Once the honeymoon of initial professional contact is over, international businesspeople look for common social norms, core beliefs and sensitivity. In each culture, there will always be those who act somewhat differently. However, the majority of a country’s population tends to behave in a similar manner, with the same behavior patterns and cultural assumptions.
Osnat Lautman, a cross-cultural communication consultant in the international business world and author of the book Israeli Business Culture, has interviewed nearly 100 people working in global companies. The knowledge she accumulated from these interviews, along with her own extensive international experience led her to formulate a practical model using the letters in the word “Israeli” as a basis for organizing the main Israeli business culture characteristics:
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I – Informal
S – Straightforward
R – Risk-taking
A – Ambitious
E – Entrepreneurial
L – Loud
I – Improvisational
Here are some tips derived from the model:
Informality in the Israeli business world is expressed not only in outward signs such as casual dress in the workplace, but also in the way people interact. For instance, in preliminary meetings or work interviews an Israeli might easily ask you questions about your personal life, such as whether you are married or have children.
Israelis also address one another by nicknames. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is called by his nickname, Bibi. Similarly, Moshe Ya’alon – the Minister of Defense and former Chief of General Staff – is known as Bogie. Using such monikers gives both sides a feeling of closeness and maybe even friendship. This would be considered positive and usual in tiny Israel, where nearly everyone knows everyone else or at least have a common acquaintance. Familiarity is typical to the Israeli business culture, in which great importance is attributed to one’s network of personal relationships.
In Israeli culture you don’t have to dig deep to understand the other person. What he says is what he means. When an Israeli thinks you are mistaken, he simply says, “You’re wrong.” When an Israeli invites you to his home, he expects you to arrive. When you ask for his opinion, he assumes you really want it, and gives you an honest and straightforward answer.
In the United States, disagreement with what the other is suggesting can be expressed in a diplomatic sentence such as, “What you are suggesting sounds interesting. Let’s discuss it in the future.” This is the kind of tactful, evasive remark that Americans learn at an early age. Israelis, who use a much more direct style of speech, still find it very difficult to understand whether such friendly words express a genuine intent to comply or not. They are accustomed to straight talking, which in the eyes of Americans can appear rude and aggressive.
When working with Israelis, try to keep this in mind, and differentiate between directness in business and interpersonal sensitivity.
Risk-taking, Ambitious and Entrepreneurial.
The next three characteristics are treated as one unit, since the combination of risk-taking and ambition jointly create the characteristic of entrepreneurialism, and form an integral part of it. An entrepreneur is an individual with the ambition to successfully create something new and the willingness to take risks to achieve it. Israel is a country of entrepreneurs seeking advancement. They are comfortable asking difficult questions and exploring all possibilities. They don’t lose sight of their goals even if they don’t always stick to rigid work plans or timetables.
Loudness implies not only high volume, tone of speech and body language, including much use of the hands and arms, but also the intensity that outsiders feel in Israel. First-time visitors to Israel tell of sensing “noise” everywhere. It comes from the multitudes of families walking down the streets, customers sitting at outdoor café tables, crowded roads and crowded supermarkets. Foreigners feel a lack of personal space, reflected in constant touching and straightforward questioning. In addition, a lack of separation between personal and business life is reflected in many ways in Israel.
Israelis tend to form close friendships at work. They may speak to family members on the phone while at work. But, on the flip side, they often bring work home, where they put in long extra hours. And they may contact colleagues during evening hours much more often than non-Israelis would ever do.
The culture of improvisation in Israel supports “thinking outside the box.” This means not just going along with an existing plan but continually thinking, initiating and changing until the desired goal is reached, especially in accordance with changes and challenges that arise along the way. Many countries, such as the US, Britain, Germany, Switzerland and others, work with a strict work plan and find it very challenging to accept Israelis’ rapid changes in the work plan. For diverse groups it is recommended to subdivide each project into smaller parts to make sure that people from other cultures can follow the changes before moving on to the next step.
By Osnat Lautman