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Israel Has A Business Culture?

Tags: Arts and Culture, Science and Technology

By Debrah Marcus

When I first got into this field several years ago, people would react with disbelief when I explained what I did. “I offer cross cultural communication workshops dealing with Israeli Business Culture for business people wishing to conduct business in Israel /with Israelis and for Israelis who are planning to do business in English speaking countries. The reaction was the same every time – one of disbelief – Israelis – Culture – you have to be kidding, right?

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But I replied patiently, yes, there is an Israeli culture, and there is an Israeli business culture. It might not be the same as the one you’re used to, but it is most definitely out there!

The global impact felt thanks to inroads made by Israeli High-Tech has possibly changed this outlook, and people are now perhaps more aware that there is an Israeli way of doing business, and it’s not simply a random hit and miss affair.

Being aware that different people do things differently is a big step in the right direction.

That’s not to say that despite having lived here for many moons, I do not on occasion feel the need to take a deep breath or tear my hair out, but more often than not, understanding the message behind the message is enough to make me crack a smile.

Israelis see themselves as having Western / European values and by and large, Israel as a country can be considered as such. Let’s not forget that many Christian values have their roots in Judaism. In this and following articles, I will try to point out some of the more salient differences and provide some insight as to the background.

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Google's Tel Aviv office

The main area where differences are immediately noticeable usually involves personal interaction. Many of the inter-urban highways could be anywhere in the world, several residential and office blocks could likewise be located in any large, modern city, many academic and cultural institutions, etc. could also grace the skyline of many a modern city. But once you scratch the surface, and get into a lift in one of these tower blocks, or ask a surly, gum chewing clerk something, you will immediately be aware of just how different things are.

For Jews, Israel generates a feeling of wanting to belong, of being part of this vibrant rush of energy, located on a narrow strip alongside the Mediterranean. This expectation and belief in the oft repeated “one people” often collide head-on with the brusqueness which is “the Israeli”.

But don’t think you’re alone in questioning Israeli culture. Israelis too often question the way things are done elsewhere and may on occasion be most insulted or taken aback by what is a perfectly acceptable practice in that specific culture. A case in point: An Israeli youngster, who we will call Avi, was sent by his firm to attend a conference in the UK. It was his first job and he was excited at being chosen to attend the conference. On his return, over dinner with his parents, Avi described his experiences. Among other things, he described how he had shared a lunch table with several other conference attendees from the host country and found himself seated between two local participants. One of them had the gall to ask him to pass the salt and pepper (a perfectly polite request in the host culture). Our somewhat unworldly Israeli took great offense at this, because he simply presumed that his neighbor was requesting him to do something which he could easily have accomplished himself without involving him.

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The idea of being a “sucker” (or a freier in Hebrew) was foremost in Avi’s mind. His neighbor at the table could, according to Avi, have simply stretched across the table, and helped himself to the salt and pepper. Avi had no idea, that stretching across people at the dinner table is considered bad manners, and that this simple request had no bearing on his being a sucker or not.

Would you say that this is making a mountain out of a molehill? Yes, indeed. But it does certainly reflect the different outlooks which so often astound us.

Debrah Marcus lectures in Cross Cultural Communication and teaches Business English, in addition to working as a translator and interpreter. Debrah’s work involving both culture and language along with her rich work/life experience, place her in a unique position to provide some fascinating insights into Israeli culture.


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