International Intrigue

Ah, the glamour of jet-setting across the globe! It's probably more fun from afar although after almost a year without the stress, discomfort and inconvenience of international travel I am missing it.

If you're embarking on international business pursuits or already enthralled or embroiled therein, perhaps a few insights garnered from ten years of international business-related travel and activity will be of use to you. Paris, Tel Aviv, London and New York have been my frequent pleasures and I believe understanding the different cultures is easiest when viewed through one concept: personal space.

Well, since the Israelis and French may be asking themselves at this point, "what is that?" let's make it two concepts; the second being driving. While I exaggerate somewhat with the former to make a point, allow me to substantiate.

To the Americans and British, personal space is a practice held near (pun intended) and dear to our hearts. It is the space afforded between bodies when walking down the street, traveling on the subway/underground/metro and during face-to-face conversation. Even in bars, the Americans and British maintain that sliver of space which constitutes a comfort zone. In Israel, the opposite extreme dominates. Generally, the physical space between persons is absolutely minimal, if at all. Walking on the street means bumping into people, public transportation means being in physical contact with your neighbor- the expression "getting close and personal" takes on real significance here.

France is similar; the French are passionate people and like proximity although they tend to crowd less than Israelis. No doubt in Israel it stems from the close confines of the country whereas the US is quite expansive in size and subsequently mentality. That being said, how amazing is it that the city of Manhattan there are the same number of people as there are in the entire country of Israel and yet no one bumps into you at Grand Central Station during rush hour? I even had someone once apologize to me for walking too close to me- and he hadn't even brushed up against me. And people say New Yorkers are rude?!

If the personal space analogy doesn't speak to you, let's talk driving. Americans tend to be polite in their driving, especially when driving anywhere but New York City. (Remember, most of the cabbies are foreigners). By polite I mean, signaling, maintaining a decent distance from the cars in front and to the side of them, usually not moving faster than a speeding bullet. The British too drive in a guarded and cautious manner, even more so than the Americans, although it could be that the "other side of the street" driving is disorienting me.

If you're visiting France or Israel, make sure your seat belt is fastened! One might think reaching the destination is a matter of life or death. I called a dear business colleague who was, at the time, a passenger in a car driven by an Israeli. "Where are you?" I asked. "On the way to the hospital," he replied. (He was, actually, on his way to a business meeting but the driving had him terrified.)

These concepts and associated behavioral patterns echo the different patterns of life and confrontation which exist in these regions. The French live as they drive- they savor and enjoy their experiences. Lunch is a two-hour delight starting no earlier than 1:00 pm; dinner after 8:00 pm and long into the night, with wine and creme brulee for dessert. As they drive, the French dive into business topics, attempting to understand the reasoning and motivation behind the proposed course of action. Israelis also dive into business topics but from another angle. They are doers and problem solvers, usually spontaneous and almost unthinking in their responses. With highly tuned instincts and an inbred survival mentality, Israelis are ready to jump without a parachute. The French like their parachutes and want to know how many might be needed. So expect discussions and meetings in France to last long enough to address and resolve these questions while in Israel you're likely to find people going off "half-cocked."

In America and in England, there is more of a "yes-man" mentality. Because politeness and civility are sacred, it is rare to for individuals to share their true thoughts and even more rare for a confrontation to occur. As a result, meetings usually lead to participants saying yes, even if they don't mean it and have no intention of doing it. While this is a generality, it is something to bear in mind so as to encourage all participants to voice their true opinions.

Among the four, Israelis are- by far- the most comfortable with confrontation. Israelis generally speak their mind and almost no topic is off limits. You can expect someone to ask you how much you paid for your house or car and how much you get paid as early as the first time you meet. In business, there are advantages to this straightforwardness. I always know where I stand and what the speaker is truly thinking. It is common to hear other ideas and suggestions. The disadvantage is that this aggressive, almost threatening proximity is so unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable to American and British societies that it often backfires into a distancing between the parties and cessation of progress.

And it is progress we are all invariably seeking. We live and work in a global world. We need to be educated in international cultures in order to bring about productive interaction more rapidly. Perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind when you do business abroad- there is no right or wrong; there is only what we're used to. Opening ourselves up to experience the business practices of others is enriching and rewarding, both personally and professionally. Enjoy the ride.

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