Background Diabetes education has been found to impact positively on self-management by people with diabetes although little is known about the process by which they assimilate information. The aim of this study was to generate a theory explaining the process by which people with diabetes learn about their disease in Indonesia. Methods This study employed a grounded theory methodology influenced by constructivism and symbolic interactionism. A total of twenty-eight face-to-face or telephone interviews with participants from Indonesia that included people with diabetes, healthcare professionals, health service providers and families of people with diabetes were conducted in both Indonesia and Australia. Results This study discloses a core category of Learning, choosing, and acting: self-management of diabetes in Indonesia as the basic social process of how people learn about their diabetes. The process includes five distinctive major categories. People with diabetes acted after they had received recommendations that they considered to be trustworthy. Factors that influenced their choice of recommendations to adopt are also identified. Conclusions Awareness of the complexity involved in their decision making will assist healthcare professionals to engage effectively with people living with diabetes.