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My learned and distinguished colleague
By REUVEN BEN-SHALOM
02/21/2013
In Israel, you learn early on that you must butt-in and speak out, and if you don't act like the herd, you will not be heard.
 
"You've got it wrong!" a man with an American accent called out, then glanced around, seeking confirmation and appreciation.

I was speaking before an audience of high-tech start-uppers and entrepreneurs on the subject of bridging cultural gaps in international business collaboration. The ill-mannered interruption came after I had commented on the negative aspects of Israeli conversation etiquette.

Knowing that the man had recently moved to Israel, I was surprised both at the "what" and "how" of his heckling. I was sorely tempted to retort: "Who do you think you are?" But I thought better of it, and said: "Thank you, Sir, for your comment. I am merely presenting my perspective, based on my professional experience. There is no right and wrong here."

Later, the gentleman approached, shook my hand, and praised my lecture. He explained that he follows the rule that in Israel you must act like an Israeli. "Of course I would never have done that in the States," he added.

I found it ironic that uncivilized discourse was demonstrated in opposing my claims about uncivilized discourse.

While writing this column, I searched for an English term to describe the Hebrew expression "discourse culture" (Tarbut Diyun). I consulted a virtuoso translator, Lior Bar-On, who offered "decorum of debate." My favorite writer, David Hochman, supplied an assortment of expressions, but said there was not an exact equivalent.

I find it strange that we have a good term in Hebrew for something we implement so poorly.

Here's a case in point. One of the smartest people I know is also the worst conversationalist I have ever encountered. Our interaction is not really a discussion, for he locks into "transmit" mode, peppering me with his words of wisdom. When I speak, he uses a combination of (mostly) subconscious tricks. His hand is extended, with fingers alternating between pointing and motioning the Israeli "wait-a-minute" signal. It is a message meaning: "Wrap it up, I have something to say."

He interrupts constantly, beginning with the words "No – no." This interesting figure of speech does not necessarily convey disagreement. I once asked him: "Why did you say 'No no?' Do you disagree with me?" Puzzled, he answered: "I didn't say that."

I find that the most suppressive thing is his glazed and glassy look while others speak. It's obvious that instead of listening, he is focusing his processing resources on the next smart thing to say.

If he were not such a genius, to whom I owe many ideas and life lessons, I don't think I would speak – I mean listen – to him.

In Israel, you learn early on that you must butt-in and speak out, and if you don't act like the herd, you will not be heard. We are exposed to negative examples that are absorbed and adopted as our regular way of communicating.

Interviews with politicians on Israeli television have become an arena of hard-line questioning and badgering. Interviewers are rated according to how confrontational and tough they are. If they fail to pressure, tease and harass their interviewees, they receive merciless criticism for being "too soft."

Distinguished senior personages, including the Prime Minister, are sometimes addressed by name without title, scolded, interrupted in the middle of sentences, and pushed to answer yes-no questions.

In a controversial interview during the election campaign, Channel Two's Nissim Mishal hammered Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, leading to a statement which was understood to be advocating soldiers' disobedience.

I felt very uncomfortable watching Mishal's aggressive and rude behavior.

But the story has an interesting twist. Appearing together after the elections, both grinning from ear to ear, Bennet warmly thanked Mishal for boosting his popularity among his target audience, and Mishal thanked Bennet for the exclusive scoop.

If everyone's happy, who cares that their debate was uncivilized?  We should all care. It etches into the consciousness of young viewers that this is an appropriate way to communicate, and it most certainly is not.

Much has been written and said about the Knesset, which is probably the worst example of uncivilized discourse between people of different opinions. Our newly elected MKs should take it upon themselves to demonstrate how opposing ideas can be debated in a respectful manner.

Achieving significant cultural change may take decades, but it can be done. I believe in education and personal example at home, but in order to break the sub-cultural cycle, we must take significant measures in areas of public domain, such as schools, the Knesset and the media.

There are practical things that can be done.

We should reevaluate the format and framework of our different debate mechanisms. 10 Israelis screaming at each other on current-affairs TV shows may be good for rating, but is also a formula for an educational disaster. The popular "panel" format for public debate should be abolished. Although seemingly structured, time deficiency leads to frustrated and bored participants, so no wonder it turns into a confrontation arena instead of a civilized debate.

Interviewers must preserve the dignity of their interviewees and keep the debate within limits of decency and respect.

In public debates, participants should be urged to address ideas and avoid making personal attacks and accusations. Debate moderators and TV anchors should strongly enforce clear "Rules of Order," such as giving the floor to one speaker at a time.

We should promote the value that it is worthwhile and polite to listen, not only talk, and interrupting someone while he, or she, speaks, is rude.

I always remember that many of our flaws also have positive side effects. Our lively, vigorous, outspoken and even impertinent nature may be one of the attributes making us so innovative and revolutionary, on the battlefield and in cutting edge technology.

But still, this is no excuse. These are not subtle nuances. It's pretty bad and we should aspire to change.

Some of my readers may not agree with me, but I will not twist my wrist and say "Lama Mi Ata?" (gesture and phrase meaning "Who do you think you are?").

Instead I will say: "I respect my very able, learned and distinguished colleague, and beg to differ."

The writer is a former Israel Air Force pilot and founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd.

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