Thursday, September 23, 2004

Business Communications, Indonesian Style

Business Communications, Indonesian Style

Foreigners doing business in Indonesia for the first times could be irritated by how slow things seem to be able to move here: scheduled meetings are often cancelled at the very last minute; deadlines are very flexible and meetings are never conclusive. You have to learn not to rush things because they will unfold at their natural rhythm.

With the Javanese, things are also never expressed directly. A "no" is never said right in your face--you have to be able to read the signals: the project is postponed, budget is awaiting approval or the manager who makes the decision is overseas.

Meetings here are full of courtesy and politeness. Voices are never raised. Sometimes I feel a little bit bad conversing in English because even my most politely chosen words seem a little bit jarring compared to the natural grace of the Indonesian tongue.

In my line of work, I do a lot of interviews with my clients. Even though I don't feel very comfortable using Bahasa Indonesia fully in business situations, I often start my conversation with them in their native language to make them feel at ease first. I'd begin by apologizing for my Bahasa--which is "nggak begitu lancar". Most of them would also assume I'm Singaporean, so by introducing myself as a Malaysian, it also helps to break the ice as we are "satu rumpun".

Because it can be so difficult to schedule meetings, especially with the government type, the trick is to just show up at their office on the pretext of meeting someone else. A simple but polite "maaf menganggu Pak" works wonders. Most of my Indonesian clients speak reasonably good English but by showing them respect and making the effort to make them feel comfortable you'll get more out of your session with them.

After so many years of attempting to converse in Indonesian Malay, I still face difficulty especially when I have to articulate technical concepts--words would automatically come out in English. When I attempt to say it in Bahasa Indonesia, it will first pop out from my mind in Bahasa Malaysia, which I then have to mentally translate on-the-fly into Betawi-style Indonesian. The end result is often an embarassing mix of something that is neither this nor that.

But whatever language you choose to use in Indonesia, the important thing that needs to come across is respect and politeness. That is the universal language that matters. Only then will the message have a chance to get through.

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