After completing Ulpan Etzion, I courageously left the familiarity of Jerusalem to find work in Tel Aviv. Having grown up in the UK, I was excited by the prospect of moving near a sunny beach and decided to buy a bikini to celebrate. I entered a shop on Ibn Gvirol where the sales assistant, busy talking on her mobile phone and writing in a book, acknowledged my presence by nodding and shaking her hand in the direction of the costumes.
I picked out a bikini and went behind the curtain in the corner to try it on. Whilst in the middle of changing, the assistant put her head through the curtain offering help and insisting that I come out of the ‘cubicle’ to look in the mirror. I felt somewhat uncomfortable exposing my bikini-clad body in middle of the shop (and to all of Ibn Gvirol through the large glass window) but ventured out, as there appeared to be no other choice.
Looking at my reflection, I heard the assistant make a loud tutting sound. Then, without warning, she grabbed the bikini bottom lifting it higher on my leg and placed her hand down my bikini top to re-adjust its position. Shaking her head she then pointed to my thighs and said, with a genuinely sympathetic tone, ‘I’m fat there too’. Astounded by the assistant’s ‘helpfulness’, I rushed to get dressed and leave the shop quickly, politely declining the offers of more flattering costumes.
Rude or honest, intrusive or helpful, humiliating or entertaining - what would be your reaction to this shopping experience? Having previously bought swimwear only in the comfort of Marks and Spencer’s, I was personally horrified. I left the shop asking myself if it was practical to live in Israel yet do all my clothes shopping on visits to the UK or should I simply never wear a swimming costume again for fear of offending passers-by with my thighs?
Had I had more experience in Israel I may have understood that the assistant’s directness was much more to do with culture than it was to do with clothes size. In fact many elements of this story reflect cultural orientations. The unannounced cubicle entrance and costume re-adjustment are classic examples of Israel concept of personal space (or lack of it) whereas I saw it as intrusive boarding on physical molestation. Even the assistant’s reception, nodding to me whilst talking on her phone and writing, illustrates the strong tendency of Israelis to multi-task andmay not have just been bad customer service as I initially judged.
Understanding culture offers us an opportunity to better interpret the daily interactions we have living in Israel. This article, the first of the ‘Understanding Culture’ series, offers an introduction to culture and Israeli cultural orientations and describes briefly how to assess whether your cultural profile is likely to clash or be compatible with Israeli norms.
What is Culture?
Many people think of culture in terms of the behaviours you see among people from a particular country e.g. dress, manners, language, and gestures. This perspective, although partly correct, is too simplistic to capture accurately the key characteristics of culture.
Firstly, culture is expressed at different levels. The behaviours that we first notice when arriving in Israel only represent the outer cultural layer. Culture not only influences how we dress, speak, act but more importantly how we view the world - what we consider to be normal and abnormal, what behaviours we reward and which we reject. These cultural assumptions and values, which we cannot see and are usually not even aware of, underlie much of our culturally determined behaviour. For example, the Israeli tendency to express opinions and emotions, a clearly visible behaviour, reflects the hidden assumption in Israel that expressive communication is better, or at least more effective, than being reserved.
Secondly, culture is a group not a national phenomenon. We are influenced by the national culture of the country where we grow up, however, other groups to which we belong also impact our cultural identity e.g. being Jewish, belonging to a youth movement, professional group, social class etc. You may find that despite the vast cultural differences you have with some Israelis, they may be others with similar religious, interest or youth group affiliations that you have much in common with despite growing up in different countries.
Another common misperception is that culture is inherited where, in fact, it is learnt. No Israeli is born with a gene that dictates they should drive at lightning speed and never let another driver overtake. Cultural values and assumptions are learnt at an early age from our social surroundings - we are taught what will be effective and valued in the environment that we live. On making Aliyah we suddenly find that the rules of the game have changed - what worked in our previous culture is often ineffective or even disrespected in Israel.
Take the issue of attention to details. I was educated to thoroughly check the appearance of a piece of work before presenting it. This trait, which was highly valued when I worked in Britain, was suddenly redefined as ‘unnecessarily precise’ and ‘ineffectively slow’ in Israel where the content and speed of delivery is valued more than the aesthetics. Just take a look at English menus in Israel - do they really mean to offer ‘pee sop’ (pea soup) or ‘pie-nipple’ tart (pineapple). Where I found menu spelling astonishing, my Israeli friends couldn’t relate. In their opinion if the general idea is clear, why waste time on the finer details.
Another thing worth noting is that one’s culture, at least the deeper levels, is difficult to change. We can easily modify our outer behaviours e.g. wearing jeans to work rather than suits; however, our values and assumptions are firmly rooted. I know many olim from Britain (where queuing is a national pastime) who say they still have a reflex rise in blood pressure when someone pushes in front of them despite having lived in Israel for decades.
So should we just give up hope? If we are always going to be tied to the culture that we grew up with can we ever survive and enjoy Israeli culture? The answer, I believe, is yes. You don’t have to become more Israeli than the Israelis to be effective in Israel. What is important is to be aware of Israeli cultural orientations in order that we can more accurately interpret our interactions with Israelis and respond appropriately.
Israeli Cultural Orientations
Some people argue that the mix of different subcultures in Israel is so great that it is impossible to talk of a single Israeli culture. There are, however, a number of cultural orientations that have been identified by comparing the attitudes and assumptions of groups from Israel with like groups from around the world e.g. comparing Israeli IBM employees with similar IBM employees from different countries. From the many cultural orientations identified, five orientations are highlighted below describing key areas where Israeli culture tends to differ quite substantiallyrelative to cultures of many Anglo-Saxon countries.
Before reading on it is essential to note that the orientations below reflect tendencies within Israeli culturerelative to other cultures and are generalizations rather than hard and fast rules true for all Israelis. It is also important to understand that although it is easy to be ethnocentric (view the characteristics of our own group as superior to others) there is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to culture. Cultures develop to meet the needs of the particular group and environment and where some orientations may be more effective than others in certain contexts it doesn’t make them universally better.
Israeli culture tends to be very direct, expressive and informal in their communication style. Israeli ‘dugri’ (straight talk) is world famous with Israelis winning the global prize for saying what they think whatever the circumstances. This style can be interpreted as refreshingly honest, to the point, spontaneous and warm. However people coming from cultures that tend to favour indirect, reserved and more formal communication often view the way that Israelis communicate as rude, tactless, inappropriate and arrogant.
Israelis tends to be very comfortable with limited personal boundaries both in terms of physical space and personal privacy. The fact that someone may almost stand on top of you at the cash dispenser or ask questions about your love life and salary on a first encounter is quite normal in Israel. As a person who likes to keep her private life private and is quite happy to avoid excessive physicality with strangers (especially during Israeli summers), this orientation can take some getting used to.
Israelis tend to have a multi-focused, fluid approach to time. They have a natural ability to do many things simultaneously e.g. discussing business deals on mobile phones in the park while eating lunch and entertaining their kids on a climbing frame. Israelis also prefer to deal flexibly with issues as they arise rather than having a ‘plan the work, work the plan’ attitude. For cultures that prefer to deal with one thing at a time and value fixed schedules and appointments, the Israeli alternative approach to time management can sometimes seem disorganised and unprofessional.
Where some cultures view rules as utterly fixed and always to be followed, Israelis tend to see rules more as general guidelines to be tested where necessary. Understanding the concept of ‘frier’ (sucker) is central to survival in Israel. In contrast to my ‘serve and obey’ school motto, the Israeli ‘don’t be a frier’ motto respects those that cleverly play the system but lacks sympathy for people who allow themselves to be taken advantage of. When it comes to the rules of parking, queuing, ‘fixed prices’ etc everything is up for negotiation.
Israeli culture tends to view people equally rather than give special treatment according to status. In some countries class dictates who you are and where your appropriate place in society lies. In Israel everyone feels they have the right to do what they want and to express an opinion (or three) - road sweeper and powerful CEO alike. Although honourably equalitarian, the resulting ease with which Israelis challenge hierarchy and authority is often misinterpreted as inappropriate, arrogant or disrespectful.
Culture Clash or Cultural Compatibility
To what extent do these cultural orientations sound familiar from your Israeli experience? For many olim, every item has a deafening ring of truth about it - other olim; however, find certain orientations familiar yet others less so. As mentioned before, everyone has their own cultural profile and it may not necessarily reflect the orientations of the national culture where they grew up. How similar your personal (rather than your national) cultural profile is to the Israeli profile defines the extent to which you are likely to clash or be compatible with Israel culture.
If you struggled with the excessive formality, uptight politeness and the strict privacy characteristic of your previous culture you may well find the informality, spontaneity and warmth of Israel refreshing and compatible with your personal cultural orientations. I, alternatively, felt very comfortable with my English ways when I stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion and was far from prepared for the cultural challenges that lay ahead. Understanding culture enabled me to identify that the clashes that I first experienced in Israel were often cultural and not personal. Furthermore I can now appreciate that many of the ‘Israeli ways’ have value and are more effective in the Israeli context than my previous cultural approach. The honesty of clothing shop assistants that I once found horrific I now find ‘helpful’ even if I do still prefer to bikini shop in Marks and Spencer’s.