Why you should never point to others with a naked finger in Indonesia

Babbel pens thoughts on how to be polite and avoid cultural faux pas in Indonesia.

Of course we aren’t doing away with vocabulary and grammar entirely, but in Babbel’s first beginner’s course for Indonesian, you’ll also learn about the country and its people, and maybe even catch the bug to go there yourself!


Up to this point, I’ve only gotten to know Indonesia through developing the course with freelance Indonesian editors and by stories from other Babbel colleagues. In those times, I’ve often imagined myself traveling there, knowing that there are certain customs that absolutely must be observed.
For example, as soon as you arrive in Indonesia a question arises: “How do I introduce myself at the reception desk of a hotel or hostel?” There are two ways to say “I” in Indonesian. Aku (“I”) is only used with people you know, such as your family. With the saya form of “I”, you can’t go wrong – it’s the neutral, polite form that is used with strangers. Besides that, they’re not very direct. If you ask an Indonesian how they’re doing, they would avoid saying tidak baik (not good) and instead say kurang baik (less good). The gesture of pointing to the person you’re speaking to would also be considered rude and definitely too direct. It would be seen as aggressive. Still, they are curious and open-minded about tourists. Some Indonesians think it’s fun to take pictures with them, but be careful! Exposed shoulders – just like photos of exposed torsos or handshakes with the left hand – are seen in Indonesia as “unclean”. For this reason, photos like these have also been removed from the course lessons (please see picture above).
A farewell isn’t exactly a farewell in Indonesian, either. There are two different ways to say goodbye before the beginning of a trip. Those staying behind wish the traveler selamat jalan! or “safe trip!”. Whereas the person traveling says Selamat tinggal!, which is something like “safe staying!”.
When ordering coffee in Indonesia, it’s most likely to be served black and very sweet – that’s usually how Indonesians take they’re most beloved hot drink. You’ll learn how to politely ask for an unsweetened coffee in one of the course lessons.
During the development of this course, I found all these little details about Indonesia really exciting. And now that I’ve already learned something, I’m going to stick with it. Who knows? I might just fly to Indonesia myself and escape the cold winter. So, in that spirit: Selamat Jalan!