How to speak American

A guide for Israelis — Getting what you want out of meetings

Yaara Wertheim
Oct 7, 2019 · 4 min read
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You may have impeccable English, or you may feel a little uncomfortable speaking with your American counterparts. Regardless of your English level, we have all had meetings where Americans talk too much, don’t understand our point, or where we thought something was clear only to later discover that there was a big misunderstanding.

I’m an Israeli American mix, born and raised in the US, living and working in Israel for the past 10 years. I’m going to share with you 5 tips for how to better navigate conversations with Americans and get what you want out of meetings.

Israeli shortcut of this post — watch my 5 minute video from the Reversim Summit

How to Speak American — 5min talk

Tip #1 — Be on (American) Time

An American will schedule a meeting for 3pm (that’s 15:00 to you), and most Israelis understand this as “The meeting starts between 3:05–3:10.” What the American actually meant is “I’m already waiting for you from 2:58.”

So that, my friends, is American Time. Be 2–5 minutes early for phone calls, depending on how important they are to you. Show up 10 minutes early for face to face meetings, 30 minutes if it’s a super important meeting. It’s not early — it’s American time.

Tip #2 — Every Meeting Starts with Small Talk

I know this can sometimes feel like a waste of time, delaying us from reaching the real tachles of what we want to achieve. However, small talk is actually a critical element of the meeting, because it creates the closer relationships you need in order to work well together. Just make sure you know what you should and should not talk about.

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Topics for Small Talk

Americans can small talk for a while. Once you’ve had enough of the small talk, it’s time to actually start the meeting. I’m sharing my special formula for how you can do it politely:

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Example: “Oh that’s really great… <insert pause here>… So, should we get started?”

Tip #3 — The Proper Introduction

If it’s the first time you’re meeting the American, AFTER the meet and greet small talk, you do a round of proper introductions. But not the Israeli way. Americans love context and history.

Here’s another special formula for how to introduce yourself properly:

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Example: Hi I’m Yaara Wertheim. I’m a Product Manager in the Tel Aviv office and I’m looking forward to working together.

Tip #4 — Let Americans Finish Sentences

When I first started working with Israelis I had a complete culture shock! I barely spoke in meetings because I didn’t know when it was my turn to speak. Now I know Israelis don’t believe in turns, and it’s completely OK to cut off an Israeli mid sentence. But it’s not OK to cut off an American!

Israeli communication feels like a complete balagan. While someone is speaking, I realize what I want to say, and just jump in. On the other hand, American communication is very organized. An American will tell you a complete composed thought, with a beginning middle and end.

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And then they PAUSE.

This pause is your sign that you can respond to them. Since you had a lot of time while they were speaking, you should have been thinking and composing your own complete thought, instead of blurting out Israeli style.

It’s incredibly super RUDE to interrupt an American, but sometimes we can’t steer the conversation without it. If you absolutely must cut them off, here’s another special formula for you:

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Example: “I’m so sorry to cut you off, but can I jump in for a second?”

Using this formula, you can keep interrupting Americans as you like, but in a polite way.

Tip #5 — Say Thank You

When do Israelis say thank you? — Almost never. When do Americans say thank you? — In every interaction:

  • Someone joins a call
  • Someone sends me an email
  • Someone does their regular day to day work that they’re being paid for

But not all these Thank you’s are the same. Here are 3 shades:

  1. Acknowledgment — when someone joins a call, they didn’t do anything yet but you say “Thanks for joining”.
  2. Appreciation — at the end of the call, you’ve had a (hopefully) productive call with you, so you say “Thanks for your time today”.
  3. Gratitude — when you’re actually grateful, saying ‘thanks’ is not enough. You need to embellish it. You can say “Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. This was amazing!”

“These 5 tips sound ridiculous! I’m not doing all that.”

There are cultural differences between Americans and Israelis, so these tips will feel foreign at first. So I challenge you to try them out even if it feels uncomfortable, because to Americans, you’ll finally be speaking their language.

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