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Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Israeli Phone Etiquette

The title of today’s post makes a bold assumption; it assumes that there exists some sort of established etiquette for speaking on the phone here. If there is, in fact such established etiquette, I have yet to encounter it.

Take, for instance, the following typical exchange:

[Phone rings]
Me: “Hello?”
Caller: “Hello?”
[long pause]
Me: “HELLO?
Caller: “Hello?”
[another long pause]
Me: “Can I help you? You called me. Surely you had some idea of what you wanted to say when you dialed my number!!!”
Caller: [as though 30 seconds hasn’t elapsed since I answered the phone] “Yes, I’m calling to speak with David, this is…”

Just so we’re clear, this is not something that happened once or twice. This is what happens every single time I answer the phone! I’ve listened to other people’s phone conversations and with the exception of my sarcastic remark about who called whom, this is exactly how the entire country begins a phone conversation!!!

The first few times I was on the receiving end of one of these calls, I thought perhaps the person had forgotten who they were calling. I mean, it’s happened to me on occasion that my mind wandered while the phone was ringing and when the person answered I had no idea who they were or why I was trying to reach them. But that’s not the case here… everyone begins their phone conversations like two painfully shy teenagers meeting at a school dance!

The crazy part is that Israelis are wonderful conversationalists. I can’t ever recall seeing or hearing of an Israeli who lacked for something to say. The Hebrew language’s relative paucity of words is more than balanced by the generous use of inflection, accent, tonal range and volume.

Israelis can go gesture-for-gesture with any of the great ‘talking cultures’ of the Mediterranean (Greek, Italian, French, etc). By this I mean that Israelis are extremely animated talkers, sometimes to the point of becoming oblivious to the scene (or accident) they are causing during an emotional tête-à-tête.

So what happens at the start of a phone call that makes them momentarily mute?

The end of the phone call has the opposite problem. Israelis seem to have never adopted the standard formulas for ending a phone conversation cleanly. People here don’t say:

Caller one: “Thanks for the recipe, I’ll look forward to seeing you this weekend.”
Caller two: “My pleasure, Bye.
[click]

No, instead conversations are allowed to loiter and circle the airport until the ‘plane’ is completely out of fuel.

For illustration purposes:

[at the tail end of a long phone conversation]
Me: “Well, I’m really glad you called.”
Other person: “Good…”
Me: “Great, so I guess…”
OP: “Ok, so…”
Me: “Alright then…”
OP: “Wonderful…”
Me: [sitting in confused silence because the conversation is inexplicably still going on… it simply refuses to die a quiet death!]
OP: “So…”
Me: “Ireallyhavetogonownicetalkingtoyoubye” [click]

If I hadn’t finally given the caller the verbal equivalent of the bum’s rush, the conversation would likely have gone on for another two or three minutes! No exaggeration! It makes me tired just thinking about it!

Again, I have listened in on other people’s conversations (it’s really not hard to do in such a vocal culture) and virtually everyone has this stammering, meandering wind-down to their conversations in place of the familiar (to me) formulaic; ‘set up’… ‘acknowledgement of set up’… and ‘mutual disconnect’.

Now, granted I’ve been living here in Israel less than a year-and-a-half…. so there are still quite a few cultural nuances that bump up against my ‘old country habits’. I’m sure if I was in Japan and I had to listen to people answering the phone with a brisk, “Mushy Mushy!”, it would take me at least this long to become comfortable with the change.

But if there is anyone out there who can shed a little light on how the concept of a clean start and finish to a phone conversation turned out to be such a difficult thing for Israelis to master, I would be much obliged.

Posted by David Bogner on October 20, 2004 | Permalink

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David,
You are fast becoming the "Anglo-Israeli blogger" equivalent of Jerry Seinfeld..not that there's anything wrong with it (actually, it is a very good thing!)

Good stuff.

Posted by: Dave | Oct 20, 2004 3:42:59 PM

Thankyouformakingmyday!!!! :) *wiping tear*

okay. internalize:

David: 'Allo. [snap this Israeli accent!]
Caller: 'Allo.
David [immediately, Israeli straightforward]: KEN! Mi ze?!

Don't let them finish their 'Allo. Shout out the "Mi ze/zot?!" as if they were invading your sacred space. Which they are.

You know...aren't we supposed to answer a question with another question? ;)

Variant A. [you know the number and the caller]:

David: 'Allo.
Caller: 'Allo.
David: Ahalan, ma nishmaaa??? [fake interest]
Caller: Beseder, ma inyanim??
David: Beseder [insert optional Barush HaShem], ma shlomech/cha?
Caller: Beseder.
yaddah yaddah yaddah...make sure you hit the second when to ask them "ma jesh??".

.:Ending a conversation:.

David: Okayyy [snap the Israeli "okayyy"] - beseder, az toda she hitkasharta [or whatever].
Caller: Ken...
David: Az ani edaber itcha be [whateverwheneveryouwantjustmakeastatement]. Az yalla, bye.


I think you're expecting the caller to close the conversation. Don't. They call you and you have to throw them out.

Hoyoy, this is so refreshing :)

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Oct 20, 2004 5:10:15 PM

Good post, it made me smile.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 20, 2004 5:13:24 PM

i loved that...even tho i didn't understand a word of it.
Az yalla.

Posted by: Lisa | Oct 20, 2004 6:38:26 PM

I may be suggesting something that has already been suggested in another language, but here goes:

To start the conversation quicker:

You: "Hello?"
Them: "Hello?"
You: "Hi, who am I speaking with?"

To end the conversation quicker:

You: "Oh my god! The dog is urinating on the floor! I have to go!"

Heh ... just a suggestion. :)

Posted by: Jim | Oct 20, 2004 6:40:37 PM

Dave... I'm going to have to go buy myself a bigger beenie (to fit on my swelled head) if you keep giving me compliments like that! :-) Thanks.

Jack... I'm glad. My work here is done!

Mademoiselle a... I'll have to try your method. I'll let you know how it works out. For the benefit of Jim and Lisa (and anyone else who might be unfamiliar, I'll take the liberty of loosely translating your suggestions:

David: 'Allo. [hello]
Caller: 'Allo. [hello]
David: Ahalan, ma nishmaaa??? [Hey, what's up?]
Caller: Beseder, ma inyanim?? [OK, what's interesting with you?]

David: Beseder ma shlomech/cha? [OK... How are you?]
Caller: Beseder. [OK]
yaddah yaddah yaddah...make sure you hit the second when to ask them "ma jesh??". [what's up/what is it?]

.:Ending a conversation:.

David: Okayyy [snap the Israeli "okayyy"] - [OK]
beseder, az toda she hitkasharta [OK, thanks for calling!].
Caller: Ken... [yes...]
David: Az ani edaber itcha be [So, I'll talk to you later...][[whateverwheneveryouwantjustmakeastatement]. Az yalla, bye. [OK, bye] Yalla is an Arabic word that I think means literally 'hurry', but it is used to move things (including conversations)along.

Posted by: David | Oct 20, 2004 8:35:54 PM

I always thought the reason for this telephone-shlumieliut is the simple fact that Israelis (WE!) are impolite. I used to call my name when I picked up the phone but somehow this habit got lost on the way. Where I come from, you start a phone call by saying your name.
I pick up: Lila Family.
Answer: Hello, this is Johann Wolfgang.
Smooth transition guaranteed.

Here, you never know who picked up the phone. I will never forget the shock I had when for the first time somebody hung up on me because he wanted to speak to DH and I asked for his name. He said, "lo chashuv" and was gone.

My favorite: people who phone me and when I pick up the receiver, they bark: who is speaking? (MI ZEH?) I wish I had the nerve to say, go and buy some manners, and then try again, but I don't. I sigh and say: MI ZEH? in return. A nice pingpong. Mi ze? Mi ze?? Mi ZEH??? etc

I guess our lack of manners also makes it impossible to let go of the conversation. There are no polite phrases one could fall back on.

Israelis try to use no dishonest polite phrases, they try to be frank and honest coute que coute. Politeness = lies. Manners = hypocritical. We don't need that around here.

But even Israelis dont' have the nerve to say: hey, I had enough of you, yalla bye. So they stammer to let you know they have enough of you but... well... eich ani omar... ani bemet chayevet... mamash...

Posted by: Lila | Oct 20, 2004 9:38:26 PM

Ah, David another great post. I love your posts.
Carol

Posted by: carol | Oct 20, 2004 10:23:21 PM

David,

When I was in Hebrew school as a young lad we had teachers who were of all things, Israeli. They would work on teaching us how to read and write Hebrew. It was an after school program that I am sure many of the readers here can relate to.

And because we had all attended a day of school prior to our time at Hebrew school it was very tough to hold still and be quiet.

Needless to say we would be chastised in English and Hebrew for talking. One teacher told us that if we could speak in Hebrew we would be allowed to speak.

So at the grand old age of 12 I got the bright idea of just repeating random words back at the teachers as if it was a sentence. It went something like:

Shalom Morah. Ani lo kelev, Kadoor babayit. Abba ochel gleedah ve chatool and so forth.

The teacher did not realize that we were being smartasses and tried to help us formulate a more coherent sentence.

It wasn't very nice, but it really made us laugh. Preteen humor, go figure.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 20, 2004 11:28:48 PM

Lila... Your theory is as good as any I'd considered. :-)

Carol... [as my head swells yet another size or two] Thank you.

Jack... I'm guessing you aren't currently fluent in Hebrew, right? :-)

Posted by: David | Oct 21, 2004 9:05:54 PM

So it's not just me then. At work I used to get this all the time. Now I answer in English and everything moves forward just fine.
I understand your problem though.

Posted by: ExpatEgghead | Oct 21, 2004 11:42:16 PM

Expat... thank you, validation is a wonderful thing! I was starting to think it was all in my head.

Posted by: David | Oct 22, 2004 9:30:43 AM

Jack... I'm guessing you aren't currently fluent in Hebrew, right? :-)

Nope, not fluent, but relatively proficient. I ended up taking years of Hebrew and benefited from spending virtually the entire Summer of 1985 in Israel.

I also took a year in college.

Give me a few days of Hebrew immersion and the vocabulary starts to come back. In some respects the most difficult thing for me is keeping up at the normal pace of a conversation.

I have to listen and then translate what was said into English, determine my response and then translate from English to Hebrew.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 22, 2004 7:40:56 PM

Definitely 'allo,' not 'hello.'

Posted by: Miriam | Oct 24, 2004 11:31:54 PM

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