How To Work With Israelis – And Enjoy The Experience

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. For more on why I think every Israel-based freelance should consider working with clients based abroad, see this post. But suffice to say that there are no major impediments to doing so and there’s a much larger pool of potential companies to work with outside of Israel.

Even though working with international clients has obvious upsides, as a technology writer, it makes obvious sense to keep an eye and an ear on the local market. Besides, 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.

Last year, I wrote a very long post comparing my native culture (Ireland) with that of Israel. It’s here. To save you wading through what Medium describes as a “44 minute read” (yes, I really went all out!) let me summarize by saying that I can hardly think of two more different cultures: both to live in and work in with.

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 and observations that might make the journey across the divide a little easier.

In Israel, Arguing Is Regarded As Normal and Healthy

Despite being here for more than five years, the very word “argument” still evokes a sort of visceral discomfort in me.

I remember attending my first Shabbat meal in Israel (a Friday night dinner traditionally held to mark the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath) and being perplexed and somewhat aghast 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!”

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 (which could be either party to the debate!). Cultures are nuanced and viewing societies as monoliths is completely inaccurate. So although you will find that many Israelis themselves share this discomfort, it’s nevertheless a prevalent feature of Jewish Israeli society — and, by extension, its work culture.

Truth be told, I’m still not a crazy fan of the whole love of argument thing but I have come to see enormous value in not keeping things bottled up or trying to circumvent differences of opinion. And 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.

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 here’s why in Israel this is 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 matzliachand essential involves trying to force the weaker party into a bad deal because, well, you hope that they’re’ 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.”

Living and working in Israel there is a strong chance that you will come across companies or individuals that are strong proponents of this methodology, 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 how to conjugate verbs in the pa’al family.

What may be a nice-to-have now may become an adaptive trait when you’re fighting for your first contract or pay rise.

Say No To Exploitation Wherever You Encounter It

Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market. Source: Wikimedia

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, of course — 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— 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). Don’t let your previous experiences discolor your judgment coming into a new one, even if there are many negatives ones tipping the scale in favor of your skepticism.

Instead, gather intelligence in order to know what a fair budget or salary is for your position. 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. 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!)

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” in short order too.

Not only that, but relationships that momentarily soured can quickly blossom.

In Israel, you could perhaps say that the standard deviation of relationship states is simply higher than that which exists in many other cultures.

I’ve had several frank “professional disagreements” with clients in Israel over the years. 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).

The same rule about trying to keep relationships with clients warm and 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 summoning up the temerity to express occasional differences of opinion.

Those that have visited Israel will surely have observed that Israelis live their lives frenetically.

They’ve probably forgotten about it by lunch.

Israelis Love The Telephone (And WhatsApp …. And ….. The Fax Machine)

The fax machine: still thriving in Israel somehow. Source: LibreShot.

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 — relatively to many cultures — 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 need to adapt.

Although this is largely the situation now, it’s easy to forget that Israel is less than one hundred years old. The country is dynamic. And in a constant state of flux.

My only request for long phone calls, like to convey feedback on a draft, is that they be scheduled. And 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. Flat hierarchies and informality are the most striking ones. 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 in universal contexts — spanning both business and personal uses.

I strongly suggest that anybody working for themselves and dealing with Israelis buy a second SIM card and install WhatsApp Business which effectively gives them a duplicate WhatsApp account with which to interact with clients (as a bonus: WhatsApp Business allows you to set autoresponders and holiday messages).

As an informal and Mediterranean culture, the personal/professional line can be less clearly delineated in Israel than in other countries. 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?

As Challenging As It Can Be, It Can Be Rewarding

Without disclosing details, I can tell you that — like many olim I have met — I have had several professional experiences involving Israeli companies that left a sour taste in my mouth.

For a while, these, unfortunately, caused me to be too quick to walk away from prospects I assumed were the next iteration of a bad experience.

I regret that. It’s worth giving people the benefit of the doubt. But being prepared for the above dynamics can be helpful. And it pays to be cautious when you’re in business for yourself.

I recently wrote an article for a client in the cybersecurity world talking about posture hardening as a basic element for securing complex server configurations.

For those technically inclined, 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 file storage buckets are not inadvertently left accessible to the public when they’re part of an internal workflow like parsing user-submitted documents.

I vehemently dislike shitat matzliach and wish that trying to be a predatory negotiator wasn’t a prominent feature of modern Israeli business culture. Because I believe that 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 in their own businesses and ensure they know what they’re worth, what their market value is, and where their red lines lie.

Then, they only need to be prepared to enforce them to get the result they need to make the arrangement workable.

And failing that, they can choose to work with a different labor market entirely where their expectations might be more easily met.

Intelligence — by which I mean information gathering — 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.

As a market,  I still feel that it still features too much exploitation and underemployment, particularly where olim are concerned. That’s shitat mazliach at work. But it’s also not all of 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 provide the opportunity to work with some amazingly talented thinkers who don’t conceive of a box being there much less think within it. And it can be among the most edifying and rewarding experiences you can imagine.

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.

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