Cultural Differences: An Israeli Ukrainian Working at Google NYC

My early childhood immigration, Israeli upbringing and a recent move to NYC has taught me quite a lot about cultural difference in the corporate environment. I’ve learned mostly about differences between American, Russian, and Israeli communication styles and culture, and the ways in which these differences affect people in the corporate environment.

Starting with the Russian culture, which I was born to: Generally speaking, many Russians who survived the Communist regime have strong feelings about truth. They were lied to for many years by the Russian government, and they are very sensitive about the difference between a true and a false statement. Consequently, many of them have difficulty accepting the American political correctness and the American conduct in general. If a Russian is asked “How are you?” he will answer as if someone really wants to know. He will explain that he is miserable, that his wife left him this morning, and that he doesn’t want to be here. A sincere and negative answer to the ‘How are you?” question, will usually leave the average American baffled.

Moreover, many Russians have a hard time coping with corporate bullshit and politics. Since they do not know how to hide their feelings effectively, when they think that someone is bull*ing them you can either see it on their face, or hear it explicitly after they express their opinion about it. Russians express their opinions whether they were asked or not. They also tend to misinterpret the question “What do you think?” in a similar way to their misinterpretation of “How are you?”.

Apparently, there are hardly any Russians or Ukrainians among the management levels of the leading tech companies in the US. There are many possible explanation to this, and I believe that diversity challenges like the ones that I describe here are among the top ones.

Unfortunately for my own case, I’m not only Russian/Ukrainian in my origin, but also Israeli in my upraising. As Americans know and many posts in Quora explain, Israelis are a challenging bunch of people.

Israelis tend to understand requests from their managers as recommendations. Even after they realize that their manager explicitly wants them to do something, they still might behave as if it was a mere recommendation.

In addition, many Israelis think that every statement can be the start of an interesting discussions, an important dispute, or a lengthly negotiation. “I would like you to prepare a gantt chart about this” can be answered by “I don’t think that gantt charts are an effective visualization method”. “It’s not possible to have this code written and reviewed by the end of the week” can be answered by “What do you mean by ‘impossible’?! I can do it myself!”. The average Israeli doesn’t necessarily realize that his American manager/peer doesn’t care about his opinions, nor does he have time to have a discussion/dispute/negotiation about each and every statement.

It’s common perception among Israelis that stating that something is ‘not possible’ is quite ridiculous and demonstrates a good amount of impotency. Israelis built the startup nation in 15 years and won wars against 4 different countries that wanted to erase them from earth. Hence, according to the Israeli logic, there is no such thing as impossible. What’s unfortunate, is that Israelis don’t necessarily realize how much Americans appreciate standards and processes, nor do they understand that when Americans say that something is “not possible” it doesn’t mean that it cannot be done (‘impossible’), rather that they don’t think that it should be done under the current conditions. Americans are not idiots: they do understand that if you break enough rules you can make anything happen, they just prefer not to break all those rules if they don’t have to.

Moreover, Israelis’ common lack of appreciation for hierarchy is second only to the strong negative feelings that Russians have about hierarchy and management. For an Israeli, hierarchy is the thing that stops one from doing the important things that one should do in order to make things happen. For an ex-USSR citizen, hierarchy is what makes the world a miserable, depressing place. What people from both of these cultures frequently miss or ignore, is that for the American corporate, hierarchy is the great enabler to all the important goals that one can achieve quickly and effectively.

To be continued in ‘Cultural Differences: An Israeli Ukrainian working at Google NYC | Part 2’.