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Cultural gap: israeli-American

Cultural gap: Israeli -American

Adi Roffe-Schaffer


Starting a new life here in NY, I had to overcome onerous challenges. I transitioned from an Israeli attorney to an American Mediator, wife to an American man, a mom and eventually opened a mediation firm, all within a different culture and language.

Perhaps the most surprising of all is that the most significant challenge I had to deal with was not the language but a different culture. And a significant challenge for business operations in the international arena is that of culture and communication.

While in the past, geographic distance caused obstacles for business or social collaboration. Today the world has become a small village, and by “small” I mean that the globalization of commerce has new ways of doing business which do not necessarily have to be physically connected. This allows us to connect people from a very different cultures, backgrounds, and languages. That can be very productive, but on the other hand, it can cause a problem - a cultural misunderstanding can cause confusion or even anger. Sometimes certain behaviors may appear as a lack of respect, and even result in the business relationship ending.

As someone born and raised in Israel, I still experience the culture gap between Americans and Israelis, if it is in my personal life or my professional life as a mediator here in United States.

In one of my first days after moving to NY, I met some neighbors at the elevator in my building. It was late afternoon and upon reaching her floor, a neighbor parted by saying “good night”! I glanced at my watch and it was just 530 pm. I was surprised because for an Israeli, “good night” is something reserved for after 8PM, but here apparently, 5:30PM is a fine hour to say “good night” to someone!

This polite code you can see at the grocery store and service employees for most of the companies you will deal with. Always the service will be transacted in a polite, professional and poised way.

More than a few times during my life here in NY I noticed that the word “respect” has many definitions.If we are as an Israelis tend to be less formal and much more social , with the American the “formal way” of saying things has never shut off.

For example: When you ask any simple request from a friend such as “can we meet in a different day it is not going to work for today”. And the friend will say ok. You will text him back cool, great.While the American will expect you to respond him back by thank you! And even would have say I appreciate It. It means you appreciate him by respect your request.

One day while I was driving in New York City, I passed a big billboard sign (for a storage company) that said: “You should store your stuff with us. It’s better than to going to your parents house every weekend.” Took me a few second to digest the meaning, but after I was in shock, and then finally I laughed. In Israel, a family is considered as a top priority and a sign like that would not work at all. Here in the U.S.,

I gather that it’s considered amusing since the combination of being out on one’s own in the Big Apple is desirable to many people while space is so limited.

While both Israel and the U.S. are a mixture of immigrant cultures who’ve largely assimilated to form their respective “melting pots,” the Israeli culture is more collectivist in nature and also very much defined and driven by its perpetually tense geo-political situation and associated military obligation and omnipresence.

This complex situation and constant existential threat that Israel faces has resulted in a deep social bond shared by its people and a drive to succeed no matter what hurdles its people encounter. It’s easy to see how this has translated to the business world where Israelis have been adept at taking complex problems and finding solutions.

While Americans are also rich in cultural diversity, the American culture is more individualist and capitalist than Israel’s. U.S. immigration policy has resulted in attracting the best and brightest from around the world because of educational and economic opportunities.

As a result, cultural diversity, tolerance, and open-mindedness is more the norm than the exception in the U.S. The entrepreneurial and pioneering spirit is strong in the U.S. rather than merely the drive to survive.

In spite of the differences between the American and Israeli cultures you will meet people who do business together, go out together, and even live together.

So how can we mediate the gap ???

Few tips from the prospective of an Israeli in the US:

*When Israelis talk loudly it doesn't mean they are mad, it means they are passionate about the issue.

*The American way of talking is more formal and polite in comparison to Israelis. You will hear much more often, “thank you,” “I appreciate it,” “you are welcome,” than in Israel.

*The more polite you are, the more respect you will receive from the other side.

*Be on time! - Punctuality is very important in order to show respect to the other side.

*Confirm every meeting at least 24 hours in advance.

*Israelis tend to talk simultaneously - don’t !!!

*Listening is an art, but it can be developed it in time. By listening to others, you can learn about their culture, their way of talking, moving and responding. The better listener you are, the faster you will achieve good communication and reach an agreement.

*Dress code - Americans are more formal in their dress code than Israelis. What you are wearing is what you are selling. Dress nicely and in a respectful and professional way. Don't come wearing jeans and t-shirt.

In order to succeed in cross Atlantic businesses you must understand the other side’s culture. In order to prevent any dispute that can be created by cultural misunderstandings, you must enrich yourself in all the small pieces of the greater cultural puzzle.

Mediation is a great process that can bring the two sides to talk even without understating the other side’s language or culture.

In Mediation usually the process ends in a win-win situation. However, in order for the process to be successful, the mediator needs to understand the parties’ cultures. Mediation is based on communication and understanding, in order to understand, the mediator has to have the "culture knowledge" of both sides. It helps to reach an agreement and to create a win-win situation between the sides.

As a mediator I am proud to be a part of the legal process. It provides the opportunity to develop settlements in spite of cultural gaps between two sides in a dispute, and builds bridges between cultures around the globe.

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