By Fahry Slatter – AIYA Communications Coordinator

Translation by Thomas Shears – AIYA National Translator

Bahasa Indonesia version, click here.

You either hate it or love it. Small Talk goes down in everyone’s books as one of the most controversial social obstacles you can encounter, and there is also no middle ground. But whether or not you despise it is besides the point. In Indonesia, small talk is crucial.

Why small talk (or Basa Basi) is important

Many claim that small talk is pointless and a waste of air or that it lacks substance unlike deep conversations. But how you get to the point of a deep conversation is through small talk, and those pointless chit chats will be converted into the more meaningful conversations that you are looking for – if you succeed at the small talk of course. More than a social ritual, it is an unavoidable part of Indonesian life, whether you are in the context of an office party in Kemang, or meeting your host family, small talk is the first point of entry – the door or gateway entrance to entering any social circle. 

The goal when meeting any new person is to make them feel comfortable first. It’s almost disarming, and shows the other party that you’re interested in knowing more about them and that you enjoy some good company. This is the first part of earning their trust.

In Indonesia, small talk is known as “Basa Basi”, even in formal contexts, people refer to it as Basa Basi. The literal translation is Stale Language, or Stale communication. Basa is the contraction for the Indonesian word for language, which is Bahasa, and Basi means expired/stale.

In the context of Indonesia, being frontal about issues, or the topic at hand is seen as rude, and one of the many pitfalls that a lot of foreigners or repatriates have to overcome. Humans are predesigned to want answers directly, but don’t seem to like dealing with the process. But our built-in trait of impatience is what can discourage the other person from opening up to us. 

Sometimes, saying “how are you?” is just not enough. We know what to expect and the answers are oftentimes predictable. We often reach a mental roadblock, usually not knowing what to say next, and the conversation just turns awkward. The topics that you can discuss during small talk also vary from country to country. You might be surprised to learn that it is common to ask about families in Indonesian small talk, even if you’ve just met for the first time.

How to talk to someone new 

Let’s say you’re about to meet someone for the first time. You’ve already planned the meeting, and you’ve already spoken to them via email or chat, but now it’s time to walk the talk and demonstrate the real you.

Always keep a mental note of the AFRY technique:

A – Ask 

F – Follow Up

R – Reveal

Y – Yank them back in

  1. Ask: Oftentimes, you may have to take the initiative and grab the bull by its horns. 

People love to talk about themselves, so at the least, you’re giving them a chance to have an ego trip. Remember: the goal is to establish comfort, not dominance. A good starting point would be asking them about what they do, the industry that they work in, their skills and other topics related to their job. This will lead nicely into the next part which is follow up.

Jack: So what do you do?

Putri: I work in the tech industry, I mostly deal with ERP. 

  1. Follow up: You have to keep the ball rolling, so to speak. The follow up is when you ask to clarify their answer – They’ve answered your question, so now you have to keep it going by either commenting or asking questions that are related. At this point, it’s best to ask open-ended questions, because it allows them to explain.

*Texts in Orange are examples of Follow ups

Putri: I work in the tech industry, I mostly deal with ERP. 

Jack: Tell me more about ERP? (if you’re knowledgeable on the subject, you can ask for their opinion on it)

Putri: *Explains ERP*

Jack: Oh, so I’m guessing that you took information systems in University?

Putri: Yeah, I took IT in Monash University

Jack: Oh is that the Australian University? 

Putri: Yes, I took the one in Australia. Melbourne, actually.

  1. Reveal: Next, reveal information about yourself that’s related to the followup. This is an opportune time to find common ground. At some point during the conversation, perhaps you learned something, and found some similarities, or a topic they mentioned that you’re familiar with. This is the part where you talk about what you know about the topic, but remember to not over-do it.

Putri: Yes, I took the one in Australia. Melbourne, actually.

Jack: A lot of my friends go to Monash in Australia. One of them took Engineering, but he’s in his final year now. I hear it’s a beautiful place.

Putri: Yeah, it is.

  1. Yank them Back in: Keep it going by engaging them in the topic again. Ask them about what they know and encourage them to talk. You’re letting them talk about your comment. The ball is in their hands now, and it’s their turn to talk about your answer.

Putri: Yeah, it is.

Jack: So, have you lived in Australia all your life, or?

Putri: No, I’m originally from Surabaya, and I’ve lived in Indonesia since childhood. 

And so on and so forth…..

Once you’ve wiped out and finished with questions that require short answers, you can use more open ended questions to stimulate a discussion. Here are some examples:

  • Tell me about…….
  • Explain to me…….
  • Describe the situation……
  • What made you decide to……
  • What is your opinion on this…….
  • How did you feel when……
  • Etc.

Keep the conversational snowball rolling, by adding new layers of topics and most importantly, keep building the conversation. Once you’ve exchanged some information about each other, you’ll soon find that the small, albeit important strings of small talk fade away as the conversation goes on. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to juggle between commenting or asking questions. Asking too many questions will feel like an interrogation, and only commenting insinuates lack of engagement.

How to talk to an acquaintance

If you’ve ever played the game, “The Sims” you’ll be familiar with acquaintances, and know that you can tip the scale in your favour, or if you’re feeling a bit bored, you can make enemies out of them. But unlike the Sims, where you can type in a cheat code to miraculously make you the most popular kid in town, or reverse an enemy to like you by simply talking about the weather for 2 hours straight, acquaintances in real life are a little more challenging to sway.

All your life you’ll be meeting acquaintances, so it’s best to at least know how not to make enemies of them. Talking with acquaintances is similar to initiating a conversation with a stranger, and the AFRY technique can be applied here too, but a bit of creativity is required in what you ask/comment, because you can’t keep asking “where are you from?” to the same person.

Step 1: Open with an anecdote

Remember what I said above about anecdotes? They come in handy when it comes to talking to someone that you’ve already known. You can’t follow the whole “where are you from?” routine anymore, so you need to be a bit more creative.

You: Hey man, nice to meet you again. After all these months in lockdown right? Dhika just texted me last night asking if I could meet up in Kemang, and I had nothing else to do today, so why not? It’s good to see you again.

Step 2: Set arrogance aside, and maintain composure.

There are people out there who just won’t budge. Or it appears that they don’t want to talk to you. The truth is, they’re just as shy as you are. 9 times out of 10, it’s not malicious, but they are purely sheepish. This is common with acquaintances, but just remember the AFRY technique. 

You: I just came back from a hike in Rinjani, in Lombok with my friends from uni. It was a treacherous, 7 hour hike up and down the mountain. I was tired for a week coming back from that climb. Have you ever hiked Rinjani?

Person: No, I haven’t.

Instead of being clever, you can use the AFRY technique and reveal something about yourself. Share a story about you, and remember to not be a smart aleck. 

You: Well, I enjoyed that hike, and there were some breathtaking views, definitely worth the effort. I’m also planning to hike Gunung Gede next week with my class. You should come and join us if you’ve got the time.

Some good ways to open:

Open with an anecdote

Anecdotes or short stories are a great way to set a comforting environment. It’s not interrogative, it’s also not straight to the point and can even lead to a laugh. In certain situations where the person you’re meeting is a complete stranger, anecdotes are more friendly and can suit any situation. Talk about the traffic, the current weather, the place that you’re meeting in. Whatever you do, don’t resort to lying or start making up stories that never happened. People can easily tell lies a lot easier than you’d think.

Ex 1

You: The roads today were a bit rough haha, the traffic today was insane. There was a Bajay that was rolled over on the side of the road and it caused a mile-long queue.

*talks about said story

You: Anyways, let’s get down to business shall we? / Anyways, how are you?

Ex 2

You: You know before I got here, there was this child that threw a massive tantrum and the whole mall was just watching the kid and the parents fight, so ridiculous! 

Ask about their job or what they do

Remember: People love to talk about themselves, especially if they get the opportunity to show-off a little bit about their job, because their job may reflect their academic achievements, or their character. This is great for talking to strangers and acquaintances. 

Tip: If you know beforehand that the person is unemployed, instead of asking “Where do you work?”, say “How’s the job search going lately?”

Important Tips to always remember


If someone comes up to you looking melancholic, the mood of the conversation is very clearly set. Of course, it’s not perfect, and we can’t all have good days all the time. Life happens. But showing a bit of “semangat” can take you a long a way with someone. When you meet someone new or an acquaintance, you’re on neutral ground. You subconsciously can sway the conversation one way towards a positive tone (which is what I’m hoping you’ll do) or you can sway it the other. 

State their name a couple of times

Stating their name is a good way to recall the person back into the conversation, especially if you feel like the topic has been dragging on or you’re self aware enough to realize you’ve been talking too much. But don’t overdo it! Otherwise, they’ll feel a bit nervous from having your attention glued to them.

Body Language

Eye contact: It is well known that in Asian social situations, people don’t really like to maintain eye contact. If they do, it’s not strong. Especially in Indonesia, people tend to shy away, making brief glances at your eyes. You don’t need to give them a death stare, but looking them in the eyes shows confidence and engagement. 

Smile in moderation

Remember above about “making the person feel comfortable”? Smiling or just looking generally happy is a good way to leave a nice first impression on someone. It shows that you’re willing to talk and shows off your more friendly personality. 

Ask open ended questions: The difference between receiving a short 1-2 worded answer vs. a fully detailed explanation is how you deliver your questions. You’re essentially asking the same question, just worded differently. This is great if they’re talking about a topic that you have no clue about, or if the person is slightly awkward.

Instead of saying: What’s ERP?

Say, Tell me more about ERP, because I honestly have no clue haha

Expand your answers

Giving short, one-worded answers can sound rudely brief, and can provoke the person you’re talking to into being clever/smart-alecky, which results in a race to the bottom. For example, instead of saying “No” say “No, I don’t know to be honest. Tell me more about it”.

Don’t be surprised if you’re asked about religion

In contemporary Indonesia, people (especially those in the younger generation) are much more cognizant of the sensitivity of religion and its topics. However, you might be confronted with the question of religion

Can’t think of anything else to say? Remember the FOEH questions:

Family – Have you got any siblings? Where in Indonesia are you from?

Occupation – Where do you work? How’s the job going lately? Tell me more about X industry?

Education – What are you taking? Was it a difficult course? What’s it like?

Hobbies – How did the Pandemic affect X hobby? So where do you hang out these days?

These are very basic, standard questions that you can ask in the context of Indonesia, which were made for small talk. Anytime the conversation gets awkward and you feel like you’ve run out of topics, ask any of the FOEH questions, and you’ll be back on track.

Small talk is a crucial life skill and a good way to challenge your shy self. It’s a skill where once you’ve mastered it, it opens up a door to all sorts of possibilities. You’ll be able to connect with anyone, grow your connection and make new friends out of nothing. It’s 100% skill-based, and both an art and a science.