For most Americans, a common response to “How are you?” is “I am doing well.” If a person is tired, stressed, overworked, anxious or simply not doing well at all, the response still tends to be along the lines of “I’m fine” or “I’m good” – no questions asked. This is the quick-and-easy response, of course, as there is typically no expectation to explain why one is “fine” or “well.” The conversation carries on, and a person’s true feelings at the moment get swept under the rug.
In Israel, the scene is rather different.
But first, a little background: my name is An (like on/off), and I’m a rising Junior at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts studying computer science and engineering. At this point, I consider Boston my home, but I was born in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois and grew up in Dallas, Texas. By some miracle, my father, a native of Gran Canaria off the coast of Spain, and my mother, a local from tropical Singapore, met in Manhattan, New York. As a hybrid of two cultures, I welcome the flamenco dancing and seafood paella almost every winter break in Barcelona and embrace the outdoor hawker centers and Nyonya Laksa during the summers in the Lion City. For as long as I can remember, my mother and father gave me the latitude to experience life for myself because of their strong differences in cultures, and with that opportunity, I began exploring what the world has to offer with my arms wide open.
For the next ten weeks, I will be training neural networks at Brodmann17, a tech startup for self-driving cars, in the heart of Tel-Aviv. It is my first time in Israel, and I feel very lucky to expand my cultural horizons, intellectual comfort zone, and taste palette all in one summer. Spending my summer in Israel is a grand opportunity for me to seek new, unknown experiences and to challenge my independence, versatility, and character, and serving as an IdentityX Ambassador allows me to reflect on my Asian-Hispanic identity and cultural adaptability in the context of another foreign culture.
I walked in on the second day of work and was greeted by a sea of eyes peering above the large desktop screens and a cascade of boker tovs (“good morning” in Hebrew). One of my coworkers who I met the day before hit me with the classic greeting: “Boker tov! How are you?”
“I’m doing well! How are you?”
“An, you know you can be honest. If you’re not doing well, you can say it. I am kind of tired myself.”
I laughed off the response, assuming he was cracking a joke, and honestly, I was doing quite well; however, this encounter was not the first of its kind. Over the past week in Tel-Aviv, I have encountered similar levels of directness in conversations with other coworkers and strangers alike:
“So…are you Christian?”
“I am getting married this weekend. Would you like to attend my wedding?”
“Why didn’t you ask for help earlier?
“What do you think of Trump?”
“Why did you come to Israel?”
“What do your parents do?”
“If you wanted the A/C turned down, why didn’t you just ask?”
Israelis, as I have been told and as I experienced in those interactions, are very direct. Unlike many Americans, they say what they mean and mean what they say; no fluff added. Israelis simply do not have the same concept of ‘minding one’s own business’ as other nations have. Everything is everyone else’s business. “I want” or “I need” replaces more indirect phrases like “It would be nice if…” or “Would it be possible to…” Similarly, “You’re wrong” is a more common response to a difference in opinion instead of a more subtle “In my opinion…” or “I see where you’re coming from, but…” What Israelis call directness and many outsiders consider rude stems from a variety of factors: the country’s small geographic size, a sense of kinship among Jews from all over the world, a socialist past that focused on radical egalitarianism, and the aggressive ethos instilled by Israel’s military culture.
Since a young age, I have been taught that politeness and manners are of utmost importance, especially by my mother, and so experiencing this explicit directness certainly took me by surprise at first. For instance, before every family gathering in Singapore, my mom would review with my sister and me what was polite and what was not. “Remember to call everyone when we arrive” (to “call” is to address everyone by their name, like Aunt Angie or Uncle Mark), “Wash your hands before eating,” “Let the adults eat first,” and “Don’t be nosy” were common ones. The Israeli directness may not have slid past my Singaporean relatives…
…but growing up in a multicultural household, I never thought to second-guess the mannerisms of another culture. My habits and values are split between two very different worlds, allowing me to be more versatile and adaptable to new cultures. I was instilled to accept differences at face-value, and although straddling two cultures poses a challenge to find a place where I truly fit in, I am beyond grateful for the open-mindedness I have obtained from connecting to my roots.
In fact, directness certainly has its benefits, and I almost wish we adopted a similar degree of directness back in the states. It would make communication more straightforward, and misinterpretations would be nearly obsolete. At the end of the day, rather than an impolite gesture, the Israeli directness to me is an interesting quirk, an insightful mannerism, and a hidden lesson.
And in case you were wondering, I did go to the wedding, and it was (with Israeli honestly) a beautiful experience.
An Jimenez is a member of the class of 2021 studying Computer Science and Engineering. This summer, An is writing algorithms to improve self-driving vehicles at a tech startup in Tel Aviv, Israel.