In my affectionate opinion.
1. Volume. Indonesian people love to talk, usually at full volume. Especially if a conversation needs to be had in the laneway near your window after a late night. All very friendly. All very loud. Building sites are a virtual comedy show with much shouting, laughter and what seems to be good-natured ribbing, despite death-defying lack of safety provisions.
2. Speeches. If you are invited to any formal occasion, an opening of somewhere or an anniversary, be prepared for every government official to have his (usually his) say. At length. And there will be several important people on the day who can’t miss their chance. Time to hide behind the fan and snooze. The language skills are improving but formal, speechifying Indonesian? Not yet. Although I did learn the word ‘kemudian’ from constantly hearing it in speeches. After checking the dictionary, I found out it is the conjunction ‘then’ and what I was hearing was ‘and then’, ‘and then’ ‘and then’ for the duration of the speech.
3. Not listening to speeches. If the event is being held in a room, good manners, by most Western definitions, usually prevail. But if it’s an outdoor occasion, open slather. The first couple of times when the crowd chatter at the back drowned out the speaker, my Western sensibilities were outraged. Don’t they understand it’s the [insert important personage of your choice here]. But now I understand completely.
4. Saying what you mean, or not? On a day-to-day level, it is said that Indonesian people, particularly Balinese, prefer a non-direct form of communication. They find the to-the-point directness of Westerners confronting. Certainly when something important needs to be discussed and you ask your landlord over at a particular time, there is a lot of polite chit chat before the business at hand can be raised. And then, only delicately. Confrontation is literally confronting and maybe even held against you for a long time, despite the surface smiles. But there are no inhibitions at all about asking how much something has cost, your age, your salary, why precisely you needed to see the doctor – topics we would consider out of bounds.
5. On the phone. There’s no beating about the bush here either. Straight to the point and no goodbyes. We’ve said what we need to. Hang up. The first few times I found myself staring at my hp (hand phone = cell phone = mobile) thinking ‘he’s gone’ but now it’s the new normal. By the way, ‘mobil’ here = ‘car’ so to ask ‘what is your mobile number’ is likely to get you a car registration. Indonesians love their hps. Many people have two, and the country is the world capital of Twitter
6. What do you want to hear? That’s what you’ll hear.
Me: Pak, when can you come and fix the lights?
Tukang listrik (electrician): Tomorrow morning 9 o’clock.
Possible, but not necessarily probable. Jam karet might be at play. Literally ‘rubber time’ and therefore (obviously) a very flexible concept. He could come two days later perhaps, but maybe a few text messages will need to be exchanged before there’s any action. If Pak doesn’t want to come at all, there’s no way he’ll say so. After several unanswered texts, you know it’s time to give up on him and try someone else. Westerners find this hugely frustrating, but that’s the way it is.
7. It’s catching. Some speech idiocyncracies have now kept into my own conversations; referring to myself in the third person when speaking to a local person is one:
Me: ‘Judi needs to go out at 10am’, which sounds ludicrous in Indonesian as my name, both written and orally, literally means the act of ‘gambling’. So ‘gambling’ wants to go out at 10? Nonsensical.
Finding myself saying a confirmatory ‘ya’ at the end of a question is another:
Me: You’ll be able to take gambling at 10, ya?
If the answer is no, my response would be ‘aduh‘, a wonderful all-purpose word that literally means ‘ouch’ but serves to convey disappointment, consolation or acknowledgement of an adverse circumstance. Even worse are the truncated sentences. Indonesian verb forms are very simple (as in the ubiquitous ‘mau ke mana?’ = ‘want to where?’). So sometimes I catch myself saying to Eddie ‘what you do?’ or ‘what you eat?’. Aduh!
It isn’t all verbal, either. It’s taken me nearly four years but I think I’ve got the raised-eyebrows-with-simultaneous-chin-lift-acknowledgement-in-passing thing down pretty well now.
Oh the joys of adapting to another culture. But we are the incomers and the adapting is all ours to do. Ya?
Image from Genmuda