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Work Culture in America vs. Indonesia

After working in the US for some time, I’m ready to break down the culture differences.

The career change I am going through is a near-ideal comparison of what is it like working in the US vs. in Asia, especially my home base, Indonesia. This is because I am still working for the same company, hence we can take out a the company and industry factors altogether. What’s left: the difference in the office culture of two different parts of the world.

Now, in this post, I’d like to try something new. I’ll write in interview style. Yep. You heard it right. Me interviewing me.

So, what motivates you to move to the US?

Well, to be honest, it’s not that I am actively pushing for this opportunity. It was a series of serendipity that (thank God) worked in my favor. I’d never dream to reunite with the long-lost dream of doing creative work such as Marketing in my main job – and it’s the Global team that needs me and they are based in Houston.

So, the chance was there.

I was asked. I said yes. I flew.

Wait, what? Long-lost dream?

Yep. You can probably tell that I am more inclined to the creative side. How else I am willing to spend part of already-shortened weekends to build and maintain my blog (and few other similar creative stuff).

I like to create something – it’s just what I do. Since a kid.

Again, best explained in this post, where I detail how Marketing specifically is my childhood interest.

OK. Now, what’s the difference with working in Indonesia?

In this scale, I can actually group Malaysia and Indonesia into one. If you probe further, there is definitely a difference of working culture between MY and ID, but if you compare it to the US, it falls into the same category.

Something similar is that working in Houston is different than working in New York. However I don’t have a first-hand experience in a NY-based job, so can’t tell you much.

In short – this is working in MY&ID vs Houston, USA, based on my personal experience.

Tolerance to difference. What I notice the most about working in the US is that the co-workers here have a better tolerance to difference. No, I don’t mean in the usual way as race and religion, because back home people there are used to even more racial and religious diversities.

What I meant is more in the different personalities and working styles.

In my team, I have people that are warm and bubbly. Then, there are people that are efficient and strictly-business. We also have someone in between. People that always take lunch in their desk. People that always eat yogurt together in a pack after lunch. People that come at 6 am. People that come at 9 am. People that go home at 3 pm; others dash at 6 pm.

People that attend happy-hours; people that are not due to families or they just don’t feel like it. People that work on weekends; people that don’t and strictly enforce their boundaries. Single people, married people, married with kids – heck, even pregnant people.

And it is all OKAY. As long as…. guess what?

You deliver the results.

Again, maybe just the Marketing department. But this is the part that I love the most.

You can be yourself. You can work in the arrangement that suits you the best, and not being afraid of showing your personality traits – introverts, extroverts, shy, outgoing –  and, heck, even wear hijab (like me)…

As long as… again what? You deliver the results.

In the other place, however,  it’s almost the opposite. And I can actually generalize this because my previous role sent me to visit various companies – big and small, local or international, in different countries in Asia (except Japan which I will suspect to be a “whole new world”), and this sentiment holds true.

Back home, for you to fit in is the utmost priority.

If you seem to be working slightly differently than the others, especially in the more serious spectrum, you’ll be talked about. If you skip lunch, it’s a big problem. If you stay late sometimes, it’s also something noticeable.

You might tackle a project successfully and make a huge impact, and it’s good and you can still be recognized, but the perceived belief of you fitting in or not can sometimes surpass those you’ve actually done. Word of mouth plays a huge impact as well.

which brings me to the second point…

The US is more result-oriented. And I like this way better. I remember when I was in the university (in Indonesia), during a selection process of becoming a club member, and their president at the time asked me “Are you more process oriented or result oriented?” I said, “Result-oriented”. And he was puzzled.

I knew the right answer is “process-oriented”, but I just don’t.

I like to work backwards. What is the expected result and how can I get there. Maybe that is just me, but it is definitely not the popular way.

Back to the main story – now because it is more result-oriented, working in the US has a lot of deadlines and milestones to hit. I love going to the office, plugged in, and work the day straight. With toilet, water, and lunch breaks of course. But the rest is real work. Much less chitchat or surfing the web. And it is the normal behavior, not just for the “serious ones”.

The gift of working this way is that the office time is very effective. You get a lot done during the day. Tremendeously more than I used to.

HUGE difference.

That’s a long answer. How about your appearance – your hijab – is it OK working there with it?

I am proud to say that my employer is an equal-opportunity employer. Meaning, whoever you are, don’t care, we see your merit.

So far, I’ve never got any mean or harsh comment regarding the fact that I wear hijab. Maybe some looks here and there, but it did not materialize (as far as I know). Sometimes, in rare occasion, somebody asks, “Are you Muslim?” which is both shocking and eye-opening. Because actually hijab or head cover is not exclusive to Muslim woman – there are parts of other religions that use it, too (most popular is Christian Orthodox I believe).

So, yeah. Nada. I can say that for now it doesn’t matter.

Do you miss your family? How do you cope BEING alone in strange country?

Well, I  do miss my parents and everyone in my hometown, but then again even in Indonesia I live far away from them. I’ve been living alone since I was 18. I visit my hometown 2-3 times a year during big Holidays (Ied Fitri/Raya, Ied Adha/Qurban, Christmas, my birthday, etc.). So for me and for them it is not a big leap in terms of remoteness. Maybe, now we need to adjust for the time difference for the routine call.

With my fiancée though.. it’s a bit tricky.

We used to work in the same city (even his office building and mine is opposite to each other). However, I was busy, he was busy, so we ended up only seeing each other mostly in the weekend. Maybe lunch or dinner together during the week if I happened to be in the office (not the usual case, usually I was in client’s). However, even then, I usually spend 2 weeks – 2 months in another Asian countries for projects as well.

And now, he changed job that requires him to be in the woods for 2 months straight. Even if I work in Indonesia, I won’t see him as much. We’ve got a long talk about this and the future, and we’ve decided that me being in the US has nothing to interfere with our relationship, for now and in the future. We worked it out.


Great to hear that! So, any final thoughts?

Preference to which country to work in is personal. In my case, the US work ethics suit me more. Of course, it’s not ultimately the best – the Employment at Will, for instance, is the part I don’t like. Indonesia’s protection to workers is definitely  top-notch.

And I also don’t believe that the qualities I brought up – work style tolerance, result oriented – is exclusive to the US. Any CEO that enforces those in the company, everywhere in the world, will develop the same work culture and work ethics.

I definitely miss the friendly,  “eat or no eat, let’s get together” style of Indonesian (SE Asian) workplace . And it’s a good thing – don’t get me wrong – to build a closer relationship to each other.

Again, as I love to say about these kind of preferences…

To each of their own.

Do you have more questions you want to ask?

Tell me in the comment section below.

2 thoughts on “Work Culture in America vs. Indonesia”

  1. Haha tos dolo. Tapi entah kenapa aku lebih suka hubungan professional antara kolega kantor di US. Kadang kalo liat temen2 di Indo suka iri kalo mereka after hours masih nongkrong bareng temen kantor atau asik2 bareng temen kantor di jam kerja. Tapi setelah dipikir semakin kesini aku semakin mending “temen kerja ya tetep professional”, kalo udah personal takut ga bisa professional :p *tapi ini sih karena dasarnya aku introvert aja


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Hi, I'm Sarah.

I'm a geologist who works in the energy + tech space. Yep, I know both Ruby the gemstone and Ruby the language. Here, I post my finest takes on energy, tech, and life at large.

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