If you’ve traveled at all, even a little, you know that people are different in different parts of the world. As an American living abroad, I have never felt more keenly aware of my Americanness.
Here’s the thing about Americans: we really, really, really like and enjoy being friendly and polite and casual. We like it. It’s important to us. We like to exchange pleasantries and make small talk. We take our time to get to the point. We think as we talk, we are sizing you up even during the small talk. We like to think on our feet as the situation evolves.
Here’s the thing about Israelis: we really, really, really like to get to the point and quickly. We don’t have a lot of time or patience to waste time. We can be friendly and make small talk after the business is done. To an Israeli, small talk about family, etc., means an actual connection is already there. Because some kind of a transaction happened first. Now we can be friends. But business first.
There is a saying about Israelis – they will run you over with their car, then back up and take you to the hospital. There is another saying about Israelis – once an Israeli is your friend? You have a friend for LIFE.
Americans, just like our sprawling landscape, are a bit more nomadic socially. Connections made can and do fade over time. Friends can sometimes come and go.
Both approaches can be explained by history, geography, social norms, etc. but the bottom line is that neither approach is right or wrong – but they can be misconstrued.
In Israel, I often hear Israelis say that they think Americans are “fake” or “hypocritical”. And I often hear Americans say that Israelis are “rude” or “pushy”.
Americans value casual friendliness and Israelis value directness. Even a moment to think about the vast geography and easier, less threatened life in America shows one how Americans come by their casual manner. A quick look at the geography, history and political issues in Israel shows one how getting things done quickly and efficiently FIRST serves Israelis better. You don’t have to be Margaret Meade to see how each culture is different.
But when you put an American and an Israeli together – especially in business – sparks can fly. And yet of course there are strong business connections between the US and Israel and both parties admire one another greatly.
If you are an Israeli and you are in a business situation with an American, you have to remember to slow down and let the small talk happen. We Americans really like those pleasantries. It’s what we do. We will also be very friendly and warm about your idea – even if we aren’t going to act on it. Because we really value being friendly and warm no matter what.
If you are an American in a business meeting with an Israeli, you may find yourself feeling a bit like the picture below – whoa – blown away. Because Israelis really value efficiency and directness. Which can make an American feel a bit uncomfortable.
So how do you read each other in these situations? Both Americans and Israelis would do well to take one step toward one another and know ahead of time the different values. Israelis see friendly small talk as a genuine, if not intimate expression of real friendship. Americans see this as standard behavior but not an indication of any kind of commitment.
As an American-Israeli, I can see how American friendliness might be construed as insincerity – but it’s not. It’s something we like to do and we are being authentic. And I can see how Israeli directness can be seen as pushy and rude – but it’s not, it’s efficient and focused. Cultural relativism, friends, it’s important.
So – if you are in an Israeli in a business meeting with an American, trying very hard to read the American through the friendliness – how do you know whether they are in fact serious about you and your business?
You know they are serious when the friendliness falls away a little bit and becomes more direct, and when they actually take an action step right in the moment. When they set up another meeting, make a phone call or otherwise take and share information. The handshake and back clapping that comes with many of these meetings is no indication of seriousness but rather of business brotherliness.
Beyond that – how do you really know whether an excited, American, friendly, yes yes yes! is going to actually result in business? You don’t. Not until you on the receiving end of a solid action step in very short order – the next couple of days.
Don’t mistake, resent or misconstrue American friendliness. Take it at face value, enjoy it, be friendly back! But do not confuse this with serious business interest until or unless you have an actual move that backs that up.
When you leave the meeting with the American business person, go out with a big smile and the confidence you came in with and also let them know that you have several other meetings you are taking – because you do – and that you are continuing on with those meetings as scheduled. If this particular business person is seriously interested, he or she will jump to get to your first. It’s called applying a little bit of pressure – a standard business move. But the thing is, you ARE being perfectly sincere. You do have other meetings lined up.
So let’s recap:
Be your proud Israeli self, the person you are taking a meeting with knows you are Israeli, just slow down a bit and allow for more small talk than you normally would in Israel. Relax. This is one of many meetings. Believe me, what you have to offer is very valuable and Americans are aware of and interested in your Israeli efficiency and candor.
Reading social signals like smiling, small talk and a casual dress and manner is easy: take it only at face value. Americans like to be friendly. It’s the way we are. In a way, and this sounds counter-intuitive – it’s not personal. (And ditto for you American business people; the Israeli directness – it’s not personal.)
None of this meeting meant anything at all unless you actually receive a phone call, email or some kind of follow up with concrete action steps outlined. Don’t be offended, it’s just business. A small bite on the fishing line doesn’t mean anything until you reel the fish in. Each meeting is a chance for you to sharpen your American social skills. It’s like falling in love – you’ll know it when it’s the real thing.