One of our favourite in-jokes from our honeymoon in Israel was what we liked to call Traditional Israeli Customer Service. If you’re accustomed to travelling in countries with a strong customer-service ethos (say Japan, or Belgium), your experiences in Israel might come as a bit of a shock. Still, if you keep an open mind and a good sense of humour with you at all times, it’s a fun little quirk of the culture that can provide endless entertainment.
Our first encounter came within an hour of arriving at Ben Gurion Airport. We made our way through customs, shuffling through a disorderly queue to the visa desks. Finally near the front, we watched a lady step forward to present her passport. The attendant behind the desk pushed her chair back, reached around, and pulled out her hair scrunchie. She spent almost a full wordless minute fixing her hair back, before – visibly sighing – raising her eyes to meet the traveller’s. She took the passport and processed the visa with barely a “Shalom!”. As she proceeded to process us, she remained steadfast in her refusal to smile or engage beyond the absolute minimum. (Though I thought I may have detected a glimmer when I told her our reason for travelling was a honeymoon…)
This is a central tenet of the Traditional Israeli Customer Service philosophy: never look pleased to be serving someone. Especially when that someone is a tourist.
Everywhere we went in Israel – bars, restaurants, stores, national parks – we encountered this same nonchalance. We would make eye-contact with a bartender and request another round, only to have them roll their eyes and return to drinking their own beer. We would politely request two tickets to enter Masada, and have the attendant respond with a low grunt. We would ask for a recommendation for cheese or liquor, and receive a shrug and a “whatever you like!”.
This may make the Israelis sound like a cold and unfriendly people: far from it! We found with a little prodding and wide innocent smiles, we could get even the steeliest of service workers to joke along with us, and bring us another beer. What’s more, the Israelis love nothing more than to talk about their homeland. Ask them any question about Israel, and the conversation kicks off! In almost equal measure, they love to complain about other Israelis: how they drive, how they behave, how they speak, how they treat tourists (without a hint of irony!). Don’t let their cool façade fool you. They’re happy to have you there, and they appreciate your custom – it’s just Not Done to show you that up front.
Another interesting quirk: opening hours! You need to know that the opening time of a shuk, a museum, a store, or a service is a mere guideline. “Open from 8AM” means “Unlikely to show signs of life until about 10AM”. But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security: on the other hand, Israelis take closing times very seriously. We were booted out of the Ein Gedi Sea of Spa at exactly 5PM, no questions asked! We barely had a chance to pick up some spa products for friends back home on our way out the door!
So, here’s what you need to know: Traditional Israeli Customer Service is unlike anything you’ll experience elsewhere. A sour-puss no-fun tourist might write it off as rudeness or disinterest, but it’s really neither of those things. If you’ve got your head screwed on straight, you’ll take it as a humbling reminder that simply being a customer doesn’t mean you deserve a fucking medal. Israelis will give it to you straight, and overt friendliness is reciprocated (rather than the default).