Indonesia is a place where yes can mean no, and words can be deceiving. You’ll need to read between the lines to communicate effectively. Communication often starts at a superficial level, then slowly moves deeper toward the true meaning.

The official language is Bahasa Indonesian, which helped unite this young, diverse nation.

The official language is Bahasa Indonesian, a close relative of the language of Malaysia. Bahasa Indonesian was adopted in the 1920s to bridge the region’s hundreds of languages and unify its people.

When using English, speak clearly, and avoid using slang.

English is the leading international language, and is increasingly taught in schools. However, English is not widely spoken. When speaking English, remember it is not your counterpart’s native tongue. Speak slowly, clearly and avoid jargon or slang.

Be sure to give and receive rejection gently.

Indonesian dialogue involves a number of fundamental differences from western patterns. The most important difference is that communication in Indonesia tends to be indirect and subtle. This is primarily because Indonesians do not like to say “no.” In fact, they might say “yes” when they don’t mean yes at all. The Indonesian language offers more than a dozen ways to give rejection, allowing the speaker to decline gently. For example, one might say “not yet” rather than “no.”

To understand the true meaning of what’s being said, read body language, gestures and attitude.

There are a number of ways to try to interpret what someone is really saying. Signs of disagreement or rejection include:

  • Body language
  • Attitude
  • Hesitation
  • Evasiveness
  • Pretending not to hear a question or comment
  • Sucking air between the teeth
  • And qualifications such as “yes, but,” or “it will be difficult.”

The visitor must make a consistent effort to understand what’s really being said. With experience, this will become easier. It’s equally important to give rejection gently. When offered a drink, for example, you might say, “Thanks, I just had a drink,” rather the declining outright. There are other subtle communication differences. For example, Indonesians tend to be very even-keeled, and show little emotion.

Unlike Westerners, they are comfortable with silence. It’s important to allow for pauses during conversation, and avoid rushing to fill the silence. Indonesians sometimes laugh in situations that seem inappropriate. This is done to cover embarrassment, anger or shock, and should not be taken as an insult.

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