Are you a peach or a coconut?

Understanding cross-cultural differences in Israel

A peach or a coconut? (photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
A peach or a coconut?
(photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
ONE OF the delights of making aliya has been the opportunity to make new friends. This often begins in Ulpan (Hebrew school) where most olim (immigrants) go to learn Hebrew. When I came on aliya in 2014 from London, there were at least nine different nationalities represented in the class. I was in an advanced class and so the majority of students were able to express themselves relatively well in simple Hebrew. Things got decidedly better when the teacher paired us off with an individual from a different culture. The Americans, who had very little previous exposure to Europeans, were particularly excited. One of my classmates, Helen from Brooklyn, New York, found herself paired with Laurence, a French olah (female immigrant).
In France, the name Laurence is a name given to both men and women. Laurence and her husband Philippe were from Strasbourg and came from Orthodox backgrounds, as did Helen. A few weeks into Ulpan during one of the breaks, I found myself sharing a bench with my fellow students including Laurence, Philippe and Helen. It became apparent that Laurence and Phillipe spoke perfect English and we soon moved from broken Hebrew into English. It was at this point that the rather loud-voiced Helen turned to her French colleagues and asked:
“So what kind of a name is Laurence?” She pronounced it the English way. “In the States, that’s a boy’s name,” she joked.
Her question was met with an embarrassed silence. “It’s Laurence and quite common for women.” She pronounced her name the French way and smiled politely. This was followed by more silence until the two of them stood up to leave. “Please excuse us; we need to go back up.”
Helen waited until they were out of ear shot.
“Well how about that! I was just trying to be friendly. Is it just me or do you find these French guys a little weird?”
She looked at me for reassurance. I laughed. As a native South African married to an American and having lived in London for most of my life, I found her question amusing, not least because of the fact that for the past 35 years I have worked as an international business coach and management consultant. The contretemps was a perfect example of what culture experts Fons Trompenaar and Charles Hampden-Turner refer to as “the Peach and Coconut syndrome.”
In peach cultures like the US or Brazil, people tend to be open and friendly when meeting new people. They smile readily and move quickly into first name terms. They talk about themselves quite easily and are comfortable enough to ask personal questions, even though they have only just met. The interesting thing about the peach is that it has a soft, sweet fleshy exterior, which you bite into until you hit the hard pit! After an initial friendly interaction with the peach, you suddenly discover that he or she has set up a barrier beyond which you cannot go and the relationship comes to an end.
In coconut cultures such as Holland, France and Russia (and most of Europe), people are initially more guarded with people they do not know. They send out very different nonverbal signals and avoid smiling. Small talk always has to be “safe,” e.g. commenting on the weather, however, they steer away from asking personal questions. This is done in order to maintain and respect one another’s privacy. Over time, the hard outer shell of the coconut begins to soften as he or she gets to know you. It could take weeks, months or even years. A typical example of this is demonstrated in the use of the word “you.” In most languages other than English and Hebrew, newly acquainted individuals retain formality in their relationship by addressing each other with the polite form of “you.” In French, it is Vous, in German, it is Sie and in Dutch, it is U. After a lengthy period of building trust between the two parties, a point is reached where it is mutually decided to move to the informal form of “you.” Once you have broken through the harder outer shell of the coconut, you reach the soft sweet internal flesh, which deepens the relationship and turns it into a friendship, which can last a lifetime.
To the uninitiated all of this can lead to misunderstanding and even conflict.
For example, coconuts can react to peaches in a number of ways. They can interpret the initial friendliness and warmth of the peach as a sign of deep friendship. Later on they experience disappointment as the peach fails to follow through. It needs to be pointed out though that “labelling is disabling”; not all North Americans fit the stereotypical peach mode and not all Europeans are coconuts.
Nevertheless, the differences are demonstrated by a true story that Jan, one of my Dutch clients told me. He and his wife Anneke were flying from Amsterdam to Los Angeles. On board they met Brad and Carol. They were sitting together in the bulkhead seats and become good friends. Throughout the 11 hour flight they shared life stories and touched on the most intimate of subjects, including how they met and when they smoked their first joints! Half-way through the journey and after consuming a number of glasses of wine, the Americans turned to their new Dutch friends and said, “We’ve had such a great time with you guys. If you have time at the end of the trip, why not come and visit us in San Francisco? We are empty nesters now and we’d welcome a bit of company.” They exchanged emails and phone numbers. Jan and Anneke were so impressed with their new friends. They disembarked in Los Angeles and a week later decided to reconnect with their new buddies and prepared to add a San Francisco leg to their journey. Just before they confirmed their flights with the airline, they decided to call Carol and Brad, who were delighted to hear from them. The conversation went something like this:
Anneke: We had such a wonderful time with you guys, we thought we’d take you up on your offer to come and visit with you in San Francisco on our way home at the end of the trip on the 9th and 10th.
The line went quiet for a few seconds and then Carol responded:
Carol: Aw, shucks! Brad and I are going to be tied up with work on the 9th and 10th. Maybe some other time. But if you decide to come here, be sure to visit Haight-Ashbury. It’s the center of the music scene and I remember you guys like rock!
Needless to say Jan and Anneke were taken aback. They were not expecting this “brush off.” To them, the gesture made during the flight was a sign of deep and lasting friendship. To Carol and Brad, the friendship was indeed sincere but occurred without strings attached and no binding commitments.
“If we had invited them to Amsterdam and they had changed their plans to come and visit us, we would have pulled out all the stops.” Jan told me during a coaching conversation about cultural misunderstanding. “We would have taken time off to show them our city, treated them to a typical Dutch restaurant and bought tickets for a concert. Yes, maybe after a day or two we might have gone into the bedroom, closed the door and wished that they would go home. But while in their company we would have given them 120 percent of our time and attention because, where we come from, you don’t easily invite people to come and stay with you. We really thought they had become good friends!”
So what do you do if, like me, you’re a coconut married to a peach and are now surrounded by peaches and coconuts?
The answer is quite simple – meet halfway! Now that we’re living in Israel we can all afford to be a bit more peachy. With Americans (including my wife), I have learned to respect the boundaries she sets when it comes to meeting new people. After all, she spent 26 years in London trying to figure out how to deal with coconuts. Her strategy began 29 years ago when she arrived in London and used her ebullient New York charm to break through my hard coconut shell and the shells of our fellow Brits! Since then, I’ve taken a leaf out of her book and learned to be friendly and welcoming to new acquaintances and especially new arrivals. But I’ve also learned to respect the fact that you can’t become best buddies with people you’ve smiled at or with whom you’ve shared a joke or two. On the other hand, she too has gained from living among the coconuts and, in turn, has established deep and lasting relationships with our British, South African and European friends, many of whom now live in Israel.
Speaking of Israel, what of the Israelis? How do they fit into this paradigm? After much consideration and a little informal research, I finally came up with a valid explanation. Israelis are peaches with prickly thorns on the outside. Once you remove the thorns, they become soft and sweet to the core and you rarely hit the pit! Another way of putting it is to simply use the vernacular and call them what they call themselves, Sabras (prickly pears), which is the term used to describe native Israelis.