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

Posted on February 18, 2015 by


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!



I studied Spanish in high school for 3 years. Got pretty good with pronunciation and writing. Then I got drafted and they sent me to Germany. Having learned to read, write and speak Spanish helped me greatly in learning German. German, English and Spanish are all based on Latin. That made it easier too, but I can see how it all ties together.

It is really amazing how are different behaviours in different cultures. And most important, how different expressions exist for these different situations. Very good post!

It’s good to see more people learning Bahasa Indonesia.
Just a little note. Not good is translated ‘tidak baik’
and the word ‘tinggal’ can also means ‘to leave’, as in for example ‘Kamu tinggalkan saya’ (You leave me.)
Selamat Belajar! 🙂

Selamat malam does not mean good evening. It means good night! Selamat sore is good afternoon and good evening. How can someone run a course in Bahasa Indonesia if they don’t know the language? Menurut pendapat saya (in my opinion,as a non-native and very rusty Bahasa speaker) itu tidak praktik!! That just won’t work. Even giving cash with the left hand is impolite as the left hand is reserved for wiping your bottom.
Showing the sole of the foot is rude even with shoes on. You point with your thumb not your forefinger. Touching a child or adult on top of the head is taboo. And it is very important not to show anger, so if you have a hot temper go somewhere else (such as Ireland where they love a good argument).
My biggst error was to say selamat meninggal to my predecessor at PT Trebor Indonesia as he left to go back to England. Two errors, in fact. First, as said earlier, selamat jalan is the correct form for bon voyage or happy travelling. Second, selamat tinggal is ‘goodbye as we leave you here’, and as most verbs in Bahasa have a longer, academic form, so tinggal converts to meninggal. I said, selamat meninggal to show off my meagre knowledge, which was sad because meninggal is to die. I wished him happy death. Meninggal dunia is to leave the world and this is the only customary usage of the word meninggal. Strangely, within 12 months he was killed in a traffic accident on a motorway in England. Waduh!

Hello, “Selamat Malam” can be “Good Night” or “Good Evening”. It depends on the context, time and the person you talk to.

Selamat Malam :
– Good Night (we say it to the person who goes to bed.)
– Good Bye (after visiting/meeting and you want to say goodbye after 6pm that the person is close to you)

Selamat Malam

– Good evening (just normal greeting in the evening)

Great to see this! I am an American living in Indonesia for almost 15 years now. Wonderful place to live and holiday. I would have to say though that your cultural tips are a bit off. Indonesia is pretty laid back, a modicum of decency is expected but exposed shoulders aren’t going to get you in trouble.

Wow, I can’t imagine that my native language is now one of the course from Babbel.

I will try to use it some time to see how it is.

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