“Let’s play beautiful only!” Huh??? Indonesian expressions can be downright weird: think ‘masuk angin’ (enter wind) meaning a cold or ‘sakit hati’ (sick liver) for heart-broken. The above expression, however was a ‘newie’ for me. I heard it at a meeting about the environment when some like-minded colleagues were discussing how to deal with bureaucracy.
Indonesians have a different, ultra-round-about approach at discussion and negotiations compared with the directness we have in many western countries. Discussions are not often lengthy and drawn out but also super polite. Conflict is avoided at all costs, and this includes raising one’s voice or using language that may offended. Indonesians say, “Sedikit aja salah ngomong kita bisa tersinggung” (Simply by speaking slightly out of line, someone may get offended). Another point to note is that hierarchy and respect are essential at meetings – not only is everyone formally introduced one by one but they are often also asked to introduce themselves.
Indonesian meetings are also mini parties in themselves, social events complete with consumption of little snacks and drinks (unfortunately normally all wrapped in plastic, but I’ve written about this in another article). At times, meetings or discussions may seem constructive but more often than not result in ambiguities that resolve or achieve little.
The expression ‘Kita main cantik saja lah!” is a tactical one and as an expression it is also ambiguous. It can mean a number of things: It can mean that they need to be super sweet and polite to get what they want. It could also mean that they need to do something or work with someone behind the scenes to get what they want while seeming sweet and polite. These can be both viewed as political maneuvers.
This lack of straightforwardness is so common here and I see also my own wife and her family doing it all the time. My father in law can never say no to any request I have for him even when I know that he can’t fulfill it. In the same way, I see how my wife works around a point numerous times to get to the point with someone, then after that reinforcing it many times in different ways to make sure that everything is understood (while softening it at the same time).
So, don’t forget if you are at a meeting and want to achieve something or convince someone, “main cantik saja lah!” – you may just get your way.
By Vaughan Hatch
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