Israelis and Americans: Sincerity Versus Politeness
JNS.org – The cultural differences between Israel and the United States are substantial, reminding me of a major reason why I moved to Israel 10 months ago.
After nearly a year living in Israel and two weeks since I’ve been back in the US as a visitor, I’m really starting to see how cultural differences affect how people relate to each other. While I prefer social encounters in Israel, I’m also beginning to see parts of American culture that I took for granted while I lived in the US.
The biggest difference is in how much people talk to each other. In the US, in the service industry, customers are immediately attended to, whether they ask for help or not. They are also engaged in small talk — A LOT of small talk. At the Verizon store this week, as the service rep prepared to install my new sim card, he asked about my life abroad after I told him I live in Israel. “What do you like about Israel that made you move there?” he asked. At first, I tried to brush off the question. After all, I had just met him not 30 seconds ago, and he didn’t even know my name. Why would he care? But alas, I knew he was just trying to be polite, so I was polite back and gave him my most genuine answer to his question. Of course, after pouring my heart out for 30 seconds, he just nodded and said “nice” before starting on my phone.
This encounter struck me as polite yet incredibly insincere. It also struck me as something that would never happen in Israel. In Israel, the norm is the opposite of polite and insincere: impolite yet sincere. If people talked to a customer in Israel like the customer service rep spoke to me in Verizon, it would be because they truly wanted to get to know the customer. So when I walk into the Golan (my phone company) in Israel, they greet me with a simple “Can I help you?” Some view this as a lack of good customer service (which, for the record, is certainly a problem in Israel). But to me, the lack of small talk is just sincerity in impolite clothing. Not once did someone in Israel who didn’t know me ask what I like about Israel or why I moved. And to be honest, I like that. I’m not a fan of small talk with people I don’t know, but I absolutely love talking to and having deep conversations with people I do know.
When I got to Washington, DC, from Israel after a 27-hour journey, I was surprised when my Lyft driver asked me how I was doing. And every driver, stewardess, and customer service agent I encountered asked the same. When I got to Hawaii with my family for a weeklong vacation, we were greeted with “Aloha!” everywhere we went. Although the greeting seemed a little commercialized — after all, we were staying at a resort where there were no “real” native Hawaiians — it was nice to be greeted with a smile. In Israel, you aren’t often greeted with a smile (unless of course you’re in a more touristy area — but even then the greetings will be less ebullient than experienced abroad). Israelis tend to mind their own business and keep to themselves. Although I appreciate this, I also realize why non-Israelis view Israelis as a little rude and aloof. They’re certainly less likely to put any effort into greeting others or even simply to smile.
But on the other hand, Israelis view Americans as insincere — and that’s not the first time I’ve heard non-Americans characterize Americans as insincere. When talking to a French woman years ago, she said that her preconception of Americans is how much they hug and say “I love you” without meaning it. At first, I was offended by her sweeping generalization, until I reflected on it and realized she was right.
There is a kernel of truth in both perspectives of Israelis and Americans. But I wouldn’t characterize Israelis as rude as much as sincere and to the point, just as I wouldn’t characterize Americans as insincere as much as polite and friendly.
I’ve learned over the past 10 months and the last two weeks that there is always a happy medium, and while I value the sincerity of Israelis, I do wish people were a bit friendlier to each other like they are in the US. While constant insincerity gets stale, being ignored gets disheartening. We — as Americans, Israelis, and global citizens — can certainly learn from both cultures.
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied international relations and Jewish studies. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her column on JNS.org.