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Israeli business casual

September 25, 2010

I’m sure someone somewhere in Israel wears a suit to work, but I’ve never met him. I’m sure there must even be a few guys who wear ties, but the only ones I’ve ever seen doing so were at weddings and usually in the process of getting married, though even then the tie is optional. The only people I see on the street who I know are on their way to work are in uniform and carrying an assault rifle — everyone else could be on their way to the grocery store for all I can tell.

There isn’t a lot of formality in secular Israel, and secular Israelis dominate the workplace. I don’t even know most of my coworkers’ last names because there’s no need — everyone in the office goes by their first names only, by email, in person, on Skype, and everywhere else. People introduce themselves with first names only. This practice starts early, as kids call their teachers by their first names too, even in elementary school. When I was addressing our wedding invitations last year, I asked my husband what the proper formal way to say “Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so” was in Hebrew, and he said no one says that in Israel, like, ever.

Whenever we come to a cultural impasse like this, he shrugs and says “TII” — “This Is Israel.” While I wouldn’t compare calling your second-grade teacher by her first name or wearing a miniskirt to work to DiCaprio smuggling diamonds inside a goat in Africa in Blood Diamond — his TIA (This Is Africa) reference is the origin of TII, FYI — there is definitely a need to constantly readjust one’s expectations when coming from a place like the U.S. to a place like Israel. Things here are often very different, and there’s no explanation for it other than that’s just the way it is.

This business casual attitude that far exceeds my definition of the term is only a symptom of a larger cultural phenomenon in Israel. People here do things their way, and their way involves being comfortable. It could be because it’s over 90 degrees for half the year, making people reluctant to sweat in their nice clothes, so why bother dressing up? Someone told me that people don’t dress up in Israel because everywhere you go it’s like being around family members, so what’s the point of trying to make a good impression by being fancy? This extended family of a society is more likely to ridicule you than compliment you if you put on airs.

When it comes down to it, there’s no way to know the exact motivations behind any one particular social or cultural phenomenon, especially in this country where people from all over the world have finally gathered together again in one place for the first time in thousands of years, all with identical roots but a million different ways of expressing them. If that means I get to wear jeans to work, I guess I can’t complain even if I don’t get it. TII.

Update: Israeli business casual: Part 2

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Claire permalink
    September 26, 2010 12:14 pm

    I have been waiting for this entry for a long time. Yesterday, as I watched people come in and out of the mall, all I could think was “what DO people wear to work here?”

    • September 28, 2010 9:47 am

      Work is an extension of home, so people feel no need to do anything special. The only thing that has been ruled out is coming to work in pajamas — which someone did once, hence the rule.

  2. September 26, 2010 5:58 pm

    The lines “everywhere you go in Israel it’s like being around family members…” and how people are “more likely to ridicule you than compliment you if you put on airs” made me laugh and rang so true. My boyfriend is a kibbutznik and I think they take the casualness up a notch even from typical secular Israelis. Most of the time I go with the flow but sometimes the Tokyo in me wishes for an occasion to put on shoes that they may think are “ridiculous” or be a bit “edgy” or just simply look a little nicer! But jeans to work… you can’t complain 🙂

    • September 28, 2010 9:44 am

      I don’t miss wearing suits and high heels every day, but sometimes I wish it was at least an option! I can’t imagine stepping up the level of casual even further on a kibbutz, but if anyone can manage to pull it off, it’s Israelis 🙂

  3. Daria permalink
    September 29, 2010 12:34 pm

    I work in a pretty fancy business district in Tel Aviv and even here the only people wearing jackets are foreign businessmen and lawyers. And you can tell the locals aren’t ‘owning’ the look, it’s like dress-up.
    And even though the casual attitude is nice, I’m mortified each time I see an office worker in flip-flops, super tights outfits or these short short jeans everyone’s wearing.

    First time reading this blog, btw. Definately subscribing 🙂

    • September 30, 2010 10:36 pm

      Thanks for reading! Flip flops and too much skin are rivaled only by sweatpants and Crocs. It’s hard to imagine not noticing such transgressions, but I’m sure this will all seem perfectly acceptable eventually.

  4. October 26, 2010 4:47 pm

    Hi
    first time i read this blog too, i was referred to it by my BFF Sarah, i liked your writing.
    As a born and bred Native Israeli i always enjoy riding the underground in foreign cities like London or Paris. people there are so well dressed! even on a regular day just going to their ordinary jobs. the only time i saw my husband in a suit other then our wedding was when he was sent on business to the US. he downloaded from the web a drawing on how to tie a tie. he does it so rarely. I must say that i don’t think weather is the only reason for the lack of style in Israel, I lived in Singapore where the tropical weather is hot and humid all year, and still a lot of people go to work in suits.
    it has to be said that there are places in Israel that require dress code like the court of law, The Knesset, and some work places that deal mainly with overseas customers.

    • October 27, 2010 10:11 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Yael. My husband, also a native Israeli, lived in Paris for a few years and since returning to Israel, all his clothes from that time sit in the closet. He says people look at him funny if he dresses nicely on a regular day, and even at weddings here he’s often dressed more formally than the groom!

  5. sreifa permalink
    November 16, 2010 8:38 am

    Casual is as casual does. Even within the “casualness” of Israeli workplaces, there are different levels of casual. Dressing for work in a hi-tech company is different than working in a bank. I think the prices on clothes in Israel have something to do with the way people dress here. Prices are high compared to the average income.

    • November 16, 2010 4:00 pm

      Everything here seems overly expensive compared to the average income — housing, entertainment, transportation, you name it. Every single day I’m amazed by the number of cars I see on the road when I imagine how much they cost.

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