4 things you thought were universal (but aren’t)

things you thought were universal
By Cait Hakala
March 26, 2015

When moving to a new country, you expect the big cultural changes. But it’s the little ones you never saw coming that completely throw you off.

How are you?

Before coming to Indonesia, the only languages I studied extensively were Spanish and Arabic. In Spanish, “How are you?” is “¿Cómo estás?” or one of a dozen other variants. In Arabic it’s “كيف حالك” (keef halak/halik). Asking how someone is doing is just a basic part of greeting them, right? 

Nope. Indonesians greet each other with “Mau ke mana?” or “Where are you going?” To Western ears it sounds strange, but an Indonesian Peace Corps staff member explained it well: “When I went to Australia, everyone kept asking me ‘How are you doing?’ and I was like... If I’m sick, what are you going to do? Take me to a hospital?” Asking the direction someone is headed really is a lot less invasive than “What is your current emotional state, stranger?” My students also told me that while we might ask our boyfriend or girlfriend how his or her day went, they feel loved when their significant others ask them if they’ve already eaten and showered that day.


Sneeze noises are completely socialized behavior so it shouldn’t come as a shock that different cultures sneeze differently. This varies, but a good number of Indonesians, including my bapak and ibu, sneeze as if someone is literally murdering them in that moment. It’s loud and almost a yelp of surprise. It sounds a little something like this.

Shaking hands

A handshake’s a handshake, right? Here it’s a little different, especially for women. A firm handshake is not usually polite. Some men here will give me a firm handshake, but most Indonesians prefer to clasp the other person’s hand gently, sometimes barely touching fingertips. Regardless of the strength of the handshake, you always bring your hand to your chest immediately afterward to signify that you’ve brought that person into your heart.

Waiting in line

Indonesians do not queue. They make their way to the front of any line, turn lane or bus as quickly as possible, which frustrates me. But for any Westerner who’s ever said something to a clerk, wondered if they heard you, then awkwardly waited for what you deemed was a polite amount of time before repeating yourself, Indonesia has the answer! Here you repeat yourself until you get what you need. It’s not rude or passive-aggressive – just expected. Here’s what my school’s canteen looks like at break time: 

When people ask me if it's "hard" to live in Indonesia, they're thinking about religion and language and amenities. That's not what's hard. It's the little things. 

Cait Hakala