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Case Study: “Language Barriers in Cross-Cultural Communication”
English is THE language to speak when we talk across cultures. In Israel, English entered the workplace along with the global hi-tech boom. Numerous Israeli companies use English within the workplace, despite being located in mainly Hebrew-speaking Israel, because so much of their business is conducted with the international market. And even though many Israelis have a relatively good command of English, it’s still their second language, and what they say and write is not always readily understandable to people from other cultures.
Following is an example of a dialogue that failed due to the language barrier. This took place in a company I work with that has branches in both Tel Aviv and Boston:
Some senior American and Israeli managers were on a conference call. The topic of the call was transitioning from an on-premise product to a cloud-native product. In the middle of the discussion, one Israeli manager said that the R&D staff in Israel ‘don’t care’ about some of the changes. An American manager, although usually polite, couldn’t restrain himself when he heard that statement. “What’s that supposed to mean, they DON’T CARE??” he thundered.
This is a great example of a wrong expression giving the wrong impression. The Israeli manager’s intention got lost in translation since English is his second language. What he meant by ‘don’t care’ was that it wouldn’t make a big difference, didn’t matter, didn’t bother them – the correct English phrase would be ‘don’t mind.’ (The two terms seem so close to the Israeli ear and mind… practically identical… almost a synonym.)
Due to lack of knowledge or not understanding the nuances of a language, many Israelis often make usage mistakes. Another example is the English word ‘issue,’ which has been adopted in Hebrew as a cognate meaning topic or subject, whereas Americans tend to perceive the word with a negative connotation – like a problematic topic or subject. The distinction is liable to ruffle some feathers; if an Israeli innocently says, “I have an issue to bring up,” an American will already be on the defensive before another word is even spoken.
It’s one challenge to become confident when speaking a foreign language, and quite another to become fluent in a foreign culture. In effect, misunderstandings and failure to communicate between co-workers from different cultures lead to ambiguity, mistrust and disrupted productivity. Both sides appear to be speaking English but each is using it in a context relative to their own culture. This can make for some heated arguments.
- Native English speakers naturally absorb every little detail in their language, so it makes a big difference to them which words are used. Even if they sound or mean something similar to what the foreign speaker actually intended, ‘close’ is usually just as unclear as ‘way off mark.’
- Hebrew has far fewer words than English, and in Israel we use the same word in many different situations. Moreover, we use words more approximately than literally, so they may not always contain the same meaning as the message we are trying to convey.
- During times of stress, people tend to automatically interpret what they hear according to their own culture rather than their dialogue partner’s, which can create confusion and insecurity.
- Recommendation for native English speakers:
When communication breaks down in this manner, and you feel offended or baffled by what your colleague from the other culture just said, please try to check if you misinterpreted the meaning. Ask questions to make sure you understand one another. In the case mentioned above, the American manager could have repeated the offending phrase, explained it and requested a clarification: “When you say ‘don’t care,’ do you really mean that they have no interest in this subject?” That could save a lot of disappointment and anger.
- Recommendation for Israelis and other non-native English speakers:
Be thoughtful in your manner and try to express yourself as accurately as possible. This is especially important when dealing with older people. Careful dialogue forces all participants to truly listen and strive to understand what their conversational partner is trying to get across. Sure, this be challenging but patience will bear good results in time.
Translation involves far more than converting words and phrases from one language to another. For more information about cross-cultural communication, how to work with Israelis, past blogs or “Israeli Business Culture,” my bestselling book on Amazon, please browse the relevant pages on my website (http://www.olm-consulting.com/).
And always feel free to contact me with any question or request at email@example.com.