Indonesian greetings that everyone should know

Hari Raya
Credits: (Flickr) Michael Thirnbeck

Being familiar with Indonesian greetings is advantageous in promoting friendly and effective interactions. Its also a great introduction into the language and culture of Indonesia. This article will explore some key Indonesian greetings that have served me well and can help you. Keeping in mind, doing additional research is highly recommended as it will better prepare you for various scenarios i.e interacting in a business setting, starting a casual conversation.

Hand gestures

Hand gestures are an important form of communication and always accompany Indonesian greetings. It’s worth mentioning at this point, that these gestures vary depending on the context. The most common hand gesture, with a gentle handshake either amongst women or men individually. In terms of greeting someone older than you and or the elderly, putting a hand on the heart and or a gentle bow of the head is considered respectful and customary. Sometimes, a kiss on each other’s cheek (only if the person is a close relation).

You may notice traditional Islamic greetings such as shaking hands with both hands and or a younger person kissing the hand of an older person and then touching that hand towards their forehead. Some areas namely, Java, hands are placed together with the right hand raised a little so that it connects with the other person’s right hand. In Bali, a common Hindu greeting consists of hands being held in a prayer position in front of the chest.

Double greetings
Example of how children/younger people would greet any someone older. Credits: (Flickr) Sarah Wuu
Idul Fitri 1431H
Example of greetings. Credits: (Flickr) Michael Thirnbeck

It should be noted that not all gestures are appropriate to use. Such as, Muslim men and women may not physically greet their counterpart. You will know immediately if you have made a mistake based on the person’s reaction and response. Therefore, its important to know your circumstances of the interaction/s and when to use what hand gesture.

Saying good morning/day/afternoon/evening/night

Apart from the obvious hello or halo, there are different greetings for different times of the day. Most greetings start with the word selamat. It stems from the Arabic word salam, which implies peace. In muslim communities, the common greeting to use is assalamualaikum and waalaikumsalam. The former means peace upon to you and the latter is the standard response to this, which roughly means and peace unto you too.

The phrase selamat datang can be used throughout the day at an event or gathering. It basically means welcome. Normally, you would say selamat pagi in the morning. From noon to early afternoon, selamat siang would be referred to. Then, selamat sore would be used for late afternoon to early evening. Finally, selamat malam would be used for evening or nighttime. You may sometimes hear selamat tidur, which means good night in reference to going to sleep. Now, these time frames are not exact and will vary on the time of year and exact location you are in. But from personal experience, there is no harm in using these time frames as a simple guide.

For informal use, you would just drop the selamat, and say pagi or siang. This is quite common and it’s similar in English when you drop the good to say afternoon or in the Australian context, arvo. Once you become familiar with the formal version then switching to informal will be fairly easy.

Addressing someone in Indonesian

To address someone in Indonesia, you would use a prefix in front of his or her name. Like you would using Sir/Mrs./Miss/Mr./Ms. Titles are important in Indonesian culture as they emphasize social status. In fact, it can be considered insulting if you do not properly address a person older than yourself. By way of illustration, older men are formally referred to as Bapak whilst older women are formally referred to as Ibu. These can be shortened to Pak or Bu which roughly translate as sir/father and ma’am/mother respectively.

You can use Mas or Mbak, for colleagues similarly or slightly older than you. Derived from Javanese, Mas means older brother whilst Mbak means older sister. Nowadays, younger people tend to describe other teenagers or young adults as kakak.

Say how are you/ replying with…

Once you establish the initial greetings, it’s usually friendly to follow it up with Apa kabar? This phrase literally means what’s new but generally is accepted as how are you? and what’s new with you? Depending on your mood, you would usually reply with baik meaning ok or baik-baik saja meaning just fine. If you are not ok, then you can simply reply tidak baik. These are just basic replies but the more you learn the language, the more you can expand on your responses.

Introducing yourself (when meeting for the first time)

So the standard introduction consists of a greeting followed by Nama saya (title + your name). Nama saya just means my name is. If you want to ask what the other person’s name is, just ask siapa namamu? or Siapa nama kamu? Remember to always address the most senior individual in the room first, as is customary. 

greetings from Bali
Credits: (Flickr) Thomas Robin

Saying goodbye

It’s important to say the right greeting when saying goodbye as it depends on the context. Generally, selamat tinggal is used for goodbye. Selamat jalan implies goodbye and can be used if you want to wish someone or if someone wishes you a good journey. Sampai jumpa lagi means until we meet again but in the instance where you are not meeting again, just drop the lagi. Once again these are formal versions of goodbye. For informal use, you could say sampai bertemu lagi or sampai nanti based on an informal bye and or see you later, respectively.

Next steps

In the end, this article is just a basic outline for Indonesian greetings. There are plenty more variations beyond the standard Indonesian and Javanese. But as indicated, it’s highly recommended that you do further research to better prepare you for different types of interactions. Nevertheless, once you adjust to Indonesian time/Jam Karet as well as the area you are in, then you will become more confident in using the correct greetings. In fact, you may end up using informal language and eventually, Indonesian slang. .

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Katherine Durban

Indonesia Correspondent at Asia Options
Katherine is studying a Bachelor of International Relations and Diploma of Languages (Indonesian) at La Trobe University. She plans to study Honors later this year. Katherine has participated in a number of programs aimed at strengthening Australia-Indonesia relations including the virtual Indonesian Language Short Course and Campus Ambassador program run by the Australian Consortium for 'In-Country' Indonesian Studies (ACICIS). She aspires to work in international development and will continue searching for professional opportunities in Asia.