The new etiquette: The rules of remoteness

The rules of etiquette are changing all over the world and in Israel that change is drastic. You’re probably thinking: Israeli Etiquette, that’s an oxymoron. I can see why. Around here a friendly greeting might entail running up behind someone and smacking them on the back with all your might. The way to say ‘excuse me’ here is often a friendly punch to the other person’s arm. And even while the rules about sexual harassment are dutifully taught in office seminars, sudden and unsolicited hugs have long prevailed here. These behaviors might be considered a bit rude in other countries. Not in Israel, where spontaneous displays of affection and invasions of people’s personal space were the old normal.

New normal: whether you’re in Boston, London or Tel Aviv, the new etiquette crosses borders. The Decorum of Distance; the Rules of Remoteness. Now everyone is zigzagging along the sidewalks and walking paths, doing our best to avoid each other, and not the least bit apologetic about it. In my neighborhood, those of us who walked, jogged or ran had our eyes trained on the path ahead to avoid bumping into one another. As of yesterday we were on the lookout, not for fellow runners or walkers, but for the unlucky police officers with the thankless task of sending us home.

Sign at the supermarket cashier line – Photo: N.Bresler

At the supermarket, where Israelis are generally known for crowding, pushing and jumping the line, suddenly there’s a novel way of shopping: Keeping our distance, waiting patiently for another shopper to finish picking out their soap detergent before we move in to get ours. Can’t say there’s any reason to be impatient. It’s not as if any of us have anywhere to go. I make a point of shouting ‘thank you’ to every supermarket employee I see, yelling my thanks from a safe distance, as they restock the shelves that we consumers had emptied out the day before.

Elevator Etiquette: My building has a tiny elevator. In the best of times its capacity is limited to 4 people. Ask my dinner guests who got stuck there a while back. They dared squeeze 5 people into the elevator that night and spent a relaxing after-dinner interlude waiting to get rescued. These days we limit ourselves to 2 or 3 people in the elevator. The new regulations say only 1 person at a time, but in my building, we stop at 3. This limit ensures that each of us can face a wall. Turning away from your neighbors: the new etiquette. A hand-lettered note in the elevator assures people “we won’t be insulted if you turn your back”.

Elevator Etiquette – Photo: N.Bresler

Ironically, I make a living teaching business etiquette. Well, at least that’s what I did in the old days, 3 weeks ago. Today it seems all the rules I taught are passé: How to shake hands properly? Ha-ha, that is so last month. How to hand someone your business card? Don’t be ridiculous. How much distance to stand when mingling at a business event? The new answer would be 2 meters – everyone knows that! But these questions and answers are all moot points. No face to face business events these days. And the rules for online behavior are being written and updated every day.

Years ago, one of my siblings gave me a button that said: “Hi, how are you? Get out of my way” With all my immediate family still living in New England, and me the only weirdo who made Aliyah, my lack of proper etiquette had become a family joke. Not that any of us were so well-behaved to begin with. But I won the contest hands down. In my eagerness to become a true Israeli, I’d become a pro at pushing, interrupting, and walking off abruptly in the middle of a conversation. I believe even the average Sabra would have found me rude. Then fast forward to the day I joined an international company and their subsequent discovery that I was (in their words) some kind of wild person. I was sent off for retraining, spending 3 mornings a week with a business etiquette coach. Oh, the irony.

Of course good old-fashioned kindness and compassion were always part of our Israeli society and these days I see even more of it every day: not just people stepping aside for one another on the sidewalk, an act which might be out of self-interest. People are shopping and cooking for elderly neighbors, calling people in quarantine to see if they need anything, and giving free lessons on everything from Pilates to how to dye one’s own hair.

These days the nicest thing we can say to each other is: Back off. New Normal: Caring is keeping your distance.

About the Author
Nili Bresler is a member of Israel's pro-democracy movement. She is a business communications coach with experience in management at multinational technology companies. Prior to her career in high-tech, Nili was a news correspondent for the AP. Nili holds a degree in International Relations from NYU. Nili volunteers with the nonprofit, NATAN Worldwide Disaster Relief. Nili made aliya in 1970 and lives in Ramat Gan.