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Thursday, February 17, 2005

What would you like to drink?

The question isn’t ‘would you like something to drink?’ No, that makes a ridiculous assumption… of course you want something to drink!

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’ve mentioned a few times over the past month that I’ve been running around the country for nearly non-stop meetings. One of the nice things about this is that it has allowed me to observe the subtle, and not-so-subtle differences between American and Israeli meeting etiquette.

Having grown up in the US and worked in 'Corporate America', almost all of my experience with meeting etiquette and the social norms of the business environment are based on that model. So, I’ve become fascinated by the differences I’ve seen as I make the rounds of 'Corporate Israel'.

To be sure, Israel has adopted many of the finer things that one might find in boardrooms from New York to Silicon Valley; hi-tech multi-media equipment, gleaming asymmetrical conference tables, and deeply cushioned chairs.

But there is one aspect of the Israeli business meeting that Corporate America could stand to emulate: The fine art of making business guests feel at home.

Every single time I've had a meeting with someone here in Israel it is expected that the first few minutes of the meeting will be spent preparing hot or cold drinks, and that at very least cookies and nuts would be passed around.

Even companies with relatively modest facilities will always make sure that someone offers you these nice little touches of hospitality, and I’ve found that it throws everyone completely off their game if you say ‘no thank you’. They’ll ask a second and sometimes even a third time just to make sure they heard you correctly.

When everyone had been served their coffee or soda, invariably I’d get a worried look from somebody (as if I maybe I'd misunderstood the question), and a final ‘are you sure…’ would be stage-whispered before the subject is allowed to drop.

After the first few meetings I made a conscious effort to stop saying ‘no thank you’ and began politely accepting tea… coffee… seltzer.

The transformation was almost magical! It’s as if they are saying ‘We can be as ruthless with one another as we want in a few minutes… but right now we’re all Jews and that requires that we have a little something to eat or drink… preferably both.  Will you please take something already!!!’

I've been to plenty of meetings in the US where a lavish selection of food and drink was provided, but the refreshments were just, well, ‘there’.

Fancy platters of pastries sat largely ignored, and it was sort of expected that ‘real players’ would be aloof from the whole need for refreshment. If and when food and drink were consumed it was almost grudgingly done mid-sentence, with all the warmth of refueling one’s car.  The only people who ever got excited by the conference room spreads were the people who came in after the meeting to scavenge from the leftovers.

However, the genuine hospitality that Israeli businesspeople extend to guests as a matter of habit is much more reminiscent of the way I imagine Europeans conduct business. Even among the shiny trappings of the high-tech world it is nice to see much the same expression of hospitable concern that you would find in someone’s home.

I’m not expressing myself well here, but what I’m trying unsuccessfully to convey is how pleased everyone is when they are allowed to be hospitable. It is part of the culture and part of their responsibility as the host.

I'm just now starting to understand that accepting these gestures is one of the guest's responsibilities.

Posted by David Bogner on February 17, 2005 | Permalink


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That's one of the strange things about business meetings here. Drinks are usually okay, but should one actually munch on a cookie or bagel that has been taken, it just feels...weird. As if the food were more important than the content of the meeting, which, of course, is a no-no in American business.

I like the hospitality of Corporate Isreal better. It appeals to the Taurean hostess in me.

Posted by: Carol | Feb 17, 2005 1:04:57 AM

Fascinating, as always. I was born in Romania. The etiquete I grew up with was quite the opposite. I don't know if this is generically Romanian, or Romanian Jewish, or just my crazy but lovable parents. The hospitality code of conduct was that food was offered to all guests; it's rude not to offer. But, unless the guest was invited for a meal, it's polite for the guest to refuse. So I was taught to always say "no, thank you". But then an etiquette war ensues in which the host increasingly tries to convince the guest to have something, while the guest repeatedly demures. My sister and I loved the American counterpart: offer whatever you'd like your guest to have just once. As the guest, accept or decline based only on your whim at that moment. End of discussion. What you describe is even nicer, but like "the dance", I would just love to know the rules ahead of time.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Feb 17, 2005 1:45:36 AM

Well I'm not familiar with business meetings, but as far as Israelis generally are concerned, I DO recognise this pattern of behavior. It's almost scary how everybody is obsessed with feeding you. Every single person I visited insisted on feeding me. A typical visit would be something like this:

Host: Maria, you want coffee?
Me: no thanks I'm fine
Host 5 minutes later: maria you sure you don't want coffee?
Me: No thanks I really am fine
Host: sure?
Me: yes I'm sure
Host 5 minutes later: You sure you don't want coffee?
Me: well why don't I have a cup..
Host: you want a cookie with that, or a sandwhich or something else to eat?
Me: oh no thanks, I'm not hungry, coffere is great, thanks
Host brings back coffee and asks again if a want a cookie
Me: no thanks
Host again in 5 minutes: you want a cookie?
Me: well maybe one cookie
Host brings back a plate with 20 brownies
I think to myself that I have to eat at least 3-4 brownies, otherwise I'll br rude
Host: you want a sandwhich?
Me: no thanks I really am fine, these are great brownies
Host: no they are nothing special. They're from the store. Come back after shabbat and I'll bake real, homemade brownies for you, they're much better!
Me: thanks...

I'm not exaggerating to spice up the story here. Really.

Posted by: Maria | Feb 17, 2005 2:04:06 AM

In my line of business it is not unusual to have a meal with the people that you are doing business with, often sushi or something similar.

The hardest part is trying to eat as the food is often more of a showpiece than really offered for consumption.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 17, 2005 8:51:36 AM

Having worked for many years as a drone in a couple of smallish Israeli mid-tech companies, I know exactly what you mean about the scavengers. In the last company I worked from, the only time my fellow employees got excited about anything was when there was a board meeting or presentation held in the morning. Because then we knew we'd have something to nosh with our afternoon coffee.

Posted by: Shai | Feb 17, 2005 11:46:01 AM

Carol... It is very human. The hospitality is a nod to the fact that everyone involved in the meeting is human, with tastes, appetites and feelings. Yes, you'd like it here.

Doctor Bean... Since this seems to be the norm everywhere I've been in Israel, it is easy to see why I was throwing a wrench in the machine each time I said 'no thank you'. They were the ones who didn't know what to expect from me.

Maria... wonderful... I could actually see the exchange as you described it! The only thing you left out was the part where they put a sandwich in your bag on the way out "just in case you get hungry on the bus ride home".

Jack... Sushi??? That's not for a business trip... that's for a fishing trip (to be used as bait)! Zahava will argue this point with me, but as far as I'm concerned, throwing a plate of raw fish in front of someone is a test of wills, not an offer of hospitality.

Shai... I've grazed on my share of 'boardroom food' myself. :-)

Posted by: David | Feb 17, 2005 1:04:04 PM

U got yourself a lot of awards, David!

Posted by: Maria | Feb 17, 2005 1:33:54 PM

And you're right, they DID try to get me to take a sandwhich with me!

Posted by: Maria | Feb 17, 2005 1:37:07 PM

Maria... It was obvious you forgot to tell about the sandwich! What Israeli family would allow a young single person to leave without a little something 'for later'?

As to the awards, I'm still scratching my head... I guess there is no accounting for taste. :-)

Posted by: David | Feb 17, 2005 1:46:10 PM

I used to run a demonstration suite (high end hardware/software). It was a small company so I was the engineer doing the demonstrations as well as the host. After having been hosted at many a meeting in Europe - I tried to take that unique hospitality home with me to my suite.
You are correct when you say its not so much about what is available - but rather how its offered.

Posted by: lisa | Feb 17, 2005 2:25:47 PM

While working in the Pentagon I was put in charge of the US Navy's GPS program. Maybe it's the influence of the widely travelled Navy and Air Force Officers involved, or maybe it was the global reach of the Defense Industry Giants, but whatever the reason... EVERY meeting I attended included the type of hospitality you describe. The situation was to the point that unofficial acronym of GPS stood for "Glazed, Powdered, or Sugared?" The joke even carried to the NATO meetings in Brussels.

If ever the doughnuts were late... so was the start of the meeting.

Posted by: oceanguy | Feb 17, 2005 2:47:49 PM

...do you think it has to do with the "but tonight we're free people" thing? :) Not just the thought of one serving another and making things quite neat and comfortable, but the general picture behind it. Or is it just oriental niceness. In Israel, they put your nerves to test with "are you sure....sure?...rilli??", at home it goes "Have some more, eat, eat! Drink, you must drink!".

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Feb 17, 2005 4:16:42 PM

Lisa... "I used to run a demonstration suite..."

I'm sure you were the host with the most... and also that the suite was CLEAN! :-)

Oceanguy... Of course, if the donuts were procured by a bunch of Pentagon types, each cruller probably cost about $2,300, but they were the best damned donuts that money could buy! :-)

mademoiselle a. ... Ah! A message from the travelling scholar!

Actually, I don't think it is exclusively an oriental thing. I just think that all of these businessmen and women were brought up by the same sort of Jewish mother who would slap them cross-eyed if she ever found out they didn't serve some coffee and cake to the guests!

Posted by: David | Feb 17, 2005 4:35:15 PM

but as far as I'm concerned, throwing a plate of raw fish in front of someone is a test of wills


Sushi is one of the great pleasures of life, healthy and enjoyable. Sometimes the best thing about having to entertain clients is the ability to eat the finer places without worrying about how to pay for the meal.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 17, 2005 5:54:32 PM

Jack... We'll have to agree to disagree on this one. Personally, I like to think I'm a bit further up the food chain. I like to consume large, slow-moving mammals... preferably after they have spent a reasonable amount of time near a flame of some sort.

Posted by: David | Feb 17, 2005 8:05:24 PM

Jack... We'll have to agree to disagree on this one. Personally, I like to think I'm a bit further up the food chain. I like to consume large, slow-moving mammals... preferably after they have spent a reasonable amount of time near a flame of some sort.

Fair enough, I can agree with your taste for steak, yummy. But one day we might have to ply you with a bottle of Single Malt and see if we can't work on those tastebuds a little. ;)

You know the big problem with this is now I am really hungry and it is at least an hour before I can break away to get lunch.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 17, 2005 8:45:15 PM

Jack... I feel about single malt scotch the way I do about sushi (although I keep a bottle of Dalwhinnie in the house for friends). I much prefer bourbon for myself (real gentlemen drink corn whiskey).

Posted by: David | Feb 18, 2005 12:15:56 AM

Jack... I feel about single malt scotch the way I do about sushi (although I keep a bottle of Dalwhinnie in the house for friends). I much prefer bourbon for myself (real gentlemen drink corn whiskey).

I feel like I should have the graphics they used in the fight scenes on the old Batman show. Biff, Bam, Boom. I have been lightly pummeled.

Actually, I like bourbon, not that it matters because I rarely drink.

Well it appears that on this topic my search for common ground has failed. The world would be a dull place if we all agreed on everything. Before I drop this, I am curiou. Do you like fish, cooked that is?

Posted by: Jack | Feb 18, 2005 12:37:17 AM

My grandma Fay's (z"l) fried fish (lightly breaded) as made by my father is one of my favorite things to eat in the world. I also enjoy trout or sole sauteed in a lemon butter sauce.

I also love Schmaltz herring on Tam Tams and most kinds of lox (with fresh minced onions).

There, happy? :-)

Posted by: David | Feb 18, 2005 12:46:28 AM

Tam Tams? Do I want to ask? Sound like something that might give me shilshul.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Feb 18, 2005 4:43:32 AM

There, happy? :-)

That'll work. Next we'll cover the best methods to barbecue steak. ;)

Posted by: Jack | Feb 18, 2005 4:54:06 AM

hum de dum de doo....

acting casual... whistling...

looking inconspicuous...

not jonesing for Photo Friday...

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Feb 18, 2005 10:35:03 AM

David, do you have a good source for bourbon in Israel, or are you dependent on the kindness of travellers? I was always a Scotch man, and you can get reasonable Scotch in Israel at not too unreasonable prices, but I acquired a taste for Wild Turkey in America which I can no longer satisfy :(

Posted by: Simon | Feb 19, 2005 11:59:10 PM

Simon... All of my bourbons are imported by kind friends and family. I've only found some basic bourbons in a couple of stores and they were tripple or even quadruple the price of the best stuff in the US. Oh well.

Posted by: David | Feb 20, 2005 4:14:48 PM

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