'This is very interesting...' - the danger of similarity

Business meeting (stock photo) (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Business meeting (stock photo)
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Most of us have visited the United States at some point in our lives. In general, we feel that we know Americans, because the US and Israel have much in common and thus seem culturally similar. However, the similarities between the two cultures are very misleading, if only for the reason that the differences are few and easily dismissed.
Even if we assume that Israel and the US are 90% culturally similar, that remaining 10% may, precisely because it is so relatively small, become a source of problems and misunderstandings, and may even undermine the establishment of business relations and closure of deals with our American counterparts. This phenomenon is called “the danger of similarity.”
Usually, this danger arises when the similarity between cultures conceals the differences to such an extent that we ignore or dismiss them, and do not attach any importance to them. After all, if we were talking about India or China, we would immediately realize that here is something foreign to us, but not so with the Americans.
These small differences are most evident in the business world when conducting negotiations, establishing working relationships or in interpersonal communication, building effective teams, making decisions, managing projects and employees, and more.
What blunders should we try to avoid when conducting business with Americans?
Here are some tips:
Negotiations: try not to hold side conversations in Hebrew in the presence of Americans. It makes them feel uncertain and can cause distrust. Sometimes Americans complain that in the midst of negotiations Israelis suddenly start arguing among themselves in Hebrew, and they are sure that the Israelis are going to blow up the deal. Although there are those who consider this type of behavior a legitimate negotiating strategy, on the interpersonal level it creates a negative image with Americans.
E-mail communication: when writing to your American colleagues, it is best to adopt American standards of politeness. At the beginning of the email ask about the recipient’s well-being or how he/she enjoyed the weekend. If the correspondence occurs at the end of a holiday, ask how their holiday was before you approach the subject of the email. Israelis are often perceived as impolite, angry and disrespectful toward their American colleagues, due to their direct and impersonal writing approach.
Personal communication: there is no need to make small talk before starting a business conversation. Although Americans are very friendly, unlike Israelis they do not need to build personal relationships to form business relations. In contrast to Israelis, Americans do not have the “where do I know you from?” conversation and the reconstruction of different life cycles until they decipher from where they know each other.
Joint projects: American culture advocates clarity, planning, clearly stated reports, goal setting – in short, order. All this is expressed when Americans sit around a table to start a project. On the other hand, Israelis pitch an idea today, build a plan tomorrow and start implementing it next week. Here lies the main problem – there is a disconnect between Israeli spontaneity and American planning.
You should understand that there is no escape from the setting of milestones and goals, as well as coming up with solutions to problems that may arise on the way. Be more patient and you will achieve the joint project’s goals more easily, and perhaps even learn a little about order and organization from the Americans.
Team meetings: prepare a detailed schedule of work meetings – content, subjects and goals to be achieved. Americans love clarity and avoid uncertainty, so the clearer you are about where and how the meeting goes, the more cooperation you will gain.
Punctuality: Americans value their time. They expect you to arrive on time, conduct meetings according to a predetermined schedule and not do everything at the last minute.
Work and family: in Israel there is no division between work and home; people are always connected to their phones and laptops and do not think twice about writing emails at midnight. Americans appreciate hard work and will take their work home if necessary, but they have a clear division between family time and work time, and refrain from working during their family time.
Direct criticism: although we, like Americans, advocate direct criticism, Israelis take it to the next level. It is important to understand that Americans start by pointing out the positive things, and only then move on to constructive criticism, such as: “I liked your idea... your idea has interesting aspects... do you think that maybe it is worthwhile to... did you check whether....” I suggest being more attentive to American speech and body language, thus being able to understand whether you have reached a line that should not be crossed. Be more subtle when conducting direct criticism of Americans, and more alert when in a conversation you are told “this is very interesting...” about the idea you presented.
Understanding that cultural misunderstandings do occur even in cultures that seem similar to ours, and applying these basic business behaviors will enable successful business interactions with Americans.
The author is an inter-cultural expert specializing in relocation and cultural intelligence (CQ) training for individuals and organizations. www.AronaMaskil.com.