Food, family, and the fundamentals: establish and sustain business ties through your conversations

Strong business relationships in Indonesia start with strong conversations. Walk into your meeting room knowing what to say and show your cultural awareness. Associate Brett McGuire explains.

We all know that having a mutually enjoyable chat is one of the key skills to doing business wherever you are, helping to create a conducive environment with potential business interests.  

Breaking-the-ice can be hard enough for some in their own culture;  it can feel even more daunting when the person we are in front of is from a different culture. So where do you start?

Indonesia is known for its love of formality, however it is also often referred to as a nation of friendly people, and it does not take long to find this out. And like many cultures, Indonesians will appreciate a conversation which shows that some effort has been made to understand subjects that are close to the people’s hearts. Topics such as family and food can be good conversation starters.

Food is perhaps the easiest for Westerners who might not feel so comfortable (yet) about an open chat about their families.

Here are some tips:

  • Invest some time in learning about Indonesian food.
  • Try a few dishes when you are in-country. Even having tried one or two different dishes is enough. You will be asked at some point if you like Indonesian food, and what your favourite dish is.
  • You don’t have to know a lot, but please make sure you know more than nasi goreng, satay and gado-gado. Telling someone that your favorite Indonesian dish is nasi goreng is tantamount to a foreigner telling you that their favourite Australian cuisine is the toasted cheese sandwich.

Family is also a good topic for breaking-the-ice as well as learning more about the people that you are meeting, and Indonesian society in general. You will find that Indonesians typically speak openly and share more information than a Westerner is used to. It is part of the spirit of getting-to-know-you.

Here are some tips:

  • Be interested in the wellbeing of their spouse and parents.
  • Ask how many children they have and their ages.
  • Ask if their children are going well at school.
  • Wish them and their family good health and happiness.


Some other topics you can use include:

  • Travel: You might be surprised at how much of the world your colleague or business partner has knowledge of. Ask where have they been, where are they planning to go — or where they would like to go.
  • Education: Closely tied to travel, many Indonesians have studied abroad in some very interesting places.
  • Jakarta traffic: Jakartans talk about the traffic like we talk about the weather. It is best to have a story to tell, but don’t complain. If you have tried the MRT (the new urban rail system) then share what you think. This is a very hot topic right now!


One of the first things you will hear in Indonesia are words that come up continually in front of people’s names. You yourself will likely be called Ibu (then woman’s first name) or Pak (then man’s first name).

These words are an integral part of Indonesia’s hierarchical culture.

Variations of this include Bapak (Pak), Bu (Ibu) and for someone younger or a friend, M’bak or Mas. (also note, the letter “k” is said very softly in this language).

The honorifics mentioned pervade conversation, even in the family. In the office, people are addressed as Pak or Mas, Ibu or M’bak (M’ba) depending on their status, while back home brothers and sisters address each other according to their age, kakak for older siblings and adik for younger brothers and sisters.

It can become confusing, however a bit of practice means that you can soon understand how the rules of honorifics apply.

At their root, honorifics are used to recognise the relative status of the person you are addressing. One would use Bu or Ibu, Bapak or Pak to address someone higher in the hierarchy or your senior. A Bapak is usually someone very important (ie: the President, Minister, Ambassador etc) Conversely, Mba or Mas would be used when speaking to someone lower on the corporate or social ladder.

Do I need to use honorifics? The short answer is you should do what you are comfortable with. That said, as a foreigner you will be forgiven for the occasional faux pas, and you will get so much further if you make an effort to address an Indonesian in the appropriate manner.

Should I use honorifics or names?  A good standard is to start with the highest rank first, if the person is around your age or station (Ibu/Pak). This leaves them to invite you to address them differently, for instance, “please, call me friend” (Mbak/Mas).  Or they provide a name (usually their first) and say that it is fine to call them by that name. Showing respect for the culture is not only a smart move, it shows that your intent is genuine.

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