by David Bogner (Efrat, Israel)
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:
[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.
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…”
Me: [sitting in confused silence because the conversation is inexplicably still going on… it simply refuses to die a quiet death!]
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.
David Bogner, formerly of Fairfield, CT, lives in Efrat with his wife Zahava (nee Cheryl Pomeranz), and their children Ariella, Gilad and Yonah. Since moving to Israel in 2003, David has been working in Israel’s defense industry in International Marketing and Business Development. In his free time David keeps a blog, Treppenwitzhttp://www.treppenwitz.com(where this piece first appeared) and is an amateur beekeeper.