“What’s in a name?” Romeo famously said. A lot, it seems. As the world knows, the family names of Romeo and his beloved Juliet were the direct cause of their untimely death.
Yep, names can kill, and even addressing someone inappropriately can create major problems. All societies have culturally accepted ways of addressing people, and Indonesia is no exception. Foreigners often find this confusing but — guess what? We do too.
A quick jump from Verona to Bali will show you what I mean. “Lily” is a businesswoman and a dear friend of mine who lives in Seminyak. Two young women who work for her were recently organizing my flights to come and stay with her. From day one, they addressed me simply by name. This was strange, since they call Lily (who is six years younger than me) “Ibu Lily”.
Even Lily’s manager, “Bagus”, whom I have known for years and is in his early 40s, calls me “Ibu Julia”. At least they didn’t say “Hey Julia”, which an expat researcher who I had never met once addressed me in an email.
I’m a pretty informal person actually, but I do believe courtesy in culturally appropriate ways matters. In this day and age, the whole world lives and breathes by email, so how you present yourself in cyberspace is a test of your professionalism.
Every email, SMS or tweet reveals who you are and how you do business. That’s why it’s always best in a work context to address someone you’ve never met formally, to begin with at least. This is true in any culture, I think.
Yes, “Hi” is creeping into business parlance but formalities and titles like “Mr.”, “Ms.”, “Professor”, “Doctor” still count for a lot, etc.
All the more so in Indonesia, where a man, especially someone more senior, should usually be addressed as “Bapak” (“father”) and a woman as “Ibu” (“mother”) unless they request otherwise. In Javanese culture, even young children are addressed with “mas” (older brother) or “mbak” (older sister) just as a sign of respect.
It’s true that cultures vary in degrees of formality, even in the West. When I was pregnant in Germany in 1975, my obstetrician at the hospital would greet the attending nurse every morning with “Guten Morgen Schwester Schmidt”. She would reply “Guten Morgen Herr Doktor Decker”, and they would shake hands over my hugely protruding belly. Every morning!
When I was a visiting research scholar in Japan for six months in 1996, I learned to call everyone by their last name, followed by san: “Suzuki-san”, “Watanabe-san” or “Kobayashi-san”. As we became more familiar, we’d move to first names. The Japanese, however, would never do that among themselves, especially not in the workplace, where formal address is always correct.
With foreigners, however, the rules of Japanese formality loosened considerably. Similarly, I consider it rude when much younger Indonesian people call me by my first name without “Ibu” or at least “mbak” but I don’t mind when a young foreigner does it — especially if their first language is English.
You see, French, German and Italian have formal and informal ways of saying “you”: “Vous” and “tu” (French); “Sie” and “du” (German) and “Lei and tu” (Italian). You always start formally, and as you get to know each other, you can both agree to use the familiar way of addressing each other.
In English, however, there is only one clunky “you”.
This makes things less complicated but it sometimes leads English-speaking foreigners in Indonesia to use “kamu” to address everyone! Horrors! Yes, sure, “kamu” means “you” but you use it only with close friends, much younger people and children. It’s very rude to use for anyone else.
Even with subordinates “kamu” is considered kasar (coarse). It is more polite to use the semi-formal “Anda” or just their names (tip for confused Westerners: you can always safely replace “you” with the name of the person addressed).
So what to do?
My advice to expat friends new to Indonesia (and Lily’s staff) is to always err on the side of being overly polite and use “Ibu” and “Bapak”.
If Indonesians think you are being too formal, they will tell you how they want to be addressed. Believe me, it’s culturally cool to be courteous — and it’s good for business too!
— Julia Suryakusuma