Business & Religion, One Whole or Two Separate Entities?


Jasper is a Dutch student who was doing an internship at an Indonesian company. One fine day, his local mentor Abdul and a few colleagues took him out on an excursion to a nearby ancient and famous Hindu temple. Upon arriving at the temple, they started to talk about religion. The Indonesians in the group were all Muslims. They asked Jasper about his religion. He spontaneously replied he didn’t have any religion and didn’t really believe in anything. For a moment there was an awkward silence among the Indonesians. Obviously Jasper’s choice to say that was not very wise. So what happened there? How should he have reacted to the question about his religion?

For many believers and worshipers around the world, admitting not to have any religion or believing in nothing can be shocking because having no religion can sometimes be interpreted as being superficial. This applies to many Indonesians who tend to mix business and religion (holistic approach to life and diffuse behavior). It would have been wiser for Jasper to say he was a Christian, even though it wasn’t entirely true (and for some people considered a lie). And it would have been better, too, for the sake of simplicity and to avoid any further discussions he obviously wasn’t comfortable with. Indeed, for him, business and religion are separate entities and personal aspects that shouldn’t be mixed  (segmenting reality and specific behavior). 

In fact, Jasper went on his internship culturally unprepared. He lacked basic intercultural knowledge, skills and competences that are necessary to adjust to a new cultural context. A sound preparation would have included developing intercultural awareness, cultural empathy, open mindedness, social initiative, flexibility and a few more (communication) skills and competences that are crucial for good intercultural relations. These are the skills and cultural baggage each TU/e-student going on an international experience should be equipped with in the future.

So in this story Jasper 2.0 as a TU/e student would reply: “Oh you know, as a Westerner, I’m Christian, and by the way, this is a very beautiful temple!” Everybody happy now? Probably. Keep it short & simple!

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