Let’s have a short flight back in time: Indonesia – 2012- heading to Jakarta for the first time. I really wanted to be surprised so I did my best not to look at pictures or posts about it. Obviously, I was so excited that I draw my own pictures about the city, lifestyle, etc. And then I landed there. I took a huge slap. Straight to my face, no warning.  It appeared nothing was in line with my thoughts. Indonesia 1 – 0 Me.


Real Jakarta Vs My imagination

I knew the beginning would be hard, but I didn’t expect it to be that hard. Everybody warned me about the cultural gap, so I get prepared for this next round. Ahah. Truth is I wasn’t at all, and I’m not sure there’s a preparation for it. Indonesia 2 – 0 Me. Let me highlight this with true stories I experienced.

One word stands for yes, no… and maybe

Asian culture almost prohibits the “no”. Even though I knew it, it took me time to notice the difference between true yes and hesitating yes = no. Let’s pick the simplest (and frequently experienced) example: taxis.

Ask the direction you’re heading to, the driver will start. However, he can head in a random direction, totally out of the blue, for a while. Until you ask him “you don’t know where it is?”, which he confirms. Most often, he’d never tell he doesn’t know, it’s part of the culture. Always crosscheck he knows the destination, ask where he wants to go through or let him know your favorite way. You’re new in town with no Google Maps? Good luck!

ask the question and the exact opposite. If you get the same answer, there’s something weird going on…

The yes/no dilemma applies in many other cases. Here’s another one faced with a contractor:

  • Me: Can it be finished by tomorrow?
  • Contractor: Yes
  • Me: Do you have the material to do it?
  • Contractor: Yes we have
  • Me: You didn’t receive all the material to do it?
  • Contractor: Yes, the parts should be delivered in 3 days

Obviously, something went wrong, it wouldn’t be ready for the next day. Always crosscheck and for any type of questions, especially Yes/No questions, ask the question and the exact opposite. If you get the same answer, there’s something weird going on… If it’s still unclear, ask another one.

If it goes wrong, you can only blame yourself

A last example, more technical but so great. Let’s picture the scene: meeting in Bali with the design team for a project aiming to be among the best green buildings in Indonesia. 5 Indonesians around the table and me (project manager). The design was quite developed and I wanted to crosscheck everything, to ensure we weren’t missing a point.

My request was simple: provide a mechanical ventilation to allow fresh air renewal. […] people can open the window to ventilate and get fresh air. ?!?!

Then came the ventilation engineering check. My request was simple: provide a mechanical ventilation to allow fresh air renewal […] in the building. And then came THE moment. The engineer showed me the design drawings. As I couldn’t see anything, I asked him where it was designed and he showed me the same documents again. I rephrased the question but always ended up with the same reply. Then the architect stepped on his side, confirming that everything was already on the drawings. It was a 5 against 1. Was I crazy or blind? I let them explain how the full system worked. “We have mechanical extraction in the toilets, then in all rooms, people can open the window to ventilate and get fresh air”. Finally! A huge misunderstanding (quickly corrected then).


First design Vs My expectation

Truth is that the mistake was 100% mine. It’s not because it was obvious for me that it was for them. And it wasn’t, clearly. So I developed this routine: always crosscheck all is understood, then step-back and ask them to reformulate. Let people talk and don’t step in, otherwise you’ll highly influence their reply.

This is what I call a cultural slap. But the picture is far from being exhaustive and of course, it applies to both personal and professional life. It’s a new world to discover, in which you have to think and behave differently. These few tricks are helpful, but not enough. Be ready to predict the unpredictable and still be surprised. Everything is complicated, but everything is possible, that’s part of Indonesia’s charm.

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