Common Cultural Differences in Communication between Indonesians and Americans
In general, the American style of speaking and gesturing may seem abrupt and impolite to many Indonesians. Americans, for the most part, live in a fast, high-pressure world and the pace of their interactions with each other mirrors this. Also, in comparison with Indonesians, Americans tend to be less formal in their spoken communication and more exaggerated in their gestures while being more protective of their personal space.
Greetings provide a good example of this. For instance, Americans usually greet each other with words like "hello," "hi," or even "hey" followed by questions like "How are you?" or "What's going on?" While the greeting "good morning" is also common in America, similar greetings-many of which are learned by non-native speakers-such as "good afternoon" or "good evening" are uncommon outside of very formal circumstances. Friends and family members rarely use these expressions in speaking with one another. Conversations between strangers usually begin with one person saying, "Hello, my name is_____," and offering his hand to be shaken. Americans rarely say things like, "May I introduce myself?" as this is seen as too formal.
Americans prefer to meet face to face and at a relatively close distance. This is one reason many Americans, and Westerners in general, do not respond to shouted greetings of "Hello, mister" while they are in Indonesia. Americans are not able to understand why someone on the street would watch them walk up and wait until they pass before yelling, "Hello, mister" at their back. Perhaps the Indonesian simply felt shy to speak directly to the American, but the American's interpretation of this behavior is that the Indonesian probably sees him as the same as all Americans, or even all white people, and therefore doesn't want to take the time and effort of making personal contact. If the same Indonesian were to smile, look the American in the face, and say, "Hello," most Americans would happily return the greeting.
One major difference between introductions in Indonesian culture and introductions in American culture is that in America a person meets someone by giving them information about himself, usually to establish a connection of some sort. This can be a place both people know, work they have in common, or similar interests. For example, someone might say, "Hello. My name is Bill Clinton. I work at the White House," or "Hi. I'm Monica Lewinski. I'm interested in politics and I've always wanted to meet you." The reason Americans give information about themselves before asking questions about the other person is that they want to show their good intentions by letting the other person know more about themselves than they know about him. Knowing something about someone is considered an advantage in American communication. For one person to give this advantage to another builds trust. In Indonesia, however, people usually prefer to ask questions of another person before giving information about themselves. This is done to honor the other person by showing an interest in his life over the introducer's own. Unfortunately, many Americans would not understand this difference. They would be suspicious of someone who wanted to know where they lived or what religion they were before telling them anything about himself
As many English speakers in Indonesia already know, Westerners and Americans in particular do not ask the same sort of introductory questions of each other as Indonesians do. Questions such as, "Are you married?" "How many children do you have?" and especially, "Where do you live?" are off-putting to Americans when they are meeting someone for the first time. This is because Americans regard these matters as personal and private. Sometimes phrasing can make a big difference in whether a question is intrusive or not. For example, asking someone "Are you from here?" is less invasive than asking, "What street do you live on?"
Even though Americans meeting for the first time avoid these private matters, their conversations may still be extremely direct. Requests, for example, are not always proceeded by "small talk" as they often are in Indonesia. Also, American culture prizes speaking exactly what you are thinking in blunt, simple language-even if the thoughts are only reactions or might offend another person. People rarely talk "around" a subject by using euphemisms and allusion. This is different in Indonesia, where people are expected to be able to intuit the message of a conversation without having to resort to using commands, making hurtful criticisms, or conveying unpleasant news in its barest form.
During a conversation, Americans would usually stand slightly farther apart than Indonesians would. One man speaking to another man or one woman speaking to another woman would probably touch less during the conversation than Indonesians would. But a man and woman, provided they are already friends, would touch much more frequently. As for body language, pointing with the index finger in America is a neutral gesture, made positive or negative by the speaker's words, facial expression and other actions. The same is true of clapping hands, placing your hands on your hips, calling someone over by waving towards yourself, and many other gestures. Some of these gestures are considered impolite in Indonesian culture. Americans may make these gestures in a fast, loose manner but Indonesians should not always mistake this for aggressiveness.
In American culture, showing interest in what another person is saying is usually done by verbal feedback. Comments like, "I see," "Really?" and, "That's interesting," or even sounds like "uh, ha" and "um" let a speaker know that you are following what they are saying. There is no way of studying when to give such responses. The only way to learn is by picking up the rhythms of American conversation within the culture. In general however, it is best to look someone in the face while you are listening to them. Interrupting someone else is considered rude but is nonetheless an extremely common practice in America.
Americans usually exit a conversation with less politeness and formality than an Indonesian would. "Excuse me," is more common as a way of introducing yourself to a stranger than of saying you would like to leave. Most Americans would say something more direct, such as "I need to go now" or "I've got to leave to pick up my wife at noon." Shaking hands is a common way of saying good-bye between strangers or business associates, but it is not used often between friends.
 Jeff Barrus is an Hawaian American, teaching at STIBA Malang and Guest Writer for Hermeneutics.