Israel's Business Style: Drop the Niceties, Speak Your Mind

Gvahim FinTech Event at and with Citi. Taken on November 3, 2014, by Flickr user Gvahim.  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Gvahim FinTech Event at and with Citi. Taken on November 3, 2014, by Flickr user Gvahim. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Israelis are generally fond of debate and will typically discuss any topic passionately.” “Expect to be cut off regularly during a presentation… Israelis prefer to ask questions and discuss issues immediately rather than wait until the end of a presentation.”

Advice such as the lines above from a guidebook on “Working with Israelis” by computer software giant Intel yielded laughs from Israeli entrepreneurs at a recent presentation at the Herzliya Accelerator Center on negotiating regional differences in the business world.

Intel USA's guide to "Working with Israelis." Photo credit: Edy Candel and Meir Dudai, courtesy of Israel21C.

Intel USA's guide to “Working with Israelis.” Photo credit: Edy Candel and Meir Dudai, courtesy of Israel21C.

In a culture where brazen is an attitude rather than an insult, chutzpah is used with admiration, and an entire page of the dictionary could be used to define the cultural implications of the word “sucker” (something you never want to be), one thing is for sure: Israelis play verbal hardball in the business sphere.

Meir Dudai, cofounder of and a participant at the event, shared a snapshot from the guide on Facebook. The post went viral and Israel21C, itself founded by two Israeli entrepreneurs living in the US, picked up the story.

They report:

People sharing the post added remarks about Israelis liking good snack foods on hand, the likelihood of businesspeople looking at their smartphones throughout a meeting instead of making eye contact, and the casual dress codes of the high-tech culture (jeans, T-shirt, sandals).

… out-of-towners must feel a sense of relief knowing that it is almost impossible to make a business-etiquette faux pas in Israel.

Israel won its epithet, the “Start-Up Nation,” from a 2011 bestselling book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer who set out to answer the question:

How is it that Israel– a country of 7.1 million, only 60 years old, surrounded by enemies, in a constant state of war since its founding, with no natural resources– produces more start-up companies than large, peaceful, and stable nations like Japan, China, India, Korea, Canada and the UK?

Mapped In Israel, a crowdsourced map of Israeli hi-techs, lists 1,435 start-ups in Israel with 65 research and development centers, and 56 business accelerators.

Uriel Peled, co-founder of the start-up Visualead, explores the reasons for Israel's economic success in a Tech In Asia article entitled “Why Israel is a Start-Up Nation.” As building blocks for the tech ecosystem, he cites Israel's world class universities, early stage government funding, mentoring from first generation entrepreneurs, lack of natural resources, and pioneering spirit.

An infographic accompanying the article reveals the Israeli entrepreneur's take on interpreting the rules of the business world:

Some rules are meant to be bent, while others are meant to be broken.

For those unfamiliar with the national norms of the workplace, Israel Employ's Aylon Slater offers advice to new immigrants on interpreting language and behavior:

Direct communication:
Israelis typically say what is on their minds, and expect people to communicate this way too. They might therefore be perceived as assertive and frank, or alternatively, as aggressive, arrogant, or rude.

In their actions and decision-making, Israelis typically value taking initiative over awaiting direction. They might therefore be perceived as results-oriented, or alternatively, as reckless and hasty.

Israelis typically value quick action to resolve problems, and tend to choose improvisation over careful planning and process orientation. They might therefore be perceived as quick to act and very flexible, or alternatively, as disorganized and chaotic.

Katrina Jacobs, a British immigrant to Israel, illustrates how the direct nature of communication, even with strangers, permeates every sphere.

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 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.

On Quora, a crowdsourced question and answer site, a discussion titled “Why are Israeli people so hard to deal with?” provides the most nuanced insights. Threaded with humor and heavy with anecdotes, the forum is dominated by Israelis familiar with US culture, which is comparatively less direct in its business speak.

Ariel Barkan gets straight to the point (would you expect anything less?):

As an Israeli I'd like to add something about how I see it from my point of view. Many times after a call with American firms I'm thinking to myself:  “Why it took them so long to say the ‘NO'?” or “If this is a ‘NO’ then why they have to wrap it with so many positive words?”.

Sagiv Ofek contends:

A real Israeli will answer: That's not the question. The question should be – why are Americans so easily offended?

Ohad Samet, who lived in Israel for 30 years and is the CEO of the start-up TrueAccord, has the most popular response on the thread, having been viewed 30,000 times. He shares a clip of psychologist Gal Szekely analyzing “Be'Tipul,” an Israeli television show that was picked up as “In Treatment” for the US market. The show's script was kept intact but for subtle differences in body language and verbal cues appropriate for each cultural context.

Another contributor to the discussion, Nate Anderson, notes that he lived in Israel for two years as an ambulance driver during the Second Intifada, a period of several years beginning in 2000 that saw a spike in Palestinian-Israeli violence. He explains that working with Israelis requires “a bit of a tougher skin :- ),” adding, “In Israel it's more important to be honest and straightforward than to protect someone's feelings.”

When you're in that kind of society, fake politeness is actually offensive… Israelis feel more comfortable if you treat them with the same familial honesty you would treat your brother or sister. Rapport in Israel is not measured by niceties. It's about being comfortable enough to tell someone they're [a jerk] if they're being [a jerk], while knowing they'll have your back if there's a real situation to deal with.

Leah Zakh Aharoni, a business coach with transnational experience in Russia, Israel, and the US, describes how the business culture develops out of the values of child rearing, and later, the interdependence of a country where military service is both mandatory and highly valued.

People rely on each other to give critique. If a child does something wrong, someone (either a parent's friend or a total stranger) will correct him, because they feel responsible for him. Everyone is totally fine with that. In the army everything is debriefed right away. The same is true in the business world – people know that if they are doing something wrong someone will call them on it.

Lastly, if you're wondering how Intel — authors of the guidebook that began this discussion — is faring in Israel, there is no need for concern. With four development centers and two production plants, Intel employs 10,000 workers, announcing in March 2014 a $6 billion expansion plan.

1 comment

  • guest

    I think Israeli recruiters don’t ask stupid questions like: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?; they surely know that a natural answer would be: And where do YOU see yourself in…not even in 5 years, in 5 hours?
    On the contrary, if you read articles published on sites like Workopolis or Monster, you’ll find a whole bunch of complete nonsense about how to dress for an interview. It’s also painful to know that a “recruiter” who studied some humanitarian bullshit judges engineers or programmers at job interviews.

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