Personal space

December 5 2010

It is one of the blessings (word chosen deliberately) of my career that I know so many people all over the world on a personal level.  While the concept of "friends" on Facebook feels sometimes tenuous, I have blogged before about the wonderful feeling of landing in almost any city anywhere and knowing someone who lives there on a level deeper than vendor/customer-partner.

Here in Israel, that person is Dvir Reznik, ex-IBMer and avid social media dude.  

Amazingly, Dvir and I have never met before in person.  We were at the same event once on my last visit here, but otherwise, our entire knowledge of each other is through our asynchronous links -- the occasional phone call, sure, but otherwise it's all Twitter/Facebook/email.  There is no question Dvir is a friend of mine, despite only knowing each other professionally and through social media, and I was excited that perhaps this trip would finally provide a time for us to get together.

Last night I had dinner with Dvir and his new bride Dina.  In perhaps the first sign from above to counteract my feelings about yesterday morning, it turns out Dina's professional area of expertise is one that my family and I are grappling with privately.  I was good about ensuring that our dinner didn't revolve around her work; instead, we talked about many things, including my morning experience in Jerusalem and many other aspects of Israeli culture.  For a country that I know more about than most, I still don't know much about the culture of actually living here, and Dvir and Dina were excellent tour guides on most topics.

After dinner, Dvir and Dina took me out to a club...yes, really.  This is not my usual travel routine, but they were meeting friends and I was really enjoying hanging out with them.  And Dina actually thought I was far younger than I am, so I rolled with it.

What made going to a night club so interesting that I'm blogging about it?  A lesson in the Israeli concept of "personal space".  I have seen this in action before, but maybe never to a level of conscious awareness, and not in such a clear way.  See, this club was small enough that people were constantly trying to get past us.  In America, someone might say "excuse me", or tap you on the shoulder, or try to fish their way into a gap behind you.

Here in Israel, clubbing was a full contact sport, and not necessarily with intoxicated young members of the opposite sex.  I have never felt so pushed around in my life.  Literally at times I would be shoved out of the way, without so much as a "slicha" (excuse me).  The near-constant hands on my back had me consciously thinking about whether I was being pick-pocketed.  Dvir, meanwhile, was laughing at every minute of my discomfort -- nothing unusual to him.  Still, through my reactions the others in our group quickly became conscious of this typical Israeli behavior, and I thought at one point we were going to witness a cat fight right there in the club as elbows were flying.

The night was otherwise unremarkable -- the same DJ anywhere in the world playing 90 seconds of a song to get everyone going and then shifting gears, the lights occasionally coming on brighter so you could check out the room, the smell of cigarette smoke so thick I actually bagged the clothes I wore last night.  At one point, the American techno-pop let up and an Israeli Ashkenazi pop song came on, instantly rising to level of anthem for all the women in the room.  Dvir translated it for me -- I totally didn't get it.  See previous note regarding my age and going clubbing.

I realized as I thought about it that this personal space issue is one of the intrinsics about Israel.  It is why I totally did not want to rent a car to drive to Jerusalem, it is why I had to push my way to the Western Wall in the morning, it is why a woman blatantly cut in front of me for no apparent reason both boarding and deplaning my flight here.  But why?  I've been offered a couple of explanations, and one helps me understand what happened in Jerusalem as well.  The Israelis are used to conflict -- okay, you can call that an understatement -- and it breeds a bit of a put-me-first mind set at times.  

Had a great Sunday both at IBM preparing for Monday and back in Neve Tzedek...more about that tomorrow.

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