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Israeli Communication Style and Boundaries: UNDERSTANDING CULTURE PART TWO

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Author: Katrina Jacobs
“Israelis simply do not have the same concept of ‘minding one’s own business’ as other nations have. In Israel, everything and everybody is everyone else’s business. If Israelis keep their bedroom windows closed while being intimate, it is for fear of being shouted at with neighbourly advice. The Xenophobe’s® Guide to The Israelis (i) 

How we define ‘one’s business,’ and personal boundaries in general, is largely determined by our culture. In the first ‘Understanding Culture’ article, some key characteristics of culture were described and the issue ofboundaries was introduced as a cultural parameter together with communication, time, rules and authority. This second article takes a closer look at the Israeli cultural orientation towards communication and personal boundaries and will be followed by a third article focusing on time, rules and authority. In both these articles real-life anecdotes are shared to illustrate the consequences of cultural differences and strategies are offered to help avoid, or at least manage, the ‘challenges’ that often occur when Anglo-Saxons interact with Israelis.


Communication Style – ‘Why didn’t you ask?’

My first job in Israel was a 3-month research project for a local consulting firm. Despite the pay being negligible, especially when comparing it to my previous UK salary (a most inadvisable endeavour), I was happy to find work in my field. Furthermore, I was pleased with the offer of a desk, computer, and secretarial support throughout the project. When I started, I was informed that for the first few days I should use whatever computer was free until I was given my own workstation. After a couple of weeks, no workstation had been assigned and I was already doing all my administration work myself rather than approaching the ‘less-than-obliging’ secretaries for help. After 3 months, I was still jumping between different consultants' computers and felt utterly dejected by the whole work experience. As such, I was somewhat surprised when in our final project meeting my manager offered me more work. I thanked him politely yet replied that I would rather not continue with the firm given the poor conditions and lack of support. My manager looked at me completely amazed and asked in a confused tone ‘if you wanted support, why didn’t you ask?’

This was my first lesson in the rules of Israeli communication… if you want something - ask! Simple indeed, yet at this point in my acculturation I was still ‘terribly English’ and felt uncomfortable asking for anything for fear of appearing demanding. I interpreted the lack of promised support as disrespectful and unprofessional whereas my manager, who in hindsight was a good employer, had simply been too busy to check up on the workstation issue and assumed that, as he had not heard to the contrary, I must have been happy.

Differences in communication style are the cause of many cultural conflicts between Israeli and non-Israelis. Israelis prefer to communicate in a way that is direct – very direct. Interests are mostly expressed in terms of ‘I want’ or ‘I need’ and more indirect phrases such as ‘Would it be possible’ or ‘It would nice if…’ may well be misinterpreted, if not missed completely. Likewise, a difference in opinion may well be expressed simply as ‘You’re wrong’ rather than using the more subtle approach of ‘In my opinion…’ or ‘You may be right, but…’ Although directness may seem crude, tactless and even arrogant to those of an indirect persuasion, in Israel, it is very much the accepted and appreciated norm. Furthermore, Israelis often view indirectness as difficult to read and unnecessarily polite and prefer it when people just clearly say what they think (even if it is informing you that your thighs are fat!).(ii)

Another aspect of Israeli communication is its tendency to be very expressive. A friendly discussion can quickly develop into a passionate verbal exchange with participants shouting and waving their arms in the air. Those unaccustomed to Israeli expressiveness would be forgiven for running for cover or expecting a punch-up to break out at any second. In reality, it is extremely rare for arguments to turn into physical fights and more often than not they end with smiles and friendly slaps on the back. It is often said that ‘arguing’ is an Israeli’s favourite pastime - though this may be a slight exaggeration, Israelis do value greatly the open expression of opinions. Unlike the English who tend to keep their emotions reserved and often avoid sharing an opinion that would create conflict, Israelis generally enjoy a good ‘discussion’ and will happily join in – even with complete strangers and on matters that they know little, if anything, about.

Israeli non-verbal communication (e.g. speech patterns, volume) also has its own cultural distinctiveness. Anglo-Saxon cultures generally have a preference for conversing using ‘paralleling’ speech – one person speaks and when s/he finishes the next person starts and then when they finish someone else continues, etc. Israelis tend to demonstrate ‘overlapping’ speech patterns – where one person speaks and before they have finished another person starts and so on and so forth. It is far from uncommon to observe discussions in Israel where everyone appears to be talking at the same time. Where many cultures may be very sensitive to interruptions and consider them to be rude, in Israel, interruptions are quite normal.

In relation to volume, visitors to Israel often comment that Israelis talk loudly. The issue of loudness, however, is not clear-cut and appears to depend on context. During one-to-one conversation Israelis generally do not speak more loudly than other Anglo-Saxon cultures. However, being very expressive, Israelis often do raise their voices when telling stories or arguing, and when in groups, conversation can be impressively noisy relative to other cultures (necessary perhaps to be heard above all the interruptions). Also when two parties are standing far apart, it is quite normal for Israelis to shout from a distance - whether it is across a busy street, a crowded bus, or even an office full of working people - rather than move closer and talk quietly. This trait, however, relates as much to the cultural parameter of personal boundaries as it does to communication style, as explored below.

Personal Boundaries – what is considered private, and what public?

As the opening quote indicates, Israeli culture is not one that adheres to strict boundaries – either in terms of personal privacy or physical space. In the US or UK, questions about marital status in a work interview is rare and would likely be interpreted as inappropriate, if not illegal. In Israel, such personal questions are really quite normal, particularly if the interviewer happens to have a single friend or relative that they want find a ‘shidduch’ for. Other issues considered to be strictly private in Anglo-Saxon cultures (e.g. salaries, house/rent prices, personal relationships, even plastic surgery) tend to be acceptable subjects for public discussion in Israel.

When you enter a taxi in New York or London, you can almost guarantee that the conversation, if any, will focus on one or more of the following subjects: weather, sport, news, or general chit-chat about the area from which you have been picked up or that to which you are going. Acceptable topics are neutral and impersonal so as not to be intrusive and to avoid, at all cost, any items which may create a feeling of discomfort or embarrassment. Conversations with Israeli taxi-drivers tend to follow a distinctly more personal track with questions typically including: reasons for being in Israel, work (and salary), family in Israel, marital status (if you are not married – why, and if you are married but not pregnant – why not!). These questions are not considered particularly intrusive or offensive in the way they would be in the US or UK. In many respects Israelis treat everyone as if they are family and personal questions are viewed as being friendly, showing interest or just making conversation – nothing more, nothing less.

Physical, as well as personal, boundaries are also far less defined than they are in many other cultures. Israelis generally are very comfortable being in close proximity to each other. When using a cash machine or ‘queuing’ at the supermarket it is not uncommon to turn around and find yourself literally face-to-face with the person behind you. When clothes shopping, be aware that private changing cubicles are rarely private – assistants often enter unannounced to offer their opinion or readjust your outfit, and when you leave the cubicle momentarily, you frequently return to find another customer changing clothes amongst your items. Noise boundaries are also less restricted in Israel. Shouting across a crowded space (as previously mentioned), talking loudly on mobile phones or listening to music full volume in a public park, although unlikely to be appreciated, will generally not be considered as disturbing, rude or inconsiderate as it would in many other cultures.

People greatly differ in their response to Israeli comfort with limited boundaries and communication style. Some find the directness and ‘lack’ of personal boundaries simply shocking and can’t wait to get on the next flight out of Ben Gurion – for others, the Israeli ways are refreshingly honest, spontaneous and warm. If you find yourself falling more into the former than latter of this two categories, the strategies outlined below may well help improve your interactions with Israelis.


Strategies for Interacting with Israelis

The starting point for any effective interaction in Israel is to be aware of your own cultural orientations relative to Israeli norms. Where differences exist, it is important to resist applying your cultural assumptions to the Israeli context e.g. although you may interpret a personal question as intrusive, the Israeli asking may well just be trying to make friendly conversation with no offence intended. The more we can view an interaction from both perspectives, the easier it is to find suitable responses. In general, the following approaches to Israeli interactions can be very effective.


1. Be more direct – don’t wait to be asked, clearly communicate your needs and interests. Be assertive (which doesn’t equate with being aggressive) and if you have a reasonable request, express it plainly and unapologetically.

2. Be more expressive – if you want someone to understand how your feel, do not be afraid to show your emotions. Whatever the message - approval, disapproval, desire or disgust – avoid using subtle hints or suggestions.


3. Do not be intimidated by expressive reactions – Israelis may well shout about something emotionally one minute and have forgotten about it the next – avoid worrying too much about arguments or taking them too much to heart.

4. Learn to interrupt where necessary – if you have got something you want to say, don’t wait for a pause in the conversation or you may never speak.

5. Use humour – if asked about subjects that you are not comfortable, offer evasive answers or throw the subject back using humour. Try to keep things in perspective and avoid taking great offence – Israelis often view such a response as being inexplicably heavy.

Every person and situation is different and there is no one ‘best’ strategy for any interaction. It is important for people who struggle with Israeli interactions to try different strategies and attempt to find ones which are both effective and yet still allow them to feel comfortable. You do not have to become ‘more Israeli than the Israelis’ to do well in Israel but you may have to use responses that differ from your normal default. Though it can feel strange at first (e.g. being more direct), if effective, you will be motivated to use the different approach again and before long it will become quite automatic. It is definitely worth trying different responses – one thing you can be sure of if someone is not happy with your behaviour, in Israel - they will be sure to let you know.


Ben Zeev, Aviv (2001) – The Xenophobe’s® Guide to The Israelis, Oval Books

Reference to the bikini story in the ‘Understanding Culture Part One’ article



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My solution to nosy taxi drivers

I start asking them questions back like this 
"How many kids? Only four? Why not five? " 
"Divorced? Really? Why don't you remarry. That's not good. You need to be married." 
They soon shut up 

By: Steiner   enigma (rachelstei...) - December 22, 2005


Freedom of Speech and Expresson a Yardstick of a State

I have experienced the almost the same as Katrina Jacobs, 
I some times felt as some hot conversation was going on as 
a fight will break out but it did not. 
It is very healthy for the society to talk freely and still 
respect the freedom and privacy of others. 
I live in the EU where some rich and developed states which 
have almost no terror or war have not given up the secret 
SS department as part of the State functions.In these states some citizens live under terror by the State in their 
bed rooms and the State decieds if the citizen has the right 
to sex or family.Many such persons are sacrificed by the SS 
department for playing the folly of Nazizm and its brutality. 
EU States secret SS has penetrated Israel and its society 
under different pretences and some of the second world war 
vetrens sons and daughters are being also sacrificed by such 
co-opration,because their fathers fought against the Naziz or Fasists. 
Let us hope such Nazi culture will be eliminated from Israeli society and...

By: jesse   enigma (jchnd@suom...) - September 6, 2004

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