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Adjusting to Israel's culture of work

Each country has a collective conceptual picture about the way things work best.  This article is an attempt to explain the cultural aspects of working in Israel. Although the Israeli workplace is multicultural by definition, it differs from that of other cultures. These cultural differences are characterized by different norms, unwritten codes and expectations from others based on their position, age or gender.  Becoming aware of these differences will enable you to function at a higher level in your job as a newcomer.

Israeli society is a polychronic culture )relationship-oriented), in contrast to American, British or German   culture which are monochronic (rule-oriented). In Israel's relationship-oriented culture, open feelings and warm, honest emotions are primary, while efficiency, planning and objective facts may be secondary.
Israelis tend to be more group-oriented than Americans. Therefore as a newcomer, you may want to keep the following in mind:

  • Your Israeli colleagues may be uncertain as to your true intentions if you speak very indirectly or if you use a lot of understatements. They may not be able to read between the lines if you speak with lots of subtlety, and may actually prefer bluntness.
  • In Israel, staying up late or working overtime to finish a meeting (or to complete a project) may be preferred to finishing on time. Don't expect the time-frame to be kept to while in Israel. Rigid thinking about keeping on schedule will get you unduly upset.
  • Discussing one’s viewpoint is important to most Israelis. They may not understand why you don’t state your opinions emphatically, argue for them, and even try to convince others that you are right.
  • Spontaneity and “thinking on your feet” is important to many Israelis. You may be surprised at their coming up with last-minute changes but this form of problem-solving is often seen as a source of pride here.
  • Living in a culture that values identifying with one’s group, Israeli coworkers may expect that you will want to hang out with them “after hours”, which may be much later than what you are used to. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have a rich personal life or that they are trying to “wine and dine” you. It may not mean that they want to get to know you, but rather want to relax after working together intensely.

Workplace cultures vary in numerous dimensions:

  • Individualism (vs an emphasis on being part of a group or team)
  • Power distance (ranging from a hierarchical style to a participative style)
  • Certainty (from structure and rules to ambiguous rules)
  • Conflict avoidance vs use of confrontation to resolve differences
  • Reserved vs spontaneous manner of speech
  • Direct vs indirect communication styles
  • Formal vs informal manner of speech and interpersonal relations
  • Achievement (Task focused vs relationship focused)

As you may be well aware, in the US one is encouraged to develop an individualistic approach to many work-related challenges, whereas many  Israel places of work have successfully created  new products while emphasizing a team (or group) approach to problem solving.

Israel is much less hierarchical than the US, and supports a much more participative work style. Some American olim might perceive this as "in your face" over involvement, with surprisingly easy access to top leadership at times.

On the certainty dimension, Israelis are more comfortable with ambiguous situations compared to Americans, who value structure, clarity and advance planning.

At work, Israelis tend to prefer to resolve differences through direct communications, often conducted in a spontaneous manner with demonstrative forms of speech, including the use of confrontation, speaking loudly, and direct criticism. This form of speech is known as "dugri" (meaning direct or straight in Arabic). Since Americans tend to favor indirect communication styles and a more formal manner of speech than their Israeli counterparts, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed, defensive or upset during  such demanding encounters. Israelis, on the other hand, usually resolve issues this way and walk away from such encounters feeling satisfied that differences have been clarified and aired.

If you are highly task-oriented and working with people in countries which prefer more relationship development, the process you use to develop the product, its packaging and distribution system, or a training program, may need to be modified to find time for relationship development.

If you have more of a  relationship-orientation, your more task-oriented colleagues may perceive you as less driven or ambitious than they are. They may as a consequence display some frustration based on their greater expectation for urgency and delivery versus your preference for establishing consultative relationships and rapport. Recognition of this dynamic in your initial interactions may help you to establish an effective foundation for the relationships you seek to develop over the longer-term.

Knowing how to cope with these cultural differences helps to make for a more successful adjustment to work  as a new immigrant.  How do you know if you are adapting to the Israeli work place well?  Perhaps what is most evident are the behaviors of those who do not adapt. Typical symptoms of culture shock at work include:

  • Unwarranted criticism of the culture, behaviors and people
  • Heightened irritability with the way things are done
  • Constant complaints about the climate, the techniques, the lack of certainty, etc.
  • Continual offering of excuses for avoiding involvement with colleagues
  • Idealizing one's previous culture or work situation
  • Fear of  local people
  • Refusal to learn the language
  • Preoccupation about being cheated or taken advantage of
  • Pressing desire to talk with people who "really make sense."
  • Preoccupation with returning home

The Cultural Adjustment Process
There are several stages most  newcomers go through in adjusting to a new culture.

  • Fun: The excitement and adventure of experiencing new people, things, and opportunities.
  • Flight: The urge to avoid everything and everyone that is different. This stage is characterized by symptoms similar to those seen in cases of clinical depression, but as a reaction to culture shock.
  • Fight: The temptation to judge people or things that may be different in a negative light. At this stage, one wrestles with the influence of the new culture while resisting giving up one's original  cultural identity. Hopefully, a blend will emerge that fits you well.
  • Fit: Willingness to understand, to embrace, and to creatively interact with the new culture.  At this final stage, adaptation to the local culture has been made (or not), thus making for a better or worse fit.

Coping strategy for culture shock: Survival techniques
How can you cope with culture shock at work? Having some information about Israel's culture and about culture shock are important steps. As you work through your acculturation and adapt to local custom, follow these tips on surviving situations where you are unfamiliar with verbal and non-verbal codes:

  • Focus on what you can control.
    People in culture shock often feel out of control. Don't worry about things you cannot change and focus on doing your own personal best.
  • Don't invest major energy in minor problems.
    People make "mountains out of molehills" even more quickly in cross-cultural situations than they do in their own culture.
  • Tackle major stressors head on.
    Don't avoid things that bother you, nor should you ruminate about them. Talk them out with the co-workers involved.
  • Ask others who have been in your situation for help.
    Create a support network for yourself as quickly as you can in your new situation, perhaps with other immigrants or workers who lived abroad.
  • Write it down.
    Record your thoughts and frustrations in a journal. This will give you a healthy outlet for expressing your feelings.

You can learn more about Israel's culture by reading Border Crossings by Lucy Shahar and David Kurz, Intercultural Press, 1995 

Written by Career Consultant Judy Feierstein, CEO, Transitions and Resources, Jerusalem

Contact our office at 08-9266102 or via our U.S. phone line in Israel: 516-216-4457 or info@maavarim.biz . 

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