Last week, while I was working out of Momentum Works’ office in Jakarta, a colleague from our Singapore office messaged me: “How do you deal with the Sungkan culture of Indonesia?”
I was stuck, because I had never heard of the term.
Not that I do not know Indonesia. I have been travelling there regularly for business since 2007, and have been managing teams there on and off since 2011.
I googled the term. Interestingly, Google suggested “human resources in Indonesia” “hr challenges in Indonesia” etc. as alternatives.
And the two top posts came from Tech-in-Asia. It seems now I can’t claim that I do not know the term because I am in tech, which usually has its own work culture compared to more traditional industries.
According to this Quora post, Sungkan in Javanese means “ “I won’t say/do it, because I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable”.
It makes sense, and basically corresponds to some of our encounters operating in the country. Then I asked a number of our local colleagues in Jakarta, who are aware of the concept but ‘never felt the need to bring it up in our daily work’.
We must have gotten something right – maybe?
I also asked a few foreign friends who have been living in the country for a number of years. While many of whom have heard of the concept, those in tech are generally not seeing the word pop up in their daily work.
High context culture
A couple of them, instead, brought up this image from the book “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, a 2014 best seller by INSEAD professor Erin Meyer.
As explained in the captions above, in a high context culture, messages/communications tend to be indirect, with a lot of meaning implied from the context.
According to the authors, Indonesia ranks the highest among major cultures in culture context in communications, on par with Japan and Korea, and higher than Arabic countries and even Iran (those friends who have worked in Iran would know what I mean).
China is perhaps at similar levels – those of you who have done business in China would know “let me consider about it” basically means “No!”. Though this is changing – young managers from internet companies are much more straight forward in their communications.
But ultimately, cultural context is by itself an abstract term – what we are living now is a cosmopolitan world where cultures interact with each other, and evolve with each other. What probably matters more is to keep (and always keep) an open mind.