Loud and Clear: What Israelis and Americans Talk About in Public Places

Haim Watzman

While we’re on the subject of Israeli-American behavioral stereotypes as parsed on the New York Times op-ed page, what about David Brooks’ “A Loud and Promised Land”, of April 16? (Brooks was discourteous enough to publish this the day after Pesach, when we were all exhausted from lugging boxes of dishes down to the storeroom—who could write then?)

Brooks has some witty things to say about the volume and nosiness of quotidian Israeli discourse:

One Israeli acquaintance recounts the time he was depositing money into his savings account and everybody else behind him in line got into an argument about whether he should really be putting his money somewhere else. Another friend tells of the time he called directory assistance to get a phone number for a restaurant. The operator responded, “You don’t want to eat there,” and proceeded to give him the numbers of some other restaurants she thought were better.

Wasn’t it an Israeli Jew who wrote the homily about the mote in one’s eye? My wife, a native Israeli, never ceases to be amazed at how loud and indiscreet Americans can be in public places.

It’s true that a polite American, even a teenager, would not ask you the sum of your last paycheck in a grocery store line. That’s a personal matter, for Americans. But of course it all depends on what you call personal.

“I was on the bus today and some American students were talking very loudly about their menstrual periods.” That’s one I hear from Ilana about once a month. “I was downtown and this American man was in the middle of the street talking on his cell phone about his psychiatric medications (specifically, I overheard him mention buying modafinil online if he wasn’t able to get them today).” That one comes up less often, but perhaps only because we so seldom get downtown.

In America, apparently, income does not fall under the freedom of information act, where as menses and meds do. Conclusion: the difference between the American and Israeli national characters is not volubility. It’s what you volube about.

Brooks calls Israeli culture “argumentative.” Israelis certainly love to argue. Americans don’t, of course, unless it’s about the size of government and abortion. If you bring one of those subjects up, you are likely to find yourself, at best, subject to a long harangue and, at worst, in the middle of a street fight.

But just try getting an argument started in Israel by suggesting that “the government should get out of our lives.” You’ll get a blank stare. Out of our lives? Are you crazy? Who’ll take care of us if not the government? Or by suggesting that abortion should be banned. Not that God-fearing Israelis sanction abortion on demand, but it’s not, as it is in the U.S., a defining issue with deep roots in political and cultural identity.

At the end of his column, Brooks sighs and accepts that, for the foreseeable future, “Israelis will keep up their insufferable and necessary barrage of self-assertion.” Sigh. So will Americans. We’ll just keep self-asserting about different things.

6 thoughts on “Loud and Clear: What Israelis and Americans Talk About in Public Places”

  1. Hard to believe at one time there was a thing called “the phone booth” into which people would go and quickly close the door so that no one could hear their conversation.

    Speaking of getting an argument started, the reluctance of Americans to bargain on price is notable.

    I once bought a set of curtains from a friend, a Jew but not an Israeli. Not being one to bargain, I simply accepted his initial price. He then started doing calculations and scratching his head. Dummy that I was, it was only when I thought about it later that it became apparent that he fully expected me to try to talk him down. When I didn’t issue even a peep he was put in a bind, challenged to come down in price unilaterally, as he didn’t feel right taking his opening offer. He ended up saying he had made a miscalculation. So maybe I was bargaining without realizing it! I probably paid more than I could have but he deserved it. : )

  2. Just wondering about the examples you used there – surely there is a different between revealing details about ones own period or medication, and asking for info about someone else’s finances? I would imagine its also rude in the US to ask what meds someone else is on, or whether they’re menstruating…and I can’t speak for others but personally I’d be much more annoyed by having to field questions about my money than hearing all about someone elses.

  3. I think Haim has something here. Also, how many times have I been stuck on a bus between two Israelis who proceed to have a conversation “over” (or through?) me? North Americans would never do such a thing; it would absolutely be considered rude.

    But if we’re talking about volume, I’m certain that the Israeli and American concepts of the sacredness of public space differ considerably. Take my pet music-attack venues: malls and retail establishments, hotel pools, and promenades (at least the Eilat *tayelet*). When I asked a pub owner who was blasting music from speakers taller than I am on a weekday at 9 a.m. on the Eilat beach to lower his volume and / or turn his speakers inwards (toward his establishment, instead of toward Aqaba and beyond), he first looked at me like I was crazy, then asserted that “people want to hear it”. WHAT PEOPLE? I wanted to shout…

  4. I take an hour-long ferry each way to work, plus a 20-minute bus ride. I am grateful for the invention of earplugs. Whether I am napping or concentrating, they are useful.

  5. I don’t know if this is true about David Brooks, who presumabely goes around the country alot, but I think most people compare the behavior of their own personal acquaintances in their own country with the behavior of “the masses” in the foreign country. I think we tend to ignore the behaviors of people who we don’t mix with socially in our own country, but in another country, we lump everyone together.

  6. Debbie R. has something here. But regarding my two examples: 1) I’d venture to say that even a Greyhound bus full of low-lifes is quieter than an Egged interurban and 2) Resorts that purport to be upscale and want to attract commensurate clientele don’t have music blasting anywhere there guests would be disturbed by it, including around the swimming pool.

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