchanged as a form of respect, and visitors should reciprocate with gratitude and reciprocate, if possible.

Paying Respect to Elders

Respect for the elderly is deeply ingrained in Indonesian culture. It is common for younger individuals to greet their elders with a bow or a respectful gesture, such as kissing the hand. This extent of veneration can come as a surprise to those from cultures where the treatment of seniors is more egalitarian.

Linguistic Diversity

Indonesia is home to hundreds of local languages and dialects, making it a linguistically diverse nation. While Bahasa Indonesia is the national language, the prominence of regional dialects might shock newcomers who expect a more uniform linguistic landscape.

Engagement with Art & Traditional Crafts

The Indonesian appreciation for art and traditional crafts permeates daily life. Markets selling intricately carved wood items, handwoven textiles, and traditional puppetry items offer insight into the cultural fabric. Visitors may be astonished by the level of detail and craftsmanship put into these items, showcasing the pride Indonesians take in their artistic heritage.

Avery Ingram

Avery Ingram


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