Quick Facts About Working With Israelis
As a new immigrant and now small business owner (I eschew the term “freelancer”) I’ve spent the last five years, in large part, working with Israelis.
At any given time, my client base typically contains a mixture of Israeli and international clients.
And even though, sometimes, international clients can be more “lucrative”, as a technology writer, it makes obvious sense to keep an eye and an ear on the local market. There’s something just more wholesome about working with people down the road — even if that “road” is Highway One connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
I’ve written an extremely long post comparing my native culture (Ireland) with Israel. It’s here. To save you wading through what Medium describes as a “44 minute read” (yes, I really went all out that day!) let me summarize by saying that I can hardly think of two more different work cultures.
If you have also made the uncomfortable transition from a soft-spoken, self-effacing culture to a much more aggressive and assertive one, then here are some pointers that might make the journey across the divide a little easier.
Here are a few of my observations.
Fact 1: In Israel, Arguing Is Regarded As Normal and Healthy
The very word “argument” still evokes a visceral feeling of discomfort in me.
I remember attending my first Shabbat meal in Israel (a Friday night dinner held on the Jewish Sabbath) and being perplexed at the sight of friends using their recreational hours to pull apart one another’s beliefs and gesticulate frenetically in heated debate.
“You can’t be serious!”
“You’re 100% wrong!”
Among many other clipped excerpts.
For me, hearing people yelling or screaming at one another invokes an automatic stress response.
The Irish, like most Western cultures, form social bonds through congeniality and seeking out the company of people among whom they are more likely to reach consensus on matters like lifestyle and thought.
For Israelis (Jews?) there’s a sort of violent screening process which involves putting large groups around a table habitually, laughing and screaming at one another, and then making friends based on whoever you forged the strongest connection with (hint: it could be either party!).
Truth be told, I’m still not a crazy fan of the whole argument thing but I have come to see enormous value in not keeping things bottled up or trying to circumvent differences of opinion. (One thing you come to appreciate over time is that cultures are nuanced and viewing societies as monoliths is completely inaccurate: many Israelis aren’t entirely comfortable with it either.)
One context in which I think expressing one’s viewpoint from the outset and with vigor is almost always beneficial is the business one.
Because let’s face it: we all engage in business in order to make a living.
And skirting around uncomfortable things like money just because it’s an unpleasant conversation topic (which it sometimes is!) is simply neither a winning strategy nor one that is viable over the long-term.
And let me explain why, in Israel, I think that’s especially important.
In my Ireland vs. Israel post I wrote about an aspect of Israeli culture that I’m not so keen on: it’s called shitat matzliach and involves trying to force the weaker party into a bad deal because, well, you hope that theyre’ a freier (pronounced “fr-eye-er”; translation: sucker) or because they don’t know any better. It’s like freyerism’s lesser known but more malign sibling.
In Ireland, this would be called “chancing your arm.”
Some Israeli companies — I’m trying hard not to generalize, but I can’t lie, the proportion is significant— are unfortunately strong proponents of this, particularly when they’re dealing with olim (recent Jewish immigrants) who mightn’t know their market value or rights.
The prevalence of shitat matzliach in the Israeli workplace is another reason why speaking up and arguing is not just important but actually vital for your economic survival.
In other words, genteel newbie immigrants — as painful as the process is going to be — start learning assertiveness (along with Hebrew!) right now.
What may be a nice-to-have now may become an adaptive trait when you’re fighting for your first contract or pay rise.
… And You Should Say No To BS Where You Find It
Now let’s get to practical applications for assertiveness. (And I should point out that I think assertiveness training would be a great line of business for somebody. Or is that what life coaches do?)
If a well-funded Israeli cybersecurity company wants you to run a PR campaign for them and tries to get you to take a budget of 2,000 NIS a month ($582) to do so, then (assuming you have at least some experience) you need to look them in the eye — or speak to them down the phone — and tell them that their budget is a joke.
OK, so maybe “lo maspeek” (not enough) might be more diplomatic.
There’s another reason it’s important.
Many olim have had to learn this the (very) hard way and have been burned — sometimes many times — by Israeli companies, whether they worked for them or with them as a contractor.
As a result, one encounters many olim (immigrants) who are extremely skeptical about working with Israelis and might even tell you, off-the-record that is, that they have therefore chosen to simply bypass the local market by working exclusively with international companies. In other words, for them, the potential upside isn’t worth the risk.
If a company is trying to push you into a bad deal, as you will sometimes find that they are, I think it’s important to resist the temptation to just walk away (and I’m writing this to myself as much as to anybody that reads this).
Instead, gather intelligence in order to know what a fair budget or salary is for your position. And then, stand your ground and push back on the unreasonable request. (Note: this is why I think being transparent about salaries among peer groups is so important).
Sometimes the company will be unreasonable and let you walk away (I’ve experienced this unfortunately). Other times they’ll sit down and negotiate with you.
But, at the very least, you owe it to yourself to try.
(Israelis are incredibly informal and if you need to really demonstrate how worked up you about the dud deal you’re being offered you might need to drop an expletive. Just make sure to pronounce it bull-sheet if you do. Just kidding, don’t do that!)
Fact 2: Israelis Let By-Gones Be By-Gones Amazingly Quickly
The other thing I’ve noticed about working with Israelis is that — just as arguments can escalate quickly and frequently — Israelis tend to forget about “professional disagreements” too. Not only that, but relationships that momentarily soured can quickly blossom. In Israel, you could say that the standard deviation of relationship states is simply higher than in many other cultures.
I’ve had several of those “professional disagreements” with clients. Sometimes, I felt as if a bridge had unfortunately been burned in the process. Only to find that same individual referring me to a contact of theirs several months later.
At first, I thought the person had forgotten about the fact that we disagreed about a project — or I that I had to ask them to stop calling me on weekends about projects.
In fact, we were just seeing things through different frames of reference.
Because of shitat mazliach if you’re working with Israelis you need to be really good at setting boundaries. If you aren’t, you run the risk of being taken advantage of from time to time.
In the Israeli client’s eye, me telling them not to call on weekends was me setting my “red line” (note: Israelis selectively love a few phrases in English; “red lines” is one of them and the adjective “relevant” — which is wantonly overused here — is another).
Obviously the same rule about keeping relationships healthy and trying not to burn bridges applies in Israel just as it does anywhere else in the world.
But don’t think you’re going to risk a major falling-out with an Israeli client just by expressing disagreement.
Those that have visited Israel will surely have observed that Israelis live their lives frenetically.
They’ve probably forgotten about it by lunch.
Fact 3…Israelis Love The Telephone (And WhatsApp And ….. The Fax Machine)
At the risk of de-marketing myself to Israelis once again (but we can disagree, right?), I should point out that communication can be another gap that Israelis and immigrants need to bridge.
I’m one of those weird old-schoolers that positively adores email. (Yes, you read that right.)
It’s not that I have any particular aversion to phone calls.
It’s just that if I need to say “thanks, I got the brief — will try get it back to you by end of week” — I’m more likely to put that into an email than pick up the phone just to say that.
Israelis are obsessed with their phones and — relative to other cultures, like, say Ireland — also have comparatively little concept of privacy or individual rights.
You’ll see this at a societal level when you find out that a government agency can summarily put an ikul (lien) on your bank account because you never got an arnona bill (municipal tax).
And you’ll encounter this when riding on a bus when the man next to you decides to call his mother to fill her in on how his appointment with the gastroenterologist just went. Israelis will take phone calls while participating in meetings, “serving” customers at café, and waiting in line to pay.
It’s all audible. It’s all in your face. It’s all right now. And that’s just how things work here. So if you want to align workflows, you might need to adapt.
However, even this is changing in some respects.
My only request for long phone calls, like to convey feedback on a draft, is that they be scheduled. In the relatively short period I’ve lived here (five years) I’ve seen this slowly become the norm. Less sporadic calls. More “can we have a chat to discuss this at 15:00?”.
I always see the Israeli workplace retaining some distinctive features, like flat hierarchies and informality. But with so much cross-pollination between Israel and other labor markets, particularly the American one, I see the differences eroding over time.
The other interesting facet of Israeli work culture is their love of WhatsApp which I only recently learned is not a major “thing” in the US.
I strongly suggest that anybody working for themselves and dealing with Israelis buy a second SIM card and install WhatsApp Business.
As an informal and Mediterranean culture, the personal/professional line can be less clearly delineated in Israel than in other countries. But I have found maintaining a separate phone line invaluable in setting boundaries.
Finally …. yes, the fax is still a thing here although less so each year.
Thankfully, the Knesset introduced a law two years ago making it mandatory for government agencies to give citizens the option to send correspondence through a newfangled technology that I believe is called electronic mail …. or was that a Telex machine?
Fact 4: It Can Be A Rewarding Experience
Without obviously disclosing details, I can you that — like many olim I have met — I have had several painful professional experiences involving Israeli companies.
At times, these really sourced my impression of the market as a whole. And they have caused me to be too quick to walk away from prospects I assumed were the next iteration of that.
And I regret that. Because — as the Irish saying goes — it doesn’t make sense to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But it still pays to be cautious.
I recently wrote an article for a client in the cybersecurity world.
We were talking about posture hardening as a basic element for securing complex server configurations.
The idea was that before system administrators look at things like running behavior-based algorithms to flag suspicious network activity that has evaded a basic firewall, they need to conduct a basic audit of their infrastructure to make sure that things like S3 file storage buckets are not inadvertently left accessible to the public when they’re part of an internal workflow like parsing user-submitted documents.
(Or to check that somebody hasn’t accidentally left user credentials to the national citizen registry in code that’s served to the end-user!)
I vehemently dislike shitat matzliach and wish that trying to pull a quick one on everybody else wasn’t a prominent feature of Israeli culture. Because, in my opinion, it is.
But until and if that changes, the best job-seekers and candidates can do to work with Israeli companies and come out of the process unscathed is to do some basic posture hardening and ensure they know what they’re worth, what their red lines are, and be prepared to enforce them to get the result they need to make the arrangement work for them.
Intelligence — by which I mean gathering information — is crucial in this endeavor.
Which is why I think it’s important for workers to share the information they have transparently.
Because you can rest assured that the other side of the equation is doing the same.
I’ve given a bit of thought over the years to when it makes sense to work with Israeli companies.
In my opinion, as a market it still features too much exploitation and underemployment, particularly among olim. That’s shitat mazliach at work. But it’s also not all the market.
Some of my best accounts were, and remain, Israeli companies.
Working with or for Israeli companies can not only be “worth it” — it can be among the most edifying and rewarding experiences you can imagine.
It also provides the opportunity to work with some amazingly talented thinkers who don’t conceive of a box being there much less think within it.
That’s an upside that shouldn’t be discounted — even if the financial one may take a little bit of time to realize.
The only thing required to realize its benefits — and get through the less savory experiences unscathed — is to configure a good firewall.