Walking around Tel Aviv, one could argue that the primary differentiating feature between American and Israeli conversations is the language. After all, I could only understand the occasional word or phrase that existed within my sparse vocabulary. But over the past week, as our Israeli counterparts conversed in fluent English, it was difficult to miss the fact that the way in which they engaged in conversation was still fundamentally distinct from our own.
As we celebrated Shabbat together, the combined Technion-MIT delegations engaged in guided discussions on marriage in Israel (as an example of the intertwined roles of the secular government and the religious rabbinate), as well as the relationship between Israel and the global Jewish population, or Diaspora. While the discussion leader spoke, we Americans listened politely, quietly contemplating and considering our opinions. The Israelis occasionally took a different approach: “I completely disagree” is a phrase repeated multiple times throughout the course of the sessions. Vociferous disagreements, impassioned counterarguments and pointed questions were offered up, challenging each other and the discussion leader (who all but one had never met before). With contributors spanning a large swath of the religious, cultural and social spectrums of Israeli Jews, what resulted was a frank, blunt and sometimes difficult discussion in which many thoughts and opinions were shared, defended, clarified and distilled.
Distant echoes of this mindset can be heard in the car horns that blare out constantly throughout the cities of Israel. “I don’t like how you’re driving; get it together.” It’s apparent in the way Israelis argue with business proprietors, often fruitlessly—“I think your establishment’s rules are foolish.” In many aspects of daily life, Israelis share their opinion freely—even if not invited—and without apology. It’s an understood aspect of the culture, and it seems as though, perhaps as a consequence, Israelis also handle criticism or challenges with less hostility, offense and resentment.
Of course, to generalize this observation to all Israelis is misleading. Israelis have personalities and approaches to communication as diverse as any other nationality. Many Israelis in our cohort rarely spoke up, though I can’t be sure to what extent this was due to differences in communication style, extent of knowledge of the discussion topic or opinion in relation to the discussion trajectory and points already raised. Still, it seemed distinctly as though the spectrum of Israeli expression was shifted relative to our American spectrum.
A blunt, vocal and critical approach isn’t ideal in all situations, and rarely perfect—it can lead some to feel offended or hurt. I’m sure that opinions of some in our group were also silenced, as the prospect of being publicly questioned raised a barrier to vocal engagement. I also feel quite strongly that the use of car horns in Israel is wildly excessive and unproductive, with annoyance to those within earshot far outweighing any improvements in driving efficiency and performance.
Nevertheless, I think that we, as Americans, can learn a lot from the distinct way in which Israelis communicate. Overcoming the fear of confrontation can lead to productive and constructive exchanges. By challenging others with intellectual humility, empathy and respect, our peers from the Technion helped to facilitate a discussion that led to more refined and nuanced opinions, more balanced perspectives and a better understanding of the complex situation we were considering than if we had taken the more comfortable path of passive listening. Looking forward, I hope that we can emulate the admirable spirit of our Israeli peers.
Max Olender is a graduate student in mechanical engineering at MIT.
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