I was actually just going to post a link to today's Haveil Havelim blog carnival, hosted by A Mother in Israel, but as I was browsing her wonderful blog, a post about Israeli "rudeness" struck a nerve with me, and I had to add my own thoughts. (I agree with A Mother in Israel's response to this question... I'm not ranting against what she said, but rather at the attitude she addressed!)
We've all heard that Israelis are rude, and to some extent this is true. More often, though, Americans coming to Israel are ruder than they realize. What is polite in America is not the same as what is polite in Israel.
For example, I've posted before about the way the relationship between Israeli sales people and customers is different from the relationship in America. In America, the customer is always right-- and the customer is therefore entitled to demand service RIGHT NOW, monopolize a sales person's time and then walk away, ask to speak to the manager if anything is wrong with service, etc. In Israel, on the other hand, the sales person sees himself as an authority-- and is therefore entitled to take his sweet time in coming to serve you, give you advice you didn't ask for, and refuse to sell you a more expensive product if he's convinced a cheap one will do. The flip side of this, though, is that sales people usually feel invested in helping you find the right product, and they often have good advice to offer. Americans who come in expecting sales people to be subservient come across as arrogant and demanding... sounds familiar?
In other situations, I think Israeli "rudeness" stems from the feeling that we're like a big family crowded into a too-small apartment. Of course we tell each other what to do! Yes, strangers might ask pointed personal questions after spending two minutes with you in the supermarket checkout line. (If you don't want to respond, adopt the teenager-tested strategy of refusing to give away information. "Where are you going?" "Out." "What are you going to do there?" "Stuff.") Imagine if a family member was simply indifferent to you-- wouldn't that sting more? And here's the thing: when Israelis yell at you, it's something like your brother yelling at you. At the end of the day, he still loves you and you love him. It's not personal. Two strangers in Israel can have a loud, heated disagreement, and at the end of it clap each other on the back, call each other "achi," and buy each other coffee. An American after the same disagreement might nurse a grudge for years, while Israelis were just voicing their opinions and having a little battle of wills.
Israelis see Americans as friendly and polite on the surface but aloof and insincere in this kindness. Imagine: Americans see someone else's child misbehaving or crying and don't do anything! Americans might obey traffic laws, but they don't pick up the teenagers hitchhiking along the side of the road or invite strangers into their homes for a meal. When Americans give directions, they rarely offer to show the asker to his destination. Americans don't offer coffee to repairmen or shots of homemade peach liqueur to customers in their shops. When a friend of mine moved back to America after a decade of life in Israel, she was shocked by the dirty looks she received in American supermarkets when she accidentally nudged strangers with her shopping cart, and by the indifference of fellow travelers on American city buses as she attempted to lug around a baby and a small child. Again: Israel and the US have different definitions of "polite." Americans are offended that someone bumps into them in the grocery store yet don't consider that giving a dirty look in response could be rude.
In the US, social norms often call for you to be indirect and perhaps even passive-aggressive in how you state your opinions. You smile when you don't mean it. You say "thank you" when you don't mean it. You complain to everyone except the person with whom you have a problem. In Israel, social norms call for you to be direct and assertive. You honk your horn and flash your lights at the car that is going too slowly in front of you, and then pull over if they seem to need help. For me, the Israeli system works so much better. I hate being around people who might be upset by my actions and not say anything. I'm notoriously bad at picking up subtle non-verbal cues and like it when people are direct with me and I can be direct with them. It's tricky to nail the right degree of assertiveness (rather than combativeness) in your interactions with Israelis, but when you find it, you develop a relationship based on mutual respect. If you avoid confrontation at all costs, on the other hand, this might not be the country for you.
I feel for tourists-- I really do. The American strategies of smiling and being polite (until you're REALLY upset) send the wrong signals to Israelis and so elicit responses that only make Americans feel more attacked and annoyed. Because Americans assume you have to be furious to shout at a stranger in the street or lay on the horn, they must get freaked out by fairly normal interactions in Israel. Yes, Israel might gain a better reputation in the world and among visiting tourists if we learned about tact. But if you're in Israel, maybe you should try acting like an Israeli. People are so much nicer that way!
Ok, that's my rant. Told you that touched a nerve. What do you think? Have you had experiences with "rude" Israelis (or rude Americans)?