Teaching Israelis some finesse

Horrified by stories of Israelis mistaking cultural differences for rudeness, and vice versa, Debrah Marcus started her own etiquette consulting business.

Horrified by stories of Israelis mistaking cultural differences for rudeness, and vice versa, Debrah Marcus started her own etiquette consulting business. (photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
Horrified by stories of Israelis mistaking cultural differences for rudeness, and vice versa, Debrah Marcus started her own etiquette consulting business.
(photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
Debrah Marcus is a woman with a mission – to teach fellow Israelis how to behave correctly when interacting with visitors from abroad.
Her purpose is to help them avoid committing some blunder, thereby jeopardizing a promising business relationship with boorish mistakes that could easily be avoided.
Marcus, who came from South Africa in the early ’80s, calls her company Finesse. Dedicated to teaching cross-cultural communication, she has been in the business of polishing rough human diamonds for 15 years now.
“The name Finesse was chosen because it sums up what I want to convey, and what I hope people will take away with them after being in one of my courses,” she says.
It all started when she was working as chief knowledge officer at a large company. One day, exchanging some words with a fellow worker in the company canteen, she was astounded when he began to tell her of his experience in a company he visited in the UK.
“The English are so rude,” he said. “Would you believe, I was sitting and having my lunch at a long table in the company dining room and the man next to me asked me to pass him the salt and pepper. He could easily have stretched across and taken it, instead of bothering me in the middle of my lunch.”
Marcus was horrified at the story, but it also planted a seed in her mind. Because of his lack of understanding of the different culture prevalent in Britain, the Israeli thought he was being treated like a freier (sucker).
“I realized how much is lacking in the Israel business world,” she said.
She had tried once before to interest the company in which she was working to add some in-house etiquette lessons to their executives’ training, but was faced with total indifference from the personnel officer to whom she suggested the idea. The catalyst for this was another incident involving a visitor from abroad, plunged into a social situation which did not show the Israeli side at its best.
“I was asked to join a group of businessmen who were taking a guest to lunch,” she recounts. “I was invited mainly as an interpreter, and we all set off for the local shipudia [takeaway grill] near the office.”
The antisocial behavior involved the Israeli businessmen shouting out their orders to the waiters.
They knew the place, and had no need to consult a menu.
“No one related to the guest, dressed in his suit and tie in the middle of summer,” says Marcus. “I tried to help him with his order across the table and by the time his food arrived, most of the others had finished eating.”
Very disturbed by the experience, Marcus went to the head of the human resources department and offered to conduct in-house guidance on how to soften the edges of her fellow workers just a little.
“No need,” said the personnel manager. “They do fine as they are.”
Marcus feels it is important to change the Israeli way of conducting business, because foreigners just don’t understand how anything can be achieved from the apparent chaos of Israeli-style negotiations, which she describes.
“During negotiations about a new project, the Israeli team have a difference of opinion among themselves,” she says. “Voices are raised, hands and arms gesticulate wildly and for the unsavvy onlooker, the team appears to be in complete disarray. They are all talking at the same time, arguing, shouting, and the team leader doesn’t seem to mind; they appear to be completely undisciplined. Alarmed, the foreign team considers recommending that the project be canceled – how can one achieve anything when working with a company which displays such a total lack of discipline and cohesion?” Indeed, anyone who has ever watched a program like Politica on Israel television knows this is an accurate representation of Israelis having a discussion.
What looks like chaos to the outsider is merely an enthusiastic exchange of ideas for Israelis, but gives a bad impression nonetheless.
In 1998, Marcus left her office job and started Finesse.
Already qualified with a BA in languages and an MA in information sciences, as well as a post-graduate diploma in translation, she decided to add to her qualifications by doing an online course in etiquette – though she maintains that many of the things she teaches rely more on common sense than learning.
Today, the company is well-established and she teaches a variety of social skills in her in-house courses and seminars.
“I advise on correct behavior – how to answer a telephone or an email inquiry, how to behave in a oneon- one interview,” she explains. ”I have to start with basics – don’t chew gum or remove your jacket, don’t SMS. I try to make people aware of the pitfalls before they happen.”
She also has plenty to say about the correct dress for an interview or business meeting.
“I was once lecturing about what women should wear in the business world, and I was gratified to see a woman in the audience hitching up her off-the-shoulder, bra-revealing blouse,” she says.
While Israeli achievement is something of which we are all proud, one cannot but agree with Marcus: That a little bit of finesse goes a long way.