Our all-Israeli, all-Hebrew company was trying to integrate an American sales rep. “Shalom! I’m Jerry!” exclaimed the latest victim to be hired. “I’m really excited to be working here! It’s great to meet you all!”
We all said, “Nice to meet you, Jerry” with our best American manners, and went back to work. For a moment he just stood there — but if he expected something more from us, we had no idea what. Finally, he mumbled, “OK, see you later” and returned to his cubicle across the hall.
By the time the door clicked closed behind him, we all had our wallets out.
“Twenty says he won’t make it through the week,” I called.
“Three weeks,” said Avi.
“I have a feeling about this one,” Ilan mused. “I give him three months and up.” It was the longest shot on the board.
We tallied our bets in the now-tattered “American sales reps” notebook. “Poor guys, they’re like fish out of water here,” sighed Michal, leafing through the many crossed-out names. “Why can’t management see this just doesn’t work?”
“When Israelis and Americans interact,” says Vivian Deutsch, co-founder of IAIA (Israeli American Intercultural Advantage), a cross-cultural training and consulting firm, “it is easy to recognize that there are cultural differences; what is not apparent is the impact of those differences. If left unaddressed, they can result in conflicts, bad work relationships, missed deadlines, failed projects” or worse.
Surface similarities often mask the actual prevalence and depth of cultural misunderstandings, says Anat Kedem, IAIA’s Israeli co-founder. “It’s something we come across every time. Israelis tend to think that because they watch American TV, they understand Americans. They find out pretty quickly that life is not ‘Seinfeld.’”
In their workshops, Kedem and Deutsch examine specific workplace interactions through a practical anthropological lens. They explore the different environmental, geographical and historical roots from which Israeli and American identities developed, and the resulting disparities between Israeli and American behavior.
Different communication styles, for example. “The first big bugaboo,” says Deutsch.
“Israel’s dugri [direct] communication style” — blunt, decisive, often confrontational — “derives from the historical concept of the Sabra becoming the ‘new Jew,’” explains Kedem. The Israeli pioneers lived rough, bare-knuckle lives, and a matching communication style evolved for them. Or to quote Deutsch: “A country elbowing its way into existence has no time for niceties. It still doesn’t.”
“Underneath this ‘telling it like it is’ is a tolerance towards conflict,” adds Kedem. “In Israel, the thinking is that confrontation is good — it raises the energy level, it’s a sign of a healthy team — it’s actually a team-building activity. For Americans, conflict is seen as counterproductive and harmful, and their own form of tactful communication is geared to avoid it.”
Examples of misunderstandings that flow from these different philosophies are endless. When an American says, “I would appreciate if you could get this to me by Thursday,” he means that the drop-dead deadline is Thursday. An Israeli would take this to mean that getting it done by Thursday would be nice, but later is also OK. Israeli for “have it done by Thursday” is “have it done by Thursday.”
When an Israeli, on the other hand, says, “You’re wrong,” all he means is, “I beg to differ, let’s discuss.” What an American might hear is, “I obviously don’t care what you think, since I just trampled all over your opinion.”
Rachel S., an Israeli Microsoft project manager working here, was dubbed “The Rain Maker” because all her staff meetings would end with at least one person in tears. “When they asked my opinion, I’d give it to them,” she shrugs. “I didn’t come here to play footsie.”
If anybody could attest to the cost of different communication styles, it’s Jerry. I lost my bet; he made it past the first week. But 10 days in, I found him pacing outside the building, huffing and sniffling, eyes bright with unshed tears. “I just made my first big sale,” he said in a choked voice, “but the boss said it’s not good enough. She basically threatened to fire me!”
I went into the manager’s office and informed her Jerry was really upset. She looked surprised. “But I just told him he was doing a good job!”
“Hmm…” I rubbed my chin. “How exactly did you say it?”
“I said, ‘Great, you’re finally starting to pull your weight around here!’”
Classic, says Deutsch. “Most people don’t realize that Israelis and Americans don’t only express themselves differently, they have different motivational systems.” Americans are motivated by positive reinforcement, by the promise that a job well done is appreciated and will be rewarded. Israelis — for whom, historically, a job not done well may well mean a threat to survival — typically thrive when prodded to do better.
And what about our different approach to rules, regulations, plans? For the American, a rule’s a rule; for an Israeli, it’s a guideline. If something else happens to work better than the original plan, why stick to it?
In negotiations, Americans have a win-win mentality. Israelis just have “win.”
“This comes from Israelis’ attitude towards boundaries,” Kedem says. “Beginning with the fact Israel still doesn’t have an agreement about its borders. We’re constantly pushing against physical and mental boundaries. … We know we’ve crossed a boundary only when we’re pushed back. If there is no pushback, we understand we haven’t reached the boundary yet. That’s just how Israelis are brought up.”
Recognizing a cultural misunderstanding is the first step towards resolving it, but that doesn’t mean it won’t grate on you, says Deutsch. “You will still get upset. You’ll still roll your eyes and say ‘those people. … The first thing you do is count to 10. Then remember it’s a cultural thing. It’s not personal… it’s just the way we are.”
Jerry must have heard “It’s just the way we are” one time too many, because at month three of his employment, we heard his chair hit the floor. We rushed to his cubicle, and found him in a chest-to-chest standoff with Gilad “The Hammer” Levi, a notoriously loud-mouthed sales rep who had made record sales, with both American and Israeli customers, by not allowing them to get a word in edgewise. The two were arguing over a sales commission. Jerry was turning a dangerous shade of red.
“I … don’t … CARE IF YOU’RE ISRAELI!” he yelled, interrupting Gilad in mid-rant. “I don’t care if you’re the Zohan himself! It was my sale: I’m right, you’re wrong, now shut up!”
For a moment The Hammer regarded him through narrowed eyes — then raised his hands in the air. “OK, you win,” he grinned, and slapped Jerry on the back. “Finally, you’re talking dugri.”
Orli Santo is a correspondent for the New York-based weekly Yediot America. Her column appears monthly.