A world without WHY

· March 11, 2015

When I first arrived in Indonesia I didn’t think nor knew much about the difference in our cultures. This quite understandable, although in hindsight I should have read up on it a little bit more. Now, as I know more and more, I also get more and more interested and confused about some very basic things in the society.

To not come out as very prejudiced there’s some of disclaimers to be made and I’ll do that throughout the post, but here are few to get started:

  1. These are merely my observations after 15 months in the country. I’ve been working with quite a lot of people (met maybe ≈500) and in a few different companies.
  2. It’s very easy to jump to a conclusion that some behavior (mine, your or theirs) is stupid or wrong. I don’t want to do that, so in everything I write here I will try to remember that it’s just different cultures that have formed us under many many years into what we are. For example, consider some strange tradition that you’ve seen in another culture (dressing up like dragons and jumping around on poles for Chinese New Year for example). It shouldn’t take you long to find a similar ridiculous event in your own culture (Santa anyone? Easter Bunny etc).

Oh, this post is mostly me reasoning. I have no ambition so solve any problems. Although, I think that this can be useful for you even if you never leave your own country (in which case I pity you - get out there!). Remember that each organization form subcultures of their own. Maybe this can help you understand things in another department. I can tell you that many of the things I find puzzling here in Indonesia can be observed to some degree in Sweden as well.

Let’s get started… I’m fearing it might be long.

Group vs individual

First we need to realize one important fact. Indonesian (and many Asian cultures) is a group culture. This stands in stark (yes, Swedish readers that word can be used here) contrast to my own culture which is very individual based.

By no mean an expert I can still say that in a group culture the well-being of the group (company, people with same profession as me, village / neighborhood or what have you) comes before the well being of yourself. In fact “your group” could even be more important to you than other structures that the group is a part of; the society at large for example. I might be a little bit loose around how I follow laws if it give my group an advantage. Just as some people from my own culture might consider a white lie, or not reporting the correct tax numbers because it gives ME an advantage.

Please don’t mistake this group focus in the way I did. It’s not “me and my group” - it’s “the group”. There is no me. That took me (no pun intended) ca 6 months to grasp.

A fun example of this happened in church the other day. I sat next to two women that was less accomplished in singing. In an individualist culture you’d keep your singing back then, right. Who’d wanted that to be heard? But these two (and everyone else) was singing loud and proud. Because the group was singing right - everyone chips in or it’s not the group that singing.

I think that this difference is one of the biggest sources to many of my misunderstandings, because it runs deep into whatever we do.


Fatalism is

the belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable

This belief can be seen in many cultures, but my guess (see how scientific I am here) is that the Muslim culture, ways and beliefs has influenced the Indonesian society around this. Insha’Allah is the well know saying stating that “It will happen if God are willing”.

In normal daily life this means that Indonesian in general doesn’t really think that they can affect their situation and context. “So I’m stuck in this crappy job - well I better work then”. Whereas we Individualist would say; “So I’m stuck in this crappy job - better fix that!” - Great article by the way.

This is how Indonesian people have brought up their children too; they get screamed at if you ask WHY something is like it is. And that of course transfers into the workplace. There’s simply no questioning allowed. If you question you are not doing your job (which is to follow) and I’ll punish you for it. From a senior manager here I’ve heard many many times:

Please do not question the process

Careful now… don’t think they are stupid. This is culture at work. I am also product of my culture, good and bad.

Here and now

One thing that have really frustrated and fascinated me during my time here is the seemingly little interest in the future. Or the past for that matter. Life here, for many, is just about here and now. This is related to the previous paragraph since first of all; who am I to try to change what is going to happen here? Secondly, Insha’Allah - whatever happens will still happen.

To contrast this I can take myself as an example. After ca 1 month here someone asked me to write an article about motivation “because you are so motivated”. No I’m not more motivated than anyone here. I am, however, very goal-driven. I simply cannot do anything if I don’t no the goal of the exercise. Doing things without purpose or knowing why is prison in my mind.

One thing that I’ve observed here is the relatively few moving vans. The traffic here is really crazy and there’s A LOT of people here. But very very few moving trucks. In Stockholm there’d be loads of moving trucks (at least in the end of the months). But here not. Because people really don’t think about moving. Because I’m here.

A world without “WHY”

To summarize this simply you can say:

many Indonesians lives in a world without WHY.

They don’t question or plan for any long-term future. Because they shouldn’t. And the organizations they are in (families, schools, churches, business etc.) will not encourage this and punish you when you question. I’ve seen it many many times, and been subjected to it too.

Conclusi… Final thoughts at least

What should I do now?

My main task here is to help our hospitals to evolve strategic plans based on good visions. I’ve been involved in turning a hospital around by motivating people. Every other sentence out of my mouth is about WHY or visions.

Will it work?

I’ll let you know. Later.

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