Bay Area women teaching Israeli-American office harmony

For Anat Kedem, an introduction to cross-cultural issues between Americans and Israelis came as an embarrassing childhood incident.

Anat remembers her first day of grade school after moving with her family from Israel to the United States. Because she didn’t speak English, her mother hung a sign around Anat’s neck. All day the other children laughed at her and she couldn’t figure out why. The sign, written in faulty English, read, “Hello I am Anut.”

This feeling of blatantly standing out doesn’t happen just to children. For many Israelis who work in the United States, cultural issues are more subtle, but equally frustrating.

That’s why a year ago Kedem and her American friend Vivian Deutsch, who lived in Israel for many years, started the Israeli-American Intercultural Advantage. Their company does presentations and workshops to ease the bad feelings, conflicts, lowered productivity and team-building problems that can stem simply from cultural misunderstandings between Americans and Israelis.

The company is based in Silicon Valley (Kedem is a Sunnyvale resident, and Deutsch lives in Palo Alto), but will hold seminars all over the U.S. and Israel. And it’s not just high-tech clients — though being Bay Area-based, that’s been the majority of their work so far.

The goal of IAIA is deceptively simple: Help Americans and Israelis get along in the workplace. Despite the excellent command of English that most Israelis have, many comprehension issues arise from different cultural perceptions.

According to Kedem and Deutsch, when an American says, “We may have some challenges here,” it usually means that there are problems that must be solved. However, an Israeli might hear it as, “Great, finally things are getting interesting, challenge is good.”

On the other hand, when an Israeli says, “You are completely wrong,” they mean that they disagree with your point of view and want to discuss it further so you can reach an agreement. However, the American hears, “There is no room for discussion. Better back off.”

Questions of cultural directness can cause much tension in American-Israeli interactions.

“The whole world thinks that Americans are brutally direct and tactless, but Israelis are so much more direct that they think Americans are obtuse and don’t say what they mean,” says Deutsch. So Israelis feel frustrated when they must tease out what Americans mean, while Americans find Israelis rude.

Israelis, for example, interrupt to show they heard and got the point and want to talk further. Americans perceive it as disrespectful and feel they’re not being listened to.

Another conflict happens in teams when an Israeli member changes the plan midstream, sometimes without telling anyone. To an Israeli, a decision should be followed only if it’s working. To Americans, Israelis come off as renegades and bad team players.

During workshops, Deutsch and Kedem try to explain to participants where these behaviors come from. They discuss the geography and history of both countries and explain why the cultures evolved to behave like they do. Deutsch’s graduate degree in applied cultural anthropology informs her approach in helping the two sides understand each other.

“Many cross-cultural trainers tell the participants how to get along but don’t explain why or where the behavior comes from. Things become less annoying if you understand them,” she says.

For instance, Kedem says it helps Israelis connect to Americans when they finally understand where their overfriendly behavior comes from. That “have-a-nice-day smile,” she says, comes from living in a large country with a constant need to interact with strangers. Being friendly with strangers helped disarm the situation and make transactions smooth.

Also, the team explains to Americans what a great influence military culture is on Israeli business culture. In the Israeli army if the leader isn’t making a good decision, people are expected to ask questions and make changes. This doesn’t always fly in the United States.

The combination of having an Israeli and American workshop leader helps put both sides at ease. As both women give their introductions, they exhibit the Israeli style of downplaying their accomplishments and the American style of self-promotion —while explaining to everyone why the other does this.

“Israelis have to understand that you have to constantly sell yourself to your boss in the U.S. Understating your accomplishments may be the Israeli way, but is perceived as unprofessional here,” says Kedem, adding that the hardest thing for Israelis to change is their ability to self-promote.

While issues of identity are hard to change, Kedem says she hopes that their workshops open the door of understanding. Most likely their workshops won’t stop an Israeli from interrupting, but the next time they do, the American will understand that they are still being listened to.