Little did I realize then, that coming from the US, I had to learn much more than just fight my way to the beginning of a queue. My friends bet that I would not last more than six months, as I was not made of the tough material that defines Israelis. I recently marked my 24th "Israel" anniversary.
Ranked second in the world for innovation (according to the 2016-2017 Global Competitiveness Report) and home to the Smart Dripper, Disk-on-key, Iron Dome, Waze, Pill Cam, Mobile Eye and more, boasts one of the highest number of Nobel Prize laureates in the world (per capita), and voila, we have one very unique country who has achieved more than 50 percent economic growth in just over 60 years.
Welcome to Israel
Israel is synonymous with conflict, lack of formality, lack of courteousness, shoving and shouting, bureaucracy, rules that are meant to be bent. However, Israel is also associated with entrepreneurship, ambitiousness, thinking out of the box, technology, chutzpah (in the good sense of the word), creativeness, and a sense of belonging and solidarity.
In a very small strip of land, Israel encompasses a huge amount of diversity. Immigrants who differed in color and culture brought with them languages and customs from Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Asia together with integrating into its culture the absorption of Russians and Ethiopians, all co-existing with 20.7 percent Israeli Arabs. Thirty-five percent of Israelis are born outside the country and nine out of 10 are either immigrants or second-generation descendants.
So why do many immigrants and expats find it difficult to understand and acclimate themselves to the Israeli culture? Maybe part of it has to do with the lack of understanding of Israeli cultural values: Courage, energy, opinionated views, impatience, creativity and improvisation, which are manifested in the day-to-day living as well as through conducting business in Israel.
Obsession to survive
Consider that Israel has been on the defensive against its neighbors and much of the world since its birth. This has resulted in a very proud, almost defiant mentality that comes across in every aspect of doing business and living in Israel, starting with communication style, decision making, negotiation and conflict resolution.
IDF and equality
There is a direct correlation between the Israeli army culture and the ability to cross take those skills into the civilian and professional world. Skills such as, analyzing, thinking-on-the-go, leadership development, taking responsibility, trust-building and lack of formality.
In addition, one of the core values in Israeli society is its informality, which is also showcased in the army, where one can challenge their superior if they feel that he is wrong. In Israel, there is little regard for status and title. People are considered equal in worth and not identified based on ascribed privilege, but through their achievements and intelligence. This plays out in how information is shared and communicated across ranks regardless of position or seniority. For example, the general manager of a company or a division will be far more accessible than they might be elsewhere and will listen to any member of the team.
Freedom of speech/communication style
Freedom of speech is a strong value in Israel, and as such, opinions are offered freely and hotly debated. Looking in from the outside, I have witnessed many Western business people, who after listening to two Israelis argue during a negotiation process, were certain that not only have the negotiations come to a halt, but that the relationship between them was irreparably damaged, only to be amazed when one turned to the other and asked: "How about that basketball game last night?"
Israelis are famous for their bluntness, which many non-Israelis may find intrusive at first. "Doogri" is the Israeli slang term, meaning “straight,” “unpolished” and “lacking in decoration,” and that is how one can define the Israeli communication style. This includes constant, mid-sentence interruption, and question-poaching (where, just as you open your mouth, an Israeli third-party answers a question addressed to you). This is part of the communication culture where ambiguity in language is not understood and often interpreted as dishonesty.
Politics, money, religion
"How much did you pay for your apt?" or "do you have a mortgage on your home?" and "how many children do you have?" to "are you left- or right-wing?" or any other highly personal questions are not taboo in Israel. In the spirit of directness and honesty, everything is open for discussion and debate.
Everybody knows everybodyAs Israel is a small country, at some point in a meeting, the conversation will steer to "where did you serve in the army?" only to find out that the uncle served in the same unit or the mother was the English teacher in high school. There will always be at least one or more people they know in common. This framework creates a relationship-oriented culture, whereby people come before tasks and where relationships are relied upon to accomplish goals.
In addition, relationship-building creates a feeling of trust and collaboration which are important to Israelis when doing business with foreigners.
This is not very different from the American business culture which also recognizes the importance of trust in business relationships, but makes different assumptions about how trust is created. Americans tend to create trust through their business transaction and not through their personal knowledge.
Israel is an individualistic culture. Within this ethos, the focus is on a singular person's initiative and achievement. Different from collectivist cultures, where group consensus is an inherent part of decision-making, in Israel, independent decision making is the norm.
That said, the political and geographic environment is a metaphor for the business environment where everything can and is fluid. Everything you agree to can be subject to last minute changes, even after an agreement is finalized, because circumstances and sudden greater obligations validate adjustments and changes.
That said, Israel is a task-based and result-oriented culture, whereby results count more than processes, so decision-making is often quick and efficient.
Following the law
Citizens are expected to follow and observe rules for the sake of a smoothly running and orderly society. In countries where rules are a cultural value—such as the US, Germany and Switzerland—citizens are taught from early on to abide by the rules.
In Israel, on the other hand, everyone understands that it is perfectly acceptable to bend the rules if it serves a purpose. Israelis learn from early on that if they argue long and hard enough, they can sidestep the rules. However, the flip side of this contributes to a more creative way of thinking and the ability to improvise on demand.
Punctuality and Israelis
Israelis tend to think that they are as time-conscious as the Americans or the Europeans, when in fact they are considerably more casual about punctuality. Israelis have a more flexible view of time, which sometimes leads to a decreased use of timetables and agendas as well as imprecise starting and ending times of meetings.
Though timetables are made and meeting deadlines is important, somehow everyone expects them to be moved to accommodate changing schedules. There is a saying in Hebrew meant for the constant worriers: "Don't worry, it will all work out in the end.” Somehow it always does, and if it doesn't, there's always a way to solve it.
Extreme competitiveness and ‘winner-takes-all’ attitudes
Israelis negotiate with a zero-sum mentality. Second place for the Israelis spells disaster, historically and currently. They will continually push for a better deal based on common mutual objectives.
Moving to Israel can be a cultural rollercoaster, whereby one has to abandon courtesy, formality, while getting used to your guests to show up late for a dinner invitation. But if you stay long enough, you will find that Israelis are also friendly, easygoing and willing to help out. Moreover, one never feels alone in Israel, as your neighbors will often drop in unannounced to ask for sugar or a cup of milk, or to inquire who the handsome visitor from last night was.