The Cross-Cultural Do's And Don'ts Between Israel And US

The American handshake: smile, eye contact,
reach in and maintain physical space.

By Joel Leyden
Israel News Agency

Ra'anana, Israel ---- May 12, 2007 ...... There are many smart and innovative companies in Israel. But even with the finest minds, products and services, quite often business people in Israel trying to penetrate the US market run smack head-on into walls. Cultural walls.

Leyden Communications (Israel), a full service, worldwide business to business marketing, media, Internet SEO and e-commerce consultancy organization, has been providing the doing business - the do's and don'ts of cross-cultural business training in Israel in dozens of seminars and workshops over 20 years. At one point this author served as the director of cross-cultural programs for Berlitz Middle East.

While working at Berlitz Israel, I was once quoted by TIME magazine: "Israel is very "civilized" within the framework of a struggling and pressurized Middle Eastern nation that strives very hard to be Western. Israelis have perceptions of time, space and values that are completely different from those of North Americans. Those in Israel see Americans as artificial and square, when they are actually just showing respect. Americans think Israelis are arrogant, rude and pushy, when in reality they are being direct and honest. Israel is a very small country whose population is one big family. In a family people can be as direct and honest as they want. But now that family members are selling their goods and services outside the clan, Israelis are adapting."

In meeting several requests from both governmental and commercial organizations in Israel and as a public service to develop more successful commercial relations between Israel and the US, Leyden Communications will now provide some critical cross-cultural business advice for those in Israel wishing to work with US businesses and governmental organizations.

Over ninety percent of the problems which arise in developing and maintaining commercial relations with Americans, comes directly from differences we share in cultural perceptions - not rates, services or products!

No culture is good or bad - just different!

Israelis, Americans, Europeans and Asians all view space, time and values from a different place. If we are all to expect the Israeli, or the Japanese or the French to act, to behave in the exact manner - then we will be greatly disappointed! Many business people from the States come to Israel, expecting to do business, as if they were still in New York, California or Texas. The smiles and handshakes look the same, even the suits and ties, but after a few minutes have passed, both sides, which have have come together with great respect and mutual admiration - feel something is not right!

The Israeli, who is often perceived as being arrogant, aggressive and pushy, is actually being direct and honest. And the American, European and Asian, who are seen by the Israeli as being artificial, phony and weak - are actually displaying politeness and respect. If both sides are to go into a commercial venture, without taking the time to understand each others cultural traits - they are heading for disaster!

Don't be fooled by the modern office furniture, mobile telephones, new shopping malls, the one million McDonalds restaurant outlets and the 100 dollar ties. The Israeli is a different animal - and to be successful in business with him you must understand how they see you and where they come from.

Israel society is what is referred to as a polychronic culture (relationship-oriented), in contrast to American, British or German culture which is monochronic (rule-oriented). In the relationship oriented Israel culture feelings and emotions are primary, while intuition and objective facts are secondary! Israel culture can be viewed as witnessing one large family. In a family, one can dismiss formality and act in a direct, immediate and honest fashion. What can be excused in a "family" as being direct - is often interpreted outside of the family or Israel's borders as being rude or impolite.



How we see and judge others are by their behaviors (the tip of the iceberg) which includes: punctuality, greetings, business etiquette, management styles, planning, verbal and written communication, negotiation styles and the all important non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication with the human animal accounts for over 80 percent of our total ability to understand one another!

Our gestures, expressions, eye contact, use of silence and personal space. What lies below that white, icy iceberg tip which arises over the blue water, is a submerged mountain of attitudes and values.

So without taking you through a full days cross-cultural seminar, for which we highly recommend and have witnessed great success and results from - we will now try to provide you with a few "key" tips in dealing with your Israeli partner. Again - please remember that these "tips" are by no means a substitute for spending valuable time for both yourself and your employees to enjoy a full day's cross-cultural training! And the information below is only a generalization of the typical Israeli. Many Israel business people have traveled and learned about other cultures and have been successful in working abroad. Although - they can still learn - as we can all still refresh and beware of our behavior.

New York is not Chicago and Chicago is not Los Angeles. The US is so large that Israel can actually fit in as state park.
As such, there is no one business culture in the US, but rather several sub cultures with their own norms and values.

When I was working in my international PR and advertising agency in New York's World Trade Center in the 1980's, I often had to hide my New York accent. Forget the fact that those from Israel have a problem in the US, Americans have problems in their own country! As a New Yorker many in California perceived me to be neurotic, as we talk and walk faster than anyone else in the States. For us in New York, we saw those living in California as being "astronauts" being out of touch with reality as they focused on Yoga, mediation, health foods and surfing. As for those coming from the Midwest or "bread belt" these very conservative Americans had as much clue as to who Woody Allen is as I had knowing who the stars of country music were.

Let's start with some very general US cultural traits such as greetings and space.

Israelis are very "tachlas" - that is bottom line oriented. When meeting another Israeli, they will often go straight to business. Sometimes there is not even a "hello, how are you."

The lack of small talk must be addressed. When meeting an American, small talk shows respect for the person and people that one is meeting. It also provides a position to know where to start from. Getting to know the other persons personal interests is critical in doing business. For example, if one from Israel and one from the US studied the same subjects in university or served in the same type of army units, or enjoy the same sports or art - now you have a place or comfort zone to start from. To share common comfort zones is often more important than the value of commercial transaction.

They say that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. And psychologists and sociologists state that is a hard reality. Within the first three seconds of a new encounter, you are totally evaluated.

People judge your visual and behavioral appearance from head to toe. Americans observe your demeanor, mannerisms, and body language and even assess your grooming and quality accessories – watch, handbag, briefcase, pens and cufflings.

Within only three seconds
, you make an indelible impression. You may intrigue some Americans and disenchant others.

This first impression process occurs in every new situation. Within the first few seconds, people pass judgment on you – looking for common surface clues - those comfort zones I spoke about. Once the first impression is made, it is virtually irreversible.

If you appear to be of comparable business or social level, you are considered suitable for further interaction.
If you appear to be of higher business or social status, you are admired and cultivated as a valuable contact.
If you appear to be of lower business or social standing, you are tolerated but kept at arm's length.
If you are in an interview situation, you can either appear to match the corporate culture or not, ultimately affecting the outcome.

It is human nature to constantly make these appraisals, in business and social environments. You may hardly have said a word, however once this three-second evaluation is over, the content of your speech will not change it. When you make the best possible first impression, you have your audience in the palm of your hand. When you make a poor first impression, you lose your audience’s attention, no matter how hard you scramble to recover it.

Through behavior modification and cultural awareness, you can learn to make a positive and lasting first impression, modify it to suit any situation, and come out a winner. Doing so requires you to assess and identify your personality, physical appearance, lifestyle and goals in accordance with the subculture of the US for which you are making contact. Those who do will have the advantage.

When greeting an American, smile, maintain eye contact and shake hands.
Never look down. Looking down in Western culture says that you lack confidence and there is nothing more attractive than the word confidence (not to be confused with arrogance).

In Israel we dress down. That is, most business people can be seen wearing jeans and maybe dress pants from time to time. The factors for this have their source in that Israel weather is very hot and unforgiving. We try to maintain being physically comfortable. Just a few decades ago, the average Israeli wore nothing more than shorts and sandals. Israel is also a high tech society, and as such we have taken on the dress code of Silicon Valley - jeans.

But when meeting anyone from the US, always wear a two piece suit. Navy blue pin strip or grey is fine. The quality and fit of the suit is important for if it is not up to par the American may think that you have the intelligence of a bicycle messenger.

Keep at arms length. Israelis act as if they are in a family. Close distance between two people is the norm. Hugging, touching - one can even see young females holding hands as they walk down the street - and they are not lesbians.
But the American demands much personal space. Reach over to shake hands rather than being cheek to cheek. And maintain that physical distance. Stepping back one step will keep you safe.

Make up quality business cards. Not offset printing. But rather thermography (raised lettering) or engraved. Many in Israel do not use business cards - culture in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem is just too informal. We go by addressing people by their first names. Not in the states. Always hand out your business card in the first few seconds to help the other party to know your corporate title and how to pronounce your name. And always address the other party from the US with the titles of Mr. or Ms. Your American counterpart will let you know when you can drop the title and call them by their first name. Wait for that direction, don't break down a formal relationship without mutual consent.

When in Rome act as a Roman!

In Israel, you can always expect a friendly and real invitation for sharing coffee as a meeting begins. Not in the US. I remember a meeting I had with a global PR firm a few years back and was waiting, just waiting for the coffee to be offered. I, as many in Israel, have become conditioned to getting a caffeine fix as the meeting begins. I finally asked for a cup of coffee and the other side obligated with a smile. We never met again. It was not for me to ask for coffee in someone's office in New York. What I do suggest, is that the Israeli gets a caffeine fix right before the meeting so that he or she will not feel any discomfort. Remember, if the American does not offer a drink, it is not good or bad - just different.
When asking a woman for coffee in Israel - be careful for those are silent words for "do you want to go to bed with me," as opposed to being in the states where asking one for coffee is just that. If you are interested in going to bed with someone, chose an alcoholic drink!

Both those in Israel and in the US share some very conservative areas. But they are not the same. When walking down a street in London, Paris and New York, if you make eye contact with another person it is normal to smile and say "good morning." In Israel, if you are not a tourist asking for directions and you make verbal contact with a stranger, he or she will most likely give you an awkward look followed by "me ata" or asking in English "who are you"? Also many Israeli's will not feel comfortable discussing very personal or intimate subjects or problems with you - i.e.- their marriage, sex, divorce, medical problems and army service (prohibited by law). So if the American wants to discuss their love life with you fine, follow on this - do not lead. But never ask the American what their salary is. That is a real no-no.

When getting ready to enter a bus or any crowded area (i.e. - bank, post office, restaurant or open marketplace) we don't expect those from Israel to form a line. This is where you are expected to use the gentle nudge of your elbow to enter. If you wait - you will be last! As a footnote, in recent years in Israel I have witnessed the banks, post offices and major supermarkets slowly put into effect crowd management control with ropes, creating orderly lines. Expect to wait in lines in the states, never jump in front of someone else.

The Israeli is ready for immediate action. You can witness this by how many Israelis sit - leaning forward with legs spread apart - ready to stand at a moments notice. The American on the other hand can interpret this body language as saying that you are too aggressive, too hungry. Most Americans will sit with good posture, not slumping in their chair. Follow or mimic the body language of your associate in the US and you will find yourselves being on the same page.

The Israeli will ask you to wait by placing their hand up, palm towards their body with fingers coming together - and the hand may shake. By mistake, I did this to a policeman in New York City once - he thought I was giving him the "finger". It was difficult explaining to him that I was from Israel, speaking with my New York accent! Learn hand gestures in the states and abide by them.

Israelis are a very passionate and expressive breed. As such, if they raise their voices, this is how many Israelis normally communicate with one another. The Israeli can yell and scream at a colleague one moment and a few minutes later be seen hugging the guy. If the Israeli speaks in a low tone and smiles for hours with you - it means he is not being real, honest and relaxed with you! Again, please remember - there our exceptions to this rule as for those Israelis who have lived outside of Israel. The American plays it cool. Never raise your voice. Don't show more passion than a warm smile and a good laugh.

Another beautiful and psychologically healthy aspect of the direct, honest and sometimes loud Israeli - is that they are just letting off steam in a truly good manner. It may not appear polite, but the result is that Israeli's very rarely make violent contact with one another. Instead of swallowing all of the anxiety and letting it out in a harmful and negative neurotic or psychotic fashion, the Israeli is actually a healthier social animal than many of their global counterparts who repress their feelings and take such mood altering drugs such as Valium or Prozac!

Israelis want things today - now! As they come from a young and traumatic society where war has been the norm - trying to get the most out of today is the expected rule. If you are talking in terms of months and years - you may lose your Israeli partner's interest. In this circumstance he may very well perceive you as not being serious. Try to meet him or her half way - try to speak realistically in terms of days and weeks. Expect the American to talk in weeks and months rather than hours. If so, be patient. If they do speak in hours or days, it means that they are serious - maybe even desperate.

Meetings in Israel can be and are often spontaneous. Again a reflection of the informal and family oriented culture. Embrace this openness and good things will happen! In America expect meetings to be made at least a week in advance if not a few weeks or even a month.

Punctuality is relaxed in Israel. Always allow up to 15-20 minutes before thinking that your party is late in Tel Aviv. Even here, things are rapidly changing, especially in the hi-tech environment where many Israelis pride themselves on being on time. After work hours, you may notice a more relaxed tone. When setting work deadlines, be sure to leave some advanced buffer period. But in the US, 9 a.m. means 9 a.m. - coming late in the states translate into saying that you don't respect the American. In some subcultures, being late can be fashionable - for the very rich and famous.

The Israeli is not used to "doing lunch or breakfast". They see this time as being too valuable - instead suggest sandwiches and drinks to be brought into the meeting room in Israel. Dinner is very accepted. This is an excellent opportunity to discuss family, compliment Israeli culture, history, sports and continue with business discussions. Do not speak about Israel government, politics or religious issues. If they bring it up - be a good listener! Find out if your Israeli partner is religious or "observant" before going out for a meal - if he or she is - respect their values and find a "kosher" restaurant. Israelis are not big drinkers - inviting your counterpart for a beer is acceptable. Being invited to do breakfast, lunch or dinner is one of the finest compliments one can provided with in the States.

And when doing lunch or dinner, expect the American to order an alcoholic drink. Israelis are not big drinkers - other than an occasional beer or two when watching a soccer game. When your American counterpart asks you what drink you care for over lunch, just tell him you have a bad stomach and your getting over jet lag - that you would prefer a cup of coffee. At dinner - go for a glass of wine and make believe that it is Shabbat. Do not allow the American to get you drunk - Americans can hold their alcohol, they have built up a tolerance for it. Too much drink could spell disaster for you as you reveal your true feelings about a business deal or start agreeing to all of their demands.

Try to avoid making jokes. What may be funny in Tel Aviv in Hebrew may not be funny in Atlanta in English. Speak and compliment your guests on their local culture - arts, buildings and sports. Never discuss sex or religion. Never make any jokes about sex - remember what happened to Chaim Ramon over a simple and innocent kiss - well that happens every day in North America. Any talk about sex can be construed as harassment.

During a meeting the Israeli may take telephone calls and allow others into his office or the meeting room. Interruptions such as these are common in Israeli culture - do not take it as being rude, impolite or arrogant. This is a very informal society, where those in Israel are expected and able to do many tasks at the same time. North Americans, for example, are the complete opposite in their behavior - taking one chore at a time, finishing it and then moving onto the next task.
Give the American all of your attention, all of the time. Turn off your cellphone and never speak Hebrew in the midst of those who do not speak Hebrew.

Israel businessmen are good - in many cases superb! When it comes to negotiating tactics - they wrote the book! Be prepared for tough and friendly negotiations. There is little difference between the modern, air-conditioned wall to wall carpeted Israeli boardroom and the ancient and dusty marketplace in the old city of Jerusalem! If you are seeking to sell your apple for 100 dollars - start high and then look for a fair compromise in the middle. Israelis love to negotiate. Read up on negotiations and don't be offended by what may appear as a "ridiculous offer" in Israel. In the States, in business the same rules apply. Everything is negotiable, just relax and take your time.

Hiring a professional translator would prevent the Israeli from breaking into Hebrew and consulting with his associates - leaving the American in the dark. Having a translator on site would be very powerful and positive, given that you will always be on the "same page" with your Israeli partners and the translator could also serve as a "cultural bridge" in regards to verbal and non-verbal communication.

Get things in writing! No matter how warm and friendly your relationship may become - a handshake is good - but never good enough. A Letter of Intent and or a contract will leave no room for misunderstandings down the road. Do not bring an attorney to your meetings, rather fax your attorney all papers and contracts for them to review.

The Israeli may request to conclude all negotiations immediately. This is not a sign of desperation or weakness - this is a basic difference in how the Israeli perceives time. Most Israelis are seen as being impatient - wanting everything done "today". The reason for this is their traumatic historical and military service experiences, they are not always secure as to where they will be tomorrow. In the States, the American may smile and say: "yes, we will do business." When in fact he is being nothing more than polite. Don't get your expectations up. Americans created the card game Poker. Learn how to develop a "poker face" an unemotional face as you negotiate.

Israelis are a very warm and friendly people. When they invite you to their home or out for dinner - they are not just being polite - they are displaying sincere friendship. When they say "stop by at any time" - they truly mean it! Accept the invitation and create a good personal relationship. Remember, in Israel, relationships count just as much if not more than a solid commercial portfolio. Unlike many other cultures, substance, not style takes the lead in Israel. When coming to someone's home, good gifts to bring are flowers, chocolates or a good bottle of wine. When coming to someone's office good gifts to bring are a culture book from your home country, a pen set with your company's logo or a global desk clock. Framed pictures of yourself and your Israeli associates make an excellent gift and wall decoration - reminding the Israeli of the personal ties that you share!

When the American tells you to drop by at any time or come to his home - wait for a formal invitation to be extended before taking him or her up on their polite overture.

My last words of advice - speak slowly.
As you speak slower you will be able to organize your thoughts and words that much better, while the American will be able to understand and hear you better through your Hebrew accent. Always say the magic words: please and thank you. And end your conversation with consistent eye contact and a smile.

Joel Leyden, a veteran journalist who is a professional cross-cultural, international public relations and media consultant has served as director for Berlitz's Middle-East cross cultural programs. Leyden who has served as a cross-cultural and international media and Internet consultant to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Israel Defense Forces and the Israel Ministry of Trade, has created several local and international community and professional on-line forums.

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