Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Israeli Werewolf


Sarah asked:
Interesting you post this today as I was about to ask for a follow up on your remark in the previous post about going into aggressive Israeli mode with the real estate agent.
I wondered if you could elaborate your thoughts on what the differences are in the two cultures where it is acceptable in one and not in the other. Is it here in Australian culture and just passive aggressively hidden. Is it effective when you use it in Australia or does it turn people off to you?
Also if you can bring this side of you out when needed does it mean are you suppressing it the rest of the time in the work place and at home or is it not a natural side to your personality that you have to bring out when back in Israel?

I was breaking my head trying to think how to best approach this question when help came from an unexpected source.
There’s this guy I often end standing next to on the platform as we wait for a train to come and take us home at the end of our work days. Both he and I stand roughly where the train’s doors would end up when the train arrives so we can board as quickly as possible (and thus also maximize our chances for a seat). The guy has a trick strategy, though: as the train approaches he steps forward, beyond the yellow safety line; and once it becomes clear where the door would end up he makes his way there, ahead of all the other would be passengers still behind the line. The strategy works: he’s almost always first on the train. That is, unless he has me in his path: when I see him about to step into “my territory” I step forward, too, but unlike him I do not make any other move to break the unofficial queuing system behind us. All I do is block him; by now he learned there is no point in trying to push me to the side (yes, he tried).
Why am I going through these motions? I suggest a lot of it has to do with being raised an Israeli. I got to develop strategies for optimizing my place in a queue without violating the rights of others on one hand, and on the other hand I take measures to prevent others from breaking queuing ranks. You know what else? The other day this guy I’m talking about arrived at the station with a friend. I was not in the least surprised to hear the two speak to one another in very Israeli Hebrew.
The question of what it is with Israelis and aggressive behavior at queues can be easily expanded in scope to ask the more interesting question of what it is that drives certain cultures a certain way. I will try and offer some speculations there, but before I do so I will offer an argument as to what is definitely not a contributor to cultural differences: there is nothing inherently anti queue in the Israeli pool of genes; anyone born and raised in Israel would be at least aware of the local queuing culture regardless of demographics, and most people would join the game. My proof: try standing at a German queue and you will find it very similar to the Israeli experience.
Now that we’ve eliminated one explanation let me go back to the question of cultural drivers. Having been raised an Israeli, then having lived in Australia to the point of considering myself an Australian more than any other nationality, and having also been extensively exposed to English culture through my extended family, I think I qualify to contribute to this discussion.  That is, something more than the basic cry over the dreariness of British food. As I will be mostly comparing impressions from these three cultures I will politely ignore cultural catalysts such as literacy levels despite their significant impact: this is because of the generally equal playing field our scope is limited to with three affluent Western societies.
With that in mind, I will offer the following main cultural contributors in what I see as descending order of impact: weather, congestion and history. Weather affects everything from available food to general stress/distress levels and generic levels of extrovert-ness vs. introvert-ness. Congestion has direct impact to how often one needs to interact with others, and in effect how often one needs to tolerate others / struggle with others. History invokes the cultural heritage card, as is the case with England and its ridiculous love affair with the monarchy as well as tea. The latter, while so well rooted you’d think it goes back to the days of the Roman Empire, is actually a recent affair; which goes to show how myths can entrench themselves ever so easily. In the case of Israel, the history of the Jewish people causes what I consider a not too unreasonable “they’re all out to get us” complex that filters down through various positive feedback mechanisms to the level of the individual. That same individual goes to lead a life feeling eternally prosecuted; couple the heat, sweat and congestion and you get a nation of people you don’t want to mess with. And you definitely don’t want to queue up with them.
In comparison, Australia is tranquil and easy going. The average weather is easier to tolerate (disclaimer: Melbourne winters are a killer!) and one is generally left to their own devices, for better or worse. However, does this mean that Aussies are better than Israelis? As I have already stated, my answer would be a definite “no”. Australia is repeatedly proving itself to be a nation where selfishness rules, as symbolized by the Liberal party (currently in federal opposition but leading the poles by a mile). Between treating asylum seekers like criminals, discriminating against minorities in job recruitment or forcing dominant faiths upon others at public schools, Australia has its dark side too. The main difference? The average Australia is rarely required to expose their teeth in public, unlike the Israeli who is well trained in doing so. This gives the well versed Israeli an advantage in confrontational scenarios: they’ve been to that movie before and know what to do and how to behave, whereas the average Aussie can be a tad clueless for a while until they lose their inhibitions.
Needless to say, I am generalizing here. While I will never claim not to have practiced immoral activities, I will do my best to respect and withhold a well behaved queue and have done so even as an Israeli. On the other hand, the process of Australization is making some sort of a hybrid of me: the same processes that affect Aussie culture, the weather/congestion/history and all, are now affecting me just as they affect everyone else around me. I am, I can safely say, much less edgy about my way; I do not feel as if I need to look behind my back, so to speak, as much. There are negative implications there, too: my skills as a driver have significantly deteriorated since migrating to Australia’s relatively open roads. Driving here is much less challenging with people not constantly trying to cut me off; over time I forgot how to deal with challenging road scenarios.

I have broadened the discussion rather than provide a direct answer, but I think I did address the original question. We can continue the discussion in the comments.
If you have any other questions or suggestions to this blog, feel free to drop them by.

Image by Cia de Foto, Creative Commons license


Sarah said...

Thanks to responding to my question. It makes sense given different sets of circumstances every society develops it's own set of rules for behaving. I find it interesting that Australian culture seems to be confrontation adverse. Play it nice and polite unless of course alcohol is involved and then we see underlying frustrations come to a head. Anyone who is aggressive may get results but probably behind his back we will call them some choice names.

Look at the way Kevin Rudd has been publicly outed for not treating his staff nicely but to get to the top especially in politics you would need to be focused and probably selfish. Then the public seemed surprised there is a "secret" code of behaviour in politics and every one is not a nice as they seem.

Any aggressiveness is frowned upon in our polite society. Then there is the whole tall poppy syndrome we love a success story but become too successful and we will slag you off and cut you down.

Easy going Australia likes every thing to be even keeled and no excess emotions of any kind. No men crying, no public grieving, don't be too happy, too boastful of your success etc. Be average, step outside of that and we struggle.

Moshe Reuveni said...

One thing I find uniquely disturbing about Australia and Australians (unique in the sense that selfishness and xenophobia are sadly universal) is the way too many Aussies seem to be living on the threshold of leaving civilization behind, for lack of better words. For example, the way Aussies need to wear office uniform or goodness knows what hell will break loose at the office. The classic example is, as you mention, the animal from within that seems to be released at the whiff of alcohol.