Saturday, March 9, 2013

Political Correctness

US work culture has become very politically correct. Of course I always knew this, but living and working in Israel has really opened my eyes to how much political correctness is ingrained in my everyday work interactions.

When I worked in the US, I distinctly remember conversations that would drift into issues about gender, ethnicity, politics, and other topics and, although I wouldn't say that anything particularly offensive was said in these conversations, I could feel the collective "this conversation is about to take a turn for the worse" and then I would witness the subsequent change-in-topic. Even if this change-in-topic didn't occur, if you were to tell someone later "hey, man - you should probably watch what you say about <topic> because that might offend <other person>," then that person would usually understand and try to adjust their behavior. I think I've taken that sort of interaction for granted.

Here in Israel, things are a bit different. With some things, there just seems to be much less ingrained empathy. Not to say people aren't friendly - in general, people are very friendly here (well, at least in our encounters mainly around Tel Avi) - it's just that when it comes to some things, people here are more unapologetic about their opinions or comments.

In my first few weeks of working, I was a bit appalled at the variety of topics covered. First there was the politics. The conventional wisdom in the US is that you shouldn't talk about religion or politics at work. Well, that idea hasn't reached Israel yet. I would say that most of my early lunch conversations revolved around these issues. Oftentimes these conversations would lead to arguments with raised voices - something that I both love (if I'm involved) and cringe at (if I'm just a bystander). I started working right around the time of the US elections, and everyone was interested to know who I was voting for. They were particularly confused when I would try to avoid the conversation by saying things like "well, I dunno, we'll see" or "I have my own opinions..." They'd badger me, not understanding how I either didn't know who I was voting for or how I didn't want to talk about it. I eventually caved, but I had a distinct feeling of discomfort if the conversation about politics involved more than just one person.

The other work conversations that make me uncomfortable are more gender related. Software engineering is definitely a male dominated profession, especially in Israel, but our office has quite a few women in it. As such, I try to avoid any topics or discussions that feel too much like a discussion that you'd have in a frat house, mainly because I feel like those conversations probably make the women in the office feel uncomfortable. However, I've had quite a few conversations that make me feel uncomfortable, and it seems like the women either ignore it or are just used to it (well, probably both). This past week, a whole-company (30 people) email chain got a bit inappropriate, leading to the office manager (a woman) telling us to stop the discussion. This particular email chain had about 20 replies, but I had immediately recognized the inappropriateness of the emails and was a bit surprised that the chain didn't stop sooner and that it required a woman in the office to say something. I was glad that the office manager had cut off the conversation, but some of my colleagues were confused about why the office manager had complained, saying things like "I don't know what the big deal is, that didn't offend me."

Of course I'm generalizing here - the US is not devoid of confrontation or offensive emails - but when it comes to the workplace I'm used to, being politically incorrect seems to be more the norm here. On the one hand, it's a bit refreshing to hear more unvarnished opinions from my coworkers. On the other hand, I understand the importance of political correctness and I have to say that I actually find a lot of comfort in political correctness.

Share your thoughts - international workers out there - have you experienced these differences-in-workplaces? Has this made you more aware of the goods and bads of American work culture?