The Language Barrier
It is supposed to be easy… We should be able to say what we think, and the other side should have no trouble getting the meaning right. Unfortunately, however, “language” can present a barrier for each and every one of us. Any new immigrant knows how hard it sometimes is to get a message across, having experienced frustration over not being able to express himself or not having been understood by others.
A Personal Touch
I have lived in Israel since 1977 – which is pretty much most of my life. I made aliyah from Brazil at the age of 19, without any knowledge of either English or Hebrew. I knew some Spanish, but this was not very helpful. As for my mother tongue, Portuguese, it was outright useless. I realized that I had to learn and that I had to do it fast. And this is precisely what I did.
The problem arose years later, after I had learned both Hebrew and English, and could speak both of these languages quite fluently. All of a sudden, I found myself adrift in a sea of languages. Like all people, I counted on my mother tongue. Outside home, I used mostly Hebrew, but with my family I spoke Portuguese. I read only in English. As for writing, I have never been able to write correctly in any language, partly because I am dyslexic. The upshot is that, today, my reading comprehension is the best in English – except for legal material, but I find it easier to express myself in Hebrew. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? But believe it or not, I am in no way unique.
When discussing important matters, use only the language you are completely comfortable with. Don’t attempt improvisations or shortcuts. If you need help, ask someone you trust to help you out.
The Israeli Way of Talking
Israelis are known to talk loudly and use a lot of hand gestures, but at the same time, their speech is often vague or imprecise. This is part of the so-called “Israeli culture,” and it doesn’t mean they are being aggressive or hostile towards you – at least, no more than usual. Israelis love to be helpful, and will try to “assist” you even when they have no clue what you are asking. As a result, they often give wrong directions and wrong information.
What is really amazing is that we all get used to this kind of behavior and, with time, learn to do the same.
A Good Tip
Don’t take Israelis too seriously! If you follow this guideline, wonderful things will happen: you will find it easy to ignore a person who is being impolite or disregard stupid comments such as “So why you are here? Go back to where you came from”. Believe me, they don’t really mean it.
Doing it Right: Talking to the Right People at the Right Time
Tina had lived in Israel only a few months when the police knocked on her door. Even though she knew this might happen, it took her by surprise. “Now is the time to use my talents!” she said to herself.
A few days earlier Tina had had a fight with her Israeli boyfriend. Actually, it was more than a fight – it was a full-fledged battle. They had smoked some grass and were high when the boyfriend decided to make fun of Tina and her accent in Hebrew. Passions ran high, and before long Tina and her boyfriend were pummeling each other with increasing gusto. This went on for a while, that is, until they both realized that the neighbors had called the cops – whereupon they promptly left the apartment.
Tina and her boyfriend were pretty sure that the police would not break into their apartment at two o’clock in the morning, and that the best way to avoid confrontation would be to “disappear” for a while. Twenty-four hours later they came back and cleaned up the place, making it look nice and tidy, with no trace of drugs whatsoever.
A few days later, however, the police came looking for them, and they were asked to report to the station for questioning.
At the police station Tina outdid herself: she put on a truly great show. Sobbing, she told the cops how miserable she felt, how she needed every penny she had to survive, how “bad” her boyfriend had behaved, and how he had hit her first. She spoke English, and an Israeli police woman translated for her. The “translator” spoke decent English, as I subsequently found out, but no more than that.
Bob called me later, having spent 24 hours in jail and having been charged with drug use and assault. He will pay dearly for this incident. Firstly, he will have to pay a substantial amount of money in fees. More importantly, in spite of the deal he managed to cut with the DA, his future will be heavily impacted: he will not be sent to jail, but will have a criminal record. I am not sure what happened to Tina, because I did not represent her, but I know that she got a much better deal (probably only “the use of light drugs”).
Tina understood the “Israeli way”: She cried and did her best to look miserable. Bob, on the other hand, tried to project strength and self-assurance – in short, he decided to play Mr. Strong. Like anywhere else in the world, in Israel, too, it is always better to play a victim, since the system invariably sympathizes with the victim.
Bob’s gravest mistake was trying to make Tina look bad. After reading the police investigation protocol, I realized that Bob had behaved like a typical Israeli bully, and he has paid a heavy price for it.
A Word of Wisdom
We all make mistakes, and there are times when we could use a lawyer’s help. However, it is when we need good legal advice the most that we often cannot get it.
The best way to behave in a crisis situation is to be humble. Don’t try to look or sound condescending. Be firm but humble, and if you don’t know what course of action to take, first and foremost, keep quiet!