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Indonesian Body Language from Head to Toe


Have you ever seen those articles or vlogs that say things like “10 Things NEVER to do in Indonesia!”

The ones with a big red X over a surprised-looking foreigner in the thumbnail?

They kind of scare you, don’t they?

You might worry that if there are so many things you can’t do in a foreign country, you might have to walk on eggshells to avoid offending people. What if you screw up with your Indonesian body language and make them dislike you?

Well, that’s well out of the equation.

Indonesians are extremely forgiving to people who accidentally commit some kind of cultural faux pas.

And instead of a list of warnings, here’s a guide to the kind of Indonesian body language and body gestures you can expect to see and should take note of to use yourself.

One quick read-through and you’ll have a great idea of the underlying cultural etiquette that dictates what’s acceptable and what’s a little bit rude.

Without further ado,’s guide to body gestures, customs, and etiquette in Indonesia! Start with a bonus, and download your FREE cheat sheet – How to Improve Your Indonesian Skills! (Logged-In Member Only)

Table of Contents

  1. Indonesian Body Gestures from Head to Toe
  2. Conclusion

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1. Indonesian Body Gestures from Head to Toe

1- Your Head and Face

Smiling Woman

1. Hair

Let’s start with the hair. You’ll quickly notice that a lot of young men take pride in their haircuts—in fact, there seems to be old-fashioned barber shops on every main street.

This is part of the underlying cultural tendency toward cleanliness that you’ll pick up on. Don’t let your hair get greasy or unkempt, and don’t fiddle with your hair or constantly run your fingers through it.

It’s also seen as slightly rude to scratch your head in public.

2. Smiling & Laughing

Furthermore, Indonesians love to smile. I think the nickname “land of smiles” for Bali exists in several languages.

These days, however, many Indonesian women will cover their mouths when smiling or laughing. There are two reasons for that. First, it’s still a part of Indonesian culture for women to appear more “refined” or “demure.” This cultural habit is also reinforced and popularized by Japan and Korea, where pop and TV stars will generally do the same thing for the same reason.

3. Eye Contact in Indonesian Culture

Eye contact is an important body gesture in Indonesian communication and culture. Avoiding eye contact is a sign of embarrassment, just like it is in the West. However, in period films or TV shows, you’ll notice that everybody seems to be avoiding eye contact. Why is that?

Traditional Javanese society was heavily stratified socially. It was imperative that one avoided eye contact with one’s superiors, whether that be the patriarch of the family or a village leader.

It’s not really expected these days, but if you happen to go to a more rural area, it’s polite to avert your gaze if your host is saying something important.

4. Eating

Unlike in some neighboring countries, it’s considered rude in Indonesia to eat loudly or talk with your mouth full. You shouldn’t spit on the street either.

2- Your Hands

Indonesian Gestures

1. Right vs. Left Hand

Knowing when to use your left or right hand is an essential aspect of body gesture in Indonesian culture to understand. The basic rule to remember is that the right hand comes first. This is because, as in many other Islam-influenced countries, the left hand is associated with cleaning the body, and it’s therefore considered rude to offer your unclean left hand to others when giving or receiving things.

2. Shaking Hands

One of the most common hand gestures in Indonesian culture is the hand shake. When you greet somebody and shake hands, briefly press your right palm to your heart afterward.

Although Indonesian culture is strongly influenced by Islam, it’s much more acceptable for men and women to shake hands than it is in some more-conservative Islamic cultures.

Handshakes, however, tend to be considerably more gentle across the board than they are in the West.

3. Walking in Front of Someone

This one of the more interesting body gestures among Indonesian people, though it shouldn’t be totally unfamiliar to you.

When you walk in front of somebody, you should bend over slightly and extend your right hand down with the palm facing them.

Think of the gesture associated with “after you” in the West, like when inviting somebody to take a seat or go ahead in line. The only difference is that you do it in motion, holding this gesture constant while you walk.

4. The Peace Sign

Korean culture is pretty trendy these days in Indonesia, as I mentioned. What does that have to do with body language? Well, if you find yourself in a group picture, the two-finger peace sign is practically guaranteed to come out.

3- Your Arms

Woman with Crossed Arms

1. Displays of Anger or Frustration

Indonesians tend to avoid public displays of anger or frustration. Doing things like swinging your arms when you’re impatient or hitting a desk when you’re upset are strongly frowned upon, and it’s very rare to see native Indonesians doing so. You’ll likely be kept waiting quite frequently, to be honest, but simply do as the locals do and sit quietly.

2. Man-to-Man Physical Affection

Physical affection between men in the form of handholding or hugging is far more common than it is in the West, though people who have visited other majority-Islam countries won’t be surprised by this.

It’s not unusual to see a man sitting with his arm around the shoulders of a male friend. However, a hearty slap on the back is frowned upon as too aggressive.

3. Indicating Where Something is (Nearby)

There’s a particular way of showing somebody the way toward something that may be unique to Indonesia. You bend over a little, keep your arm bent, and give a thumbs-up, pointing your thumb in the direction that you want the person to go. Interestingly enough, this only tends to apply to short distances.

If you’re saying that the airport is ten kilometers in such-and-such a direction, go ahead and use the whole hand.

4. Forehead to Hand of Superior

Oh, and here’s another one of the unfamiliar body gestures in Indonesian society you may see: When Javanese people greet one another in a formal setting, the person of lower social status is expected to briefly touch their forehead to the back of their superior’s hand.

In the past, this was a kiss, but these days just touching the forehead is faster and a little more sanitary.

4- Your Legs and Feet

Many Pairs of Legs

1. No Shorts

Although Indonesian weather can be brutally hot at times, you’ll practically never see locals wearing shorts. From experience, you really can get used to it even if it seems like a nightmare to wear heavy jeans in 35-degree C (95-degree F) weather.

2. Taking Off Your Shoes

Many Indonesian houses and guesthouses (known as kos) have beautiful and clean tiled floors. For that reason, there’s usually a small sign at the entrance reading Lepas sepatu! which means “Take off your shoes!” And underneath the sign, there will be a jumbled heap of shoes. Take a look inside, though, at what people are doing.

It’s part of Muslim culture to wash the feet regularly throughout the day, and thus people often go completely barefoot inside these houses (and even on the street!). It’s quite something to see how fast native Indonesians take off and put on their shoes and sandals—it’s a totally unconscious action.

In general, you should take off your shoes when they’re going to touch anything that’s not a public floor. That even includes if you need to stand on a chair to reach something in your school or office!

3. Crossed Legs in Indonesian Language

There’s no stigma against leg-crossing in Indonesia. Men and women alike cross or uncross their legs as comfort dictates, unlike in some countries where a man crossing his legs is seen as feminine. Women do tend to ride motorcycles sidesaddle, especially if they’re wearing a long dress or robe.

5- Gestures While Talking

Business Meeting

On the whole, there really isn’t any big and notable body language in Indonesians’ talking. There’s nothing like the stereotypical Indian head nod, or the Japanese bow.

However, if you spend enough time hanging out with Indonesians, you’ll probably notice that you subconsciously pick up a certain way of holding yourself as you speak.

For example, when you say the phrase Oh, begitu! meaning “Oh, I see!” you’ll tend to raise your head up a little and lean back.

And when you say Iya, meaning “yes,” you might duck your head forward a bit as if you were nodding and bowing at the same time. Especially if you’re talking to someone who’s a little bit higher up on the respect ladder than you, such as an immigration official or a professor.

Lastly, it’s fairly rude in most countries to point at someone or shake your finger while talking, but in Indonesia, the raised index finger while speaking means “I have a point to make.” If you use it too much, you’ll come across as a little bit bossy, though it’s fine to use in an animated discussion.

6- Gestures While Driving

Woman Leaning Out of Car

It’s very easy and affordable for foreigners to rent motorbikes in Indonesia. If and when you do so, you should be aware of a couple of common hand signals, because nobody will tell you these when you start driving.

1. Traffic Directors

At smaller intersections in smaller cities, volunteers don orange vests, wave their hands, and furiously blow whistles to direct the flow of traffic. Their actual techniques vary from person to person, though you’ll get the idea from watching which drivers are stopped and which are going.

If you’re first in line, watch for the wheeling arm motion; this means you get to go ahead. A hand held out, palm down, means “stop.” It’s customary to give these folks a small tip if they give you any particular attention, like clearing the way for you to do a U-turn.

2. On a Motorbike

Now, when you find yourself riding on the back of a motorbike, you have the unique duty of reinforcing the turn indicator. When your driver wants to make a turn, look around and make eye contact with drivers nearby, and lazily wave your arm in the direction of your intended turn.

Don’t stick your hand out straight as you would riding a bicycle, but instead keep your arm moving so that the movement catches the eye of other drivers.

3. Middle Finger

By the way, there’s another “gesture while driving” that you may have already thought of.

Most Indonesian drivers aren’t very aggressive, though they do tend to play fast and loose with traffic rules. It’s considered very rude and even strange to actually get angry in public, so flipping someone the bird because of their driving is considered significantly more rude than in many Western countries.

7- Personal Space in Indonesia

Woman Sitting Alone

Depending on where you come from, you may feel either anxious and relaxed reading this: Indonesians deeply respect personal space.

At offices and banks, people wait in line with a respectable amount of distance between each person. It’s extremely rare for anyone to cut in line, and if you do so, you’ll likely get a polite but firm verbal request to head to the back.

To get someone’s attention in public, it’s actually pretty rare to reach out and tap them on the shoulder. Sometimes, if it’s really urgent, you may feel a small tug on your shirt, but for the most part, people will just call out to you and wait for you to turn around. Remember, Indonesian culture is patient!


An overarching theme of this article is that you’ve really got nothing to worry about. As long as you’re respectful and observant—and after all, what language-lover isn’t?—you’ll handle these cultural footnotes beautifully.

Simply keep the basics in mind:

  • Respect personal space
  • Use the right hand
  • Be deferential to others in respected societal roles

The body language will come naturally.

And when it does, you’ll earn people’s respect. It’ll be a subtle kind of respect, one that doesn’t show up in compliments—how many times have you complimented a foreigner on their body language ability? Rather, this respect means that others will simply enjoy being around you more.

That kind of cultural competence can’t be taught or really even consciously learned. But when you realize one day that you’re doing things just like locals are, you’ll know you’ve made it. And will be here with you every step of the way.

So, readers, are body language cues and etiquette similar in your own country, or very different? Let us know in the comments! Start with a bonus, and download your FREE cheat sheet – How to Improve Your Indonesian Skills! (Logged-In Member Only)

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Author: Yassir Sahnoun is a HubSpot certified content strategist, copywriter and polyglot who works with language learning companies. He helps companies attract sales using content strategy, copywriting, blogging, email marketing & more.