New Land, New Conversation

This article will discuss real conversations, not small talk. Small talk is essential in most countries and you should most certainly check out the IAA future article that will be devoted entirely to small talk.


Along with small talk, Israelis don't tend to engage in conversations if they cannot truly and directly voice their opinions on any given subject. Put a group of Israelis together and the conversation will often head to heated and emotive subjects. Israelis love to express their passion for subjects that matter to them. We even pride ourselves on it! Israelis tend to prefer a person with a strong opposing opinion to a person with no opinion at all. Many foreign guests visiting me in Israel end up being shocked at hearing conversations that they thought would end in punches, actually end in hugs and kisses. Showing emotion such as anger and frustration are not seen as problematic in Israel, but are accepted emotions of daily life. Therefore, conversations in Israel are open to all and every subject and the interlocutors freely express their opinions and feelings – holding back is not part of the game.

The story is quite different abroad. Of course, each country has its own societal norms in social conversation amongst peers and friends. As a rule, the most relaxed conversational norms are in the US, Canada and Australia. At the other end of the spectrum are Britain, South Africa and European countries. To make lasting networking connections and friendships, mind the following rules of engagement. You could easily find yourself outside social circles and networks if you come across too strongly too quickly. This will seriously limit your experience of studying abroad. Once you make real and intimate friendships, you will most likely be able to lower your guard with those people.

Let me identify four generally unacceptable topics for conversation amongst peers or larger groups of new friends.

Religion – If you are asked, feel comfortable to say what religion you are. Even add a sentence or two to say how religious you are. Further, if you have been asked, you may ask back. If you have not been asked, don't ask others. Beyond stating one's religion, this topic is not generally open for discussion. The further the topic touches on the politics of religion, the further it is from general discourse.

Money – This is a no-go subject! Do not talk about how much your rent is, how much you earn at a job, how much scholarship money you received, how much an item of clothing costs, or virtually anything aside from possibly how much a meal costs at a given restaurant (and that is only to give a marker of the level / style of restaurant). NEVER ask anyone questions regarding money!

Politics – This should be avoided with new people. However, this subject can be broached after getting to know people, under certain circumstances. I will go into this further in a moment.

Personal Relationships – Like politics, this should be avoided with new people. It is something that can be talked about when connections become deeper. Let the local lead on this subject. Wait to be asked or for another to discuss personal relationships before opening up the subject yourself. Don't take this to the extreme – there is nothing wrong in saying, "My girlfriend and I went to see Batman yesterday." Just don't start talking about how long you've been together and whether marriage and children are in the future. Every country has different ways of discussing plans to have children or being pregnant at the moment. Stay off that topic and don’t be offended if comments are made that would not be made in Israel.

This list may leave you wondering what there is left to discuss. The answer is, plenty!

Feel free to discuss the cultural differences you notice between Israel and your host country. Do try and phrase your comments in a positive tone. You may know from personal experiences back home that most people are more sensitive when someone else criticizes their home than when they do themselves. As a rule of thumb, think about how you and your siblings talk about negative aspects of your parents. Now think how that would sound from a friend, let alone from a stranger. It isn’t that you can talk only about things that are better in your host country than in Israel, but just be mindful when you do note things that are better back home to phrase them in a way that doesn't put locals down. Differences make a fantastic way to get to know new people, your new community and share stories about where you come from. There should be no end to chats and discussions you can have on this topic.

Your studies, the university and your plans for after your degree are all great subjects to engage peers and new friends. Feel free to be candid about these subjects. If you are struggling with a course or have issues with a professor, peers are often the best channel for expressing such feelings. Not only are they likely to help you overcome or solve issues, these issues can become a base for a lifelong connection.

Of course all of the fun subjects are wide open. Feel free to talk about vacations you have taken or will be taking soon. Anything regarding food – favorites, dislikes, allergies, dishes you like to make, restaurants you've been to or want to try – absolutely anything regarding food is on the table. Recite stories about funny things that happened to you, possibly on the bus or train. Be open about what sports you enjoy or don't enjoy. Talk about your exercise regime, what you enjoy doing in your spare time – reading, dancing, bars and clubs, outdoor adventures – whatever it may be. Books and movies are also fine and easy topics for any social setting.

You can talk about other cultures and peoples – possibly having been there, from what you've read or from personal interest. When talking about other cultures, countries, and peoples, be sure to keep it positive. What I have said about talking about the local, host culture applies to other cultures as well. In such a context, Israeli cynicism in humor can easily be perceived as racism.

Some more on politics: Due to the fact that you are at a university, politics are likely to come up in conversation eventually. Tread lightly! First point, your politics are not their politics. In Israel, being right-wing or left-wing pertains to the situation with the Palestinians. That is not what it means in other countries. Each country has its own list of hot political topics. It behooves you to figure them out prior to arriving or shortly thereafter. It is quite likely that their hot topics will not be of much interest to you. Regardless, when discussing their politics or world politics, you may certainly have an opinion and express it, but remember you are not in Israel, so keep emotions in check. Furthermore, you are a guest in their country. This means that you should keep your tone calm. Do not overstate your opinion. Take the lead of others to see how deep and emotional the conversation is going and don't exceed that. Israelis have thick skins, most Westerners do not.

When it comes to the politics of Israel, you should keep in mind that you may be the first Israeli these people will have met. As is true of your entire stay abroad, it is doubly true with regards to Israeli politics that you are an ambassador of Israel, whether you want to be or not. That does not mean you have to toe the official Israeli line. Express your opinion. Just remember, people tune out if a person is ranting.

Most people will not know all the complexities of our situation and that is likely to cause you frustration. You have an opportunity to enlighten them. They may learn new elements of this region. That does not mean they will necessarily come round to your way of thinking. Prepare yourself for this.

If hearing other points of view, some even misguided, will set you off and cause you to lose your social graces, you may be best served avoiding the topic. An easy way to avoid the subject at any given moment is to say that the subject is too emotional for you and you would prefer not to discuss it just now and that you, of course, hope for peace as soon as possible.

In general, and certainly in the beginning, start conversations passively. Ask more questions than make statements. Listen to how locals are talking about the given subject – what words they are using, the tones they are talking in. Use that as your indicator for how you should engage conversation. After a while, your understanding of conversational norms will become second nature.

This article is not meant to scare you! This information should help you engage in your new society in such a way that you will add a positive contribution and gain the most out of your experience.

Best of Luck!