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Timor-Leste cultural insights

The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.

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Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:


Local perspective

East Timor or Timor-Leste is a tiny country that takes up half of Timor Island and has about 800 000 people. It has almost 16 different ethnic groups and 32 dialects. Major ethnic groups are divided according to the number of dialect speakers, which are Mambae, Tetun or Fehan, Makasae, Fataluku, Bunak, Kemak and Atoni.

Indigenous culture which is practised by Timorese is largely influenced their traditional animist beliefs. East Timor or Timor-Leste culture had also suffered from exterior influences. The country had been famous in the past for its sandalwood and had been communicating with other traders such as Indians and Chinese prior to the arrivals of the Portuguese. Traders had been the first outsiders that brought new components to Timorese culture. Portuguese culture, after 400 years of colonization has also had a large influence on Timorese culture. Finally, 24 years of being Indonesia’s 27thprovince has brought new components to the culture.

It is common for Timorese to shake hands when meeting a stranger for the first time. While shaking hands, Timorese look the stranger in the eyes briefly and flash a smile to show their high respect to the stranger. Introduction of names, and talking about the district or country one is from can be done at this time. Or one can also greet the stranger with, "How are you" when shaking hands.

After this stage, usually Timorese proceed to other general topics of conversation. Usually Timorese keep brief and continuous eye contact with the person they are speaking to and still flash out a brief smile. This shows respect and consideration to the person one is talking to.

Canadian perspective

Ask people about their family and tell them about your own family or community at home. Show photos of your life in Canada. Good initial discussion topics are also what part of the country people come from, the natural beauty of their country, Timorese foods and Timorese cultural celebrations.

Humour is well received. Canadians may find that Timorese people make jokes and laugh at times when we would be more serious, but this sense of humour has likely helped Timorese people to cope with very difficult situations in the past. Humour is often about people (for example making fun of someone’s physical appearance), which may seem uncomfortable to Canadians, but is seen as being honest by Timorese.

Questions about how the political conflict in East Timor has affected people personally should be treated sensitively but are seen as taking an interest in their situation. People will find it easier to talk about what happened to them during the crisis of 1999 than about what happened during the Indonesian invasion and the period following. Asking people about more sensitive issues such as whether they have been in prison, lost loved ones in the violence, etc. should be done after there is more relationship established.

One should be cautious about directly criticizing the church, as the church is highly regarded for its role in the struggle for Independence. Many Timorese people are socially conservative so conversations about sex, same sex relationships, divorce, abortion, women’s rights, and racism should be approached very cautiously. Some people may be willing to listen to your explanations about how these issues are handled in Canada, but be sensitive. One should not directly criticize Indonesian people or assume that Timorese people dislike Indonesian people as individuals.

Communication styles

Local perspective

Touching the person that you meet for the first time is not common and you would always keep distance when speaking. In your conversation, it is not common also to ask if the other person is married, how many kids he or she has or who are his/her parents. If your tone of voice during the conversation is too loud people will feel offended.

Canadian perspective

Timorese people are more comfortable with close physical contact that Canadians. When they are comfortable with you, people may touch you while talking. In a meeting or lecture, Timorese people may look quite disengaged from what is happening and not look at the speaker.

One should not touch the heads of Timorese people as this is seen as disrespectful.

A polite and slow, low tone of voice is preferable. If the situation is tense, it does not help to raise one’s voice; in fact, doing so may make a Timorese person withdraw. In a one-on-one situation, it is best as an international/foreigner to be clear, but not to be too commanding.

Timorese people will be more direct in their criticism of other Timorese than Canadians are used to. Amongst themselves, Timorese people seem to feel more comfortable when direct criticism is given in a group context, which may make Canadians uncomfortable. In the context of a meeting, when one person raises a concern, others will usually follow suit and raise additional concerns, not always related to the issue at hand.

It is polite to greet most people with a handshake. When entering a room where a number of people have gathered it is appropriate to greet each one individually with a handshake.

Display of emotion

Local perspective

Public displays of affection or anger are not acceptable and not common in East Timor, or Timor-Leste. Expressing anger publicly is considered rude and insulting to the person he/she is addressing and will harm future meetings.

Women may kiss each other in public even if they are only meeting for the first time. Men will only shake hands with women when meeting them for the first time and vice-versa. Only men and women that have a close family relationship kiss each other in public.

It is considered taboo for non-legally-married couples to kiss or hug each other publicly.

Canadian perspective

Timorese people may greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks (particularly among women when they meet and between men and women who are meeting after a long parting). Holding hands and putting arms around each other is common between friends, among both men and women. Public displays of affection in a dating or marriage-type relationship are frowned upon.

Displays of anger are generally acceptable in a public context such as a meeting. In certain situations, when they are feeling particularly challenged or disrespected, Timorese people (especially men) can become very angry and sometimes violent. Most people believe this is related to trauma from the conflict and oppression, which the country has experienced—anger lies below the surface and when it emerges, it may emerge strongly. Silence and withdrawal is another way that Timorese people express anger. A lack of response should not be always interpreted as a lack of interest in the issue.

Dress, punctuality & formality

Local perspective

Dress for work is quite modest in Timor-Leste because of tropical weather. For women, a skirt and blouse or a long dress are acceptable. For men, long trousers and long or short sleeved shirts are common dress. For very formal occasions, suites are required.

In the work place, Timorese address their colleagues with " Senhor A" and Senhora B", which literally mean Mr. and Mrs, regardless of his/her level.

Timorese approach to time is quite relaxed. People are use to arriving to the office or to appointments or meetings late.

Living in an extended family style, Timorese feel related to everybody, which makes them always have an excuse to leave the office at working hours and to go for familiar occasions ceremonies.

Due to the lack of local human resources, productivity at workplaces is low and people wait to be told to carry out their jobs.

Canadian perspective

Dress for the office tends to be "smart casual". At important meetings, people tend to dress up (men in ties and/or jackets, women in somewhat formal dresses or skirts). Dress should always be modest. Dress for parties is quite formal.

Supervisors and colleagues should both be addressed formally initially. After some time, colleagues can be addressed more informally. Supervisors may want you to continue to address them as "Mr. ____ or Senor ___". Tetum (the Timorese language) includes various levels of formality—colleagues and friends are usually addressed as "sister, brother". It takes some time for internationals to be addressed this way and it is best to wait for the Timorese to initiate the use of this level of familiarity.

Orientation to time is more flexible than in Canada. In order to meet deadlines, people will often need to be reminded several times and/or supervised closely regarding time. Punctuality will tend to lapse somewhat over time. Lack of attendance at meetings is frequent amongst non-governmental organizations and some government representatives, so you may wish to remind people and encourage them to attend, sometimes on a number of occasions. Lack of attendance, though, does not necessarily mean lack of interest; it often indicates an overburden of work and difficulty meeting competing demands.

Absenteeism is not understood in the same way as in Canada. Ground rules should be developed to guide how soon in advance people must alert supervisors and colleagues re: absences, what are justifiable reasons for absences, what kind of documentation (if any) is required for Sick Time.

Lunch breaks are often leisurely and breaks are taken in the morning and afternoon. In the afternoon as the heat rises there seems to be a drop in productivity. Willingness to work overtime is not as prevalent as in Canada. Staff may work together to complete a task in Canada would be one individual’s responsibility.

Preferred managerial qualities

Local perspective

Apart from having education, experience and leadership qualities, a local or expat superior or manager should be hard working and disciplined in whatever relates to the job in order to be an example for other colleagues. Being personable is another quality required for a manager in terms of his/her interaction with other colleagues. A manager should avoid showing an attitude of superiority because it will hinder him/her in leading his/her colleagues and managing the office.

It is common for Timorese to talk about their manager with each other when they feel unhappy with him/her. They will usually not show to their manager his/her weaknesses directly. The only way to get their views on you is through friendly and one-one dialogue.

Canadian perspective

Education, approachability, experience and the ability to lead are valued in a local superior. High regard is also given if the person comes from an important social position or if he/she played an important role in the Independence struggle. People may have more respect for someone who comes from their part of the country. The ability to work consultatively and to generate new ideas is not necessarily as much of a priority for Timorese people as for Canadians.

Internationals are highly regarded if they are: respectful of Timorese people and treat them as equals; willing to learn about Timorese culture, society and history; willing to learn one of the local languages; able to laugh and joke; and able to show clear leadership; and if they show a commitment to improving the situation in the country and already have some background working on East Timor.

You may hear how your staff views you through feedback from a local staff member, who will report on what others are saying about you. If your staffs feel you are doing a good job they may give you direct feedback; if they feel you are doing a poor job you may get no feedback at all. People will generally be more friendly and open with international colleagues whom they feel are doing a good job.

Hierarchy and decision-making

Local perspective

The top-down management style, which is still common in Timor-Leste means that all the decisions are taken by the manager or leader. However, a manager may consult his/her colleagues prior to taking the decision.

Ideas are generated mainly by the manager, although sometimes with a small group.

It is acceptable to go to one’s supervisor for answer and feedback.

Canadian perspective

People tend to defer to senior staff or leaders for making decisions and generating ideas. Timorese culture privileges hierarchy and the importance of "elders". East Timor’s history of colonization and a weak education system have dissuaded or prevented the Timorese from making decisions on their own behalf. In some settings, issues can be discussed in a group and a decision obtained. Timorese people need to be encouraged and supported to develop ideas and experiment with new ways of doing things.

It may be difficult to get honest feedback. In order not to offend, Timorese people will express agreement on an idea or plan regardless of what they really think about it.

Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender

Local perspective


Gender is a new way of thinking in Timor-Leste. Timor Leste has a paternalistic style in which women play the role of housewife, look after the kids and cook. Men, on the other hand, are responsible for earning the money to support the family and are the ones who are involved in community’s decisions and activities. However men have high respect towards women and they are very protective of women in case of women are in trouble.

One should be careful interacting with a colleague’ girl-/boyfriend or spouse (if you are the opposite sex). Timorese are very protective in this sense and they can react very strongly if they feel threatened.


Prior to Portuguese arrival in the island 400 years ago, animism was as the dominant religion of the Timorese. Portuguese missionaries introduced Christianity to the island and now, 90 percent of Timorese are Catholic and roughly 70 percent are observant. Protestants are the second major religion in Timor-Leste, after which come Animism and Islam. Catholic church hierarchy has big power to influence the socio and political life of Timorese because of its long tradition of interaction with the people, at all levels of communities and government. Any sensible thought, practice or ideas against Catholicism and its teachings could eventually create serious social problems because of reactions from fanatic believers.


In some parts of the countryside there are two classes of people. First, is the family of the leader of the community and second, all other members of the community.


In the workplace one should use common sense in the interaction with other colleagues and avoid sensitive issues regarding religion and ethnicity. Conflicts between ethnic groups are common in Timor-Leste and often start because somebody insults or minimizes or puts down a person from another ethnic group. When this occurs, the conflict usually ends up being a group conflict and can be quite dangerous.

Canadian perspective


In work settings, gender roles are such that men tend to be in leadership roles and women do not participate as actively in discussions and decision-making. The upheaval created through the crisis in 1999 and the subsequent opening up of East Timor have created new opportunities for women and for discussion and change on gender issues. Some people blame internationals for bringing these ideas and say that they have no place in Timorese culture.


Meetings frequently begin with a Catholic prayer. Church representatives who participate in meetings will be shown a good deal of respect. Several religious holidays are national holidays.


Timorese society is relatively stratified, but it may be difficult for an international to properly understand the different levels of stratification. People from higher-class families will be treated with more respect. Because East Timor is a poor country, people from higher classes may not appear wealthy in the same way that the upper class would in other countries. There are also class distinctions based on urbanity and ethnicity (those in urban areas or with Portuguese ancestry tend to be more "upper class").


Ethnicity is not as serious an issue in East Timor as in other countries. There is no particular discrimination against one region, but regional associations are strong and can sometimes affect working relationships. People with Portuguese or mixed European ancestry tend to be seen as higher class. Immigrants from other countries may be regarded with a certain amount of resentment if they have found relative prosperity in business and industry.


Local perspective

Personal relationships with colleagues or clients is really important in terms of decreasing the feeling of distance, making them feel please and comfortable and to feel that workplace is like their home. Start your relationship with light topics of common interest before getting to your real business. You can also give him/her small presents of some value from your region or visit his/her house, family as part of starting a relationship.

When Timorese host a visitor they do not ask him or her what to drink and eat, they just offer whatever they see as a best offer. Rejecting the offer is considering an offence to the person that makes the offer.

In the community or in the workplace one should continuously take the initiative to greet or say hello to everybody in order to deepen one’s interaction and relation with others. In your work break time try to set aside time to chat with whomever, regardless of his or her rank.

Canadian perspective

Trust and good relationships make it much easier to get things accomplished. It is useful to deal with people on a personal level (asking about their family, making small talk, etc) as well as discussing the work issues at hand. It seems that if Timorese people feel they know you and that your motives are legitimate (and especially if you are wanting to assist the country and the people of East Timor) they are very willing to assist and work together.

Privileges and favouritism

Local perspective

There is a mentality inherited from Indonesian regime’s occupation of colleagues or employees expecting privileges or considerations because of their relationship or friendship. Examples of the preferential treatment they would expect would be in the application of office rules and disciplines, or the hiring his/her friends or family members if there is a vacancy open at your work place. This type of practice is socially rejected and when somebody comes across the situation, he or she should politely approach his or her colleague/employee to explain the reasons for not agreeing to such practices.

Canadian perspective

Some people may expect special treatment if they have a relationship with you. At the same time, though, there has been a new emphasis on transparency since the involvement of the international community in East Timor and as a reaction against the corruption of the Indonesian era.

Caution must be used with respect to privileges for "family". Timorese people tend to have large families and it is not unusual for people to have some kind of family relationship with colleagues either through blood or marriage. Policies or approaches that identify these relationships and try to set up checks when there is a supervisory or commercial relationship can be useful.

It may be appropriate to provide special privileges to staff who have distinguished themselves by putting extra effort into their work (for example working overtime to get a project completed) or who have made progress in the quality of their work (such as improvements in written English). Staff appreciate both pay for overtime and time off in lieu. When travelling outside of East Timor, and especially if staff pick up extra responsibilities during this time, it is thoughtful to bring back some small gifts for them.

Because of the importance of family, it is sensitive to consider offering privileges (such as time off) when someone’s family member dies or is ill. However, there must be some limits put to this (how closely related this person was to the staff member) because some people may abuse these privileges.

Conflicts in the workplace

Local perspective

If you have a work-related problem with a colleague at your workplace, you should not confront him or her in public directly. Approach him or her softly and have a private conversation without making early judgement against him or her. Ask his/her views on what how you see the situation and then (if you are the manager) try politely to show him/her where his/her strengths and weaknesses are and suggest ways for future improvements.

If somebody is having problems with you or is offended by something you have done, he/she will always avoid looking at you or speaking to you. If he/she walks in your direction and does not greet or flash a smile at you; that is a sign. It is easy to read from Timorese faces when they feel annoyed with somebody.

Canadian perspective

It is best to confront the person directly and privately. Remember that English is not the person’s first language so make your communication clear and understandable to them. Simple is usually better in stressful situations.

See also Workplace questions #2 and 3 regarding feedback.

Motivating local colleagues

Local perspective

Your local colleagues will feel motivated when you express that you are pleased with their work and they will, in turn, feel proud of themselves and have more confidence to perform the job in the future.

Timorese have a strong commitment to carry out any job as long as they have the knowledge and skills on it. Due to the lack of capacity building opportunities in Timor-Leste, training a person to perform a job well is really necessary.

Money is one of the major motivations for Timorese. As a manager you should ensure that the salary payment is done precisely on time. Any delay of payment will productivity at work.

Good working condition in terms of physical and psychological environment are needed and will make Timorese feel at home in the workplace.

Canadian perspective

Job satisfaction, good relationships with colleagues, encouragement from superiors, some flexibility in terms of working hours (or at least recognition that family needs may impact upon work), benefits such as social events, transportation provided by employer and a commitment to the subject of the work will motivate local colleagues to perform well.

Recommended books, films & foods

Local perspective

Timor-Leste is a nation of one and a half years old, making access to books, film, Television shows, Websites to visits, news papers, TV/radio sporting events, and comedy shows difficult. However, information can be gathered from Canadians such as RCMP police members that were deployed for one or two years in the country, or through Canadian Civil Society organizations e.g. CARE Canada, CUSO and USC officers.

Canadian perspective

Websites, Tapol (the Indonesian Human Rights Campaign), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Catholic Institute for International Relations,


The Redundancy of Courage, Timothy Mo (a novel dramatizing the Indonesian invasion) and The Place of the Dead, Arnold Kohen (a biography of Bishop Belo). A variety of books on East Timor should be available in most libraries or bookstores. Mai Koalia Tetum by Geoffrey Hull is a useful book if one wants to study Tetum in a more disciplined way. It can be ordered through the East Timor Alert Network at

Language books

The Lonely Planet East Timor Phrasebook is excellent and can be ordered on-line through Lonely Planet.


"Bitter Paradise" is a film made by Canadian Elaine Briere and may be available through the National Film Board. One could also try to find videos about East Timor through development education centres or AVEL, which is the audio-visual program of the United Church of Canada.

In-country activities

Local perspective

Timor-Leste has great potential for tourism. One can enjoy the warm weather of costal areas or easily reach the upland sites for a fresh or colder climate. The eastern part of the country is famous for its crocodiles and Tutuala and the island of Jaco are interesting sites to visit. Mount of Ramelau, the highest mountain of the country, located in the central part, is another good place to visit. Atauro, the island opposite the capital Dili, is an interesting site to visit.

Frequent individual contacts with either local Timorese or Expats that have stayed long in the country could be potential sources for cultural interpreters.

In terms of food, there are Portuguese, Asian and traditional dishes served in restaurants in the urban sites.

Canadian perspective

Watch local TV, listen to local radio, read local newspapers; visit local markets; eat in locally owned restaurants; buy staple items (water, candles, coffee) in neighbourhood "kiosks"; visit the Xanana Reading Room (in downtown Dili); travel outside of Dili to visit the districts and try hiking in the hills and mountains outside of Dili. If you are invited to a Timorese party make sure you attend.

National heroes

Local perspective

Timor-Leste has national heroes but information on them has yet to be developed.

Canadian perspective

Heroes in East Timor are primarily related to the struggle for Timorese Independence, first from Portugal and then from Indonesia. Some of the high profile people are: Bishop Belo—former Catholic Bishop of Dili, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for speaking out against the Indonesian occupation; Xanana Gusmao—now the President of Timor-Leste and previously a leader of the resistance forces; Jose Ramos-Horta—now the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy when he lived in exile during the Indonesian occupation; and Nicolau Lobato—the Commander of Falintil at the time of the Indonesian invasion, later killed by Indonesian security forces.

Shared historical events with Canada

Local perspective

Since Timor Leste history has yet to be developed it is hard to say precisely on this matter.

Canadian perspective

No. Canadians are usually respected in East Timor. Prior to the crisis of 1999, Canada was one of only a few donor countries involved in East Timor. Since the crisis of 1999, many more countries have become involved there, decreasing the relative importance of Canada as a donor country. However, Canada has made important contributions, for example through the deployment of Canadian police officers to the UN mission. A Canadian was the Chief of the UN police forces for a significant period of time.


Local perspective

The stereotypes that Timorese have about the Europeans, Australians, Canadians, Americans and New Zealanders are as follows: sense of superiority in terms of knowledge, individualistic in terms of not caring about neighbours and secularist in the sense of not giving importance to the religion and its teachings.

Canadian perspective

In a reaction to the oppression that East Timor has experienced, foreigners may have a perception that East Timor’s problems are now solved and that people will be able to live together without violence and repression. Unfortunately, no society is as simple as this and East Timor society also has its own contradictions, complexities and growing pains.

About the cultural interpreters

Local interpreter

Your cultural interpreter was born in Boston and has lived in Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria and London (UK). She studied Social Work at the University of Victoria and the University of Toronto and worked on violence against women and women's economic issues before beginning her work on human rights issues in Asia. Your cultural interpreter travelled several times to Asia gathering human rights information. She moved to East Timor in 2001 where she lived for one year. She is currently living in Jakarta, Indonesia with her baby daughter and East Timorese husband.

Canadian interpreter

Your cultural interpreter was born in Boston and has lived in Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria and London (UK). She studied Social Work at the University of Victoria and the University of Toronto and worked on violence against women and women's economic issues before beginning her work on human rights issues in Asia. Your cultural interpreter travelled several times to Asia gathering human rights information. She moved to East Timor in 2001 where she lived for one year. She is currently living in Jakarta, Indonesia with her baby daughter and East Timorese husband.

Related information


Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.

You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.

The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.

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