Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Do Jordanians Even Know the Meaning of Empathy?

A week or so ago, El 3atal and I attended a very interesting session (okay he tells me it was interesting since the lady conducting speaks REALLY fast and my Arabic wasn't up to keeping up totally) on Emotional Intelligence in children. The speaker has her PhD from U of Jordan and seems extremely capable and competent. She's done research in Jordan and her intent was to expose parents to the idea of Emotional Intelligence and help give them some tools to build EI in their kids.

During the course of the session, she remarked on some of the challenges that instilling EI faces in Jordanian society. Some of you may wonder how this impacts me. After all, I'm American right? One of the side-effects of raising the Beans outside the US is that they will have challenge being culturally American. This is true in part because we chose to put our kids in schooling that's mostly Arab not mostly foreign. We also have family and friends from Jordan (naturally since El 3atal is from here). So, much of the local culture seeps into the Bean's upbringing. So, these challenges are of particular importance to me. I do art projects at home with the Beans to instill creativity (something that I find poignantly lacking in Jordan). We also spend alot of time on critical reasoning and making (and defending) a logical argument. Rote memorization won't go far in my house...

So, during this session, the speaker mentioned that one of the main challenges in Jordanian society is that Jordanians do not feel empathy. Wow. That is truly powerful to me. Since we moved here, I've been puzzled back the lack of community sense. I have had a hard time understanding the seeming inability to think of how your actions impact others. I put it down to not being raised seeing yourself as part of a community and not having respect for yourself and others. But her comment on empathy really grabbed me. It explains SO many things. So, to clarify what I'm going on and on about (I feel a long post coming), what is empathy?

Handy-dandy dictionary.com has this to say...

1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the
feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or
attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a
mirror of the self.

But really, what does that mean? I had an English teacher who explained this so simply that it has always stuck with me.

Sympathy is feeling for someone. Empathy is feeling WITH them.

Clearly, empathy is much stronger than sympathy. If you break your arm, if I sympathize, it means I'm sorry for you. If I empathize on the other hand, it means I feel the break myself.

Being able to feel empathy is what makes us able to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and consider how our actions might affect them. In fact, being taught at an early age to empathize with others gives us the tools to care about our actions as we grow older. To a 2 year old the whole world revolves around them. Without ever developing the ability to empathize we remain in that self-centered 2 year old stage, don't we?

So, if that's the case and Jordanians aren't taught to empathize with others, no wonder it seems like a free-for-all. I never really thought about it, but the Beans and I spend lots of time while reading books (something we do every night) talking about how the unkind actions of others might make the characters feel. We talk about whether it is nice and would they like it. I frequently ask them to put themselves in the character's shoes. In fact, I usually ask them to put themselves in more than one person's shoes. I didn't think about teaching them about empathy, it just happens. Doesn't it? But if no one ever taught you, how do you teach someone else? This is SUCH a powerful realization.

And, now for the challenge, how do we integrate this type of thought process into the educational system? And how do we go back and teach adults this life-skill? Because life would run much more smoothly if people understood the concept of empathy. If people thought, "how will my triple parking my car and blocking the road affect other? How would I feel if I were trying to get through?" before they took an action, they'd think twice. And then, they'd move on and walk the 5 extra steps. So, this is the hard part. How do we turn this around and breed people who are capable of feeling empathy? I guess we could send everyone to my house to read books, but that might not be practical...

Happy feelings!


At 10:13 AM , Blogger UmmFarouq said...

You could blow me over with a feather.

You've found the answer! You've got the golden ticket!

I'll tell you that you are on the right track RIGHT NOW, and that is this: through literature. Your kids will learn empathy from you, your husband, and the countless characters they will encounter through READING. It is the hard heart who cannot get lost in the pages of a book, who cannot become other characters, both antagonistic and protagonistic. How many times have we felt sorry for the villain, too? (Lots!)

I'm going to share this find w/ everyone trying to educate his/her kids here. Thanks for this post.

At 12:40 PM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Happy to help. I tell you that one little insight she provided just about blew my mind...

At 2:27 PM , Blogger a different perspective said...

One more observation that I made, is that even though many Jordanians don't know empathy, those same people can still be considerate.
I remember once while I was trying to explain my situation to a Jordanian I said "put yourself in my shoes". As soon as I said that he replied "I am not here to do that, I don't put myself in other people's shoes". However, this same person is considerate enough not to triple park and block the road. He doesn't do it because he empathizes with those who want to pass. He does it simply because he was told it is the right thing to do.

At 3:17 PM , Blogger Hani Obaid said...

I can only speak for myself. I feel empathy for people I know only. If I begin feeling empathy for strangers it would never end, there are around 6 billion of them having new problems every day. Who am I to help all of them!

At 10:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with Umm Farouq, you are on to a KEY elemental problem!

It is the heart of the command "Do unto others as you would have them do to you", which our dear ped dr. said she felt was another key issue.

I'll never forget hubby's findings, after administering a 'spiritual gifts' test at a dozen churches, that the gift of encouragment never showed up ONCE.

Thanks for being there!!! I am so glad EI is getting exposure here in Amman. :)

At 11:21 PM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Perspective, indeed consideration often comes from empathy, but can exist without. However, if we teach kids empathy they will begin to express consideration. Unfortunately consideration for others is also a rare commodity.

Hani, I understand where you're coming from. Frankly, if you feel empathy for people you know, you likely use it when making decisions that affect people you don't know. You may not do so actively, but I expect you do subconsciously. I don't spend all my time thinking about and empathzing with people I don't know. However, when I'm about to do something I do tend to think about who it would affect and how.

Kinzi, that is a very interesting finding. Ahh, would that the golden rule was treated as golden...

At 1:07 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"one of the main challenges in Jordanian society is that Jordanians do not feel empathy"

Your posts are some of shallowest hate filled posts I have ever read. Sometimes you call us lawless other times you call us cruel.


But Americans who slaughtered thousands of innocent Iraqis and looted their country do have empathy? How come the only time Americans feel empathy with the suffering of those they have caused great harm to is when body bags of their own sons star to come in


As for Jordanians not having empathy, I am afraid it's your hate that makes you incapable of seeing their empathy. Of all the people in the Arab world who felt the most pain and have taken to the streets and have given their money and time to the victims of American and Israeli violence are Jordanians. That's compassion. But you are so devoid of it you don't know it when it hits you in the face.

At 3:57 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

Well, I am not sure how to comment after following Karmah and her freak fest. Did you read the whole post? She said the info was based on a study made by a person with a PHD! Get a grip.

Anyway, I think this is a key point and I totally agree that empathy is definitely not being taught in schools or to a very low percentage. It does fall on the parents to instill this ideal. As many times I have been to the school and been pushed aside by a five year old or even a seven or ten year old who has no respect even for an adult--we know that the message is not getting through.

Awareness is half the battle, we have to keep up with the information. And keep speaking up in public. Knowledge is power.

At 4:48 AM , Blogger kinzi said...

Karmah, what a sadly typical response. Hey, don't own the problem, just bring up IRAQ to smokescreen it! Just shoot the messenger of the criticism, then all will be well. Your comment is indicative of the problem.

Loving a country means telling the truth about weaknesses as well as strengths. (except for America, of course, we should just stay under a rock for a couple centuries)

This family hates what happened in Iraq and loves Jordan. Have some tea, calm down and come back when you are stable to talk reality. I'm sure you'll have something concrete to add then.

At 5:47 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Karmah, thanks for dropping in. As you will note, I didn't come up with this insight on my own. A very fine, very educated, very local woman did. I thought they were so striking. I assure you in the room of 30 parents there was one who took the "these are Western issues" approach and 29 who said, hmm I can see that now what tool can we use to overcome it.

I would also agree whole-heartedly that the inability to self-reflect is shallow. Apparently you have picked and chosen what you would like to read on my blog. Otherwise you would be well aware that I am not a blind support of American foreign policy. For the most part it stinks. In this region, in particular, it goes as far as being criminal, literally.

I feel great empathy for the people of Iraq. I feel great empathy for the people of Palestine. I feel great empathy for the people around the world in horrible situations that were forced upon them.

I would ask you to reflect and think about how much you put yourself in other people's shows on a day-to-day basis. Not the big times when there's crisis and horror, but every day. And how often do you feel true empathy (feeling the actual pain of someone else) rather than sympathy. For me, I able easily able to feel empathy for the mothers in war torn areas. I can see myself in their shoes and how that would feel. I know what I would do for my children and wha some of the choices these mothers must make. At any rate, so niced that you decided to come by. I hope perhaps you'll come again in the future and at some point recognize that only through your own self-reflection can you advance.

Oh, and just for the record, I live in Jordan by choice. I love the country and its people (as my long-term readers are well aware). It is a beautiful place with lovely traditions and some very real, very painful societal challenges. My children are half local and, as I posted, I have to find ways to give them the best of BOTH parts of their heritage. But I also hve to find ways to overcome the ills of both...

At 5:47 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"just bring up IRAQ to smokescreen it! "

You call the wholesale slaughter of Arabs by your people a smokescreen?

now that's one fine example of American empathy.

you should be ashamed of yourself.

At 5:50 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Nicole, exactly. And, I'm thinking maybe it's time for us to start pushing our educational institutions to help them build programs that support this. I wonder if the classes can "adopt" a class in a region that is far less fortunate. Maybe they could adopt a class in Gaza and begin to place themselves in the shoes of someone their age who lives without power, without medicine, etc. It might help them be able to identify more...

Thanks Kinz...

At 6:52 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Welcome, MB. Great idea about 'twinning' educational initiatives, we have Gaza contacts if you need some.

I'll leave Jameel to you, tho, if you don't mind.

Have to work on some details about a trip to IRAQ to visit IRAQI friends.

At 8:35 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it sympathy or empathy when it's a known fact that the US gave Jordan 516.1 BILLION dollars in aid this year. And I've read in the JT that they've promised another 650 million over the next five years.

All the original post talked about was the people here not being empathetic. And I'll tell you, HONESTLY - men, WOMEN, and CHILDREN, are big jerks. NOT all of them but I'd say a good percentage, IMHO. My husband is from here and has trouble. He complains about the people and their lack of feeling, understanding, etc. I say, "Honey, just act like the biggest SOB and you'll have it made." I used to think there was nothing an ass whipping or the law couldn't fix. But here, it's a whole different ballgame.

And don't use Iraq as an excuse, my AMERICAN family didn't commit the tragedies in Iraq or elsewhere. Only a group of people in a misinformed, over zealous, government set that tragedy up, not the average Joe.

I'm sure all the US haters would be breaking their back to get a visa/greencard. You know it's true.

Momma Bean, sorry to use a seemingly racist tone. I always seem to get in trouble with my tone. I'm just not an A kisser. We have FOX news now, maybe I should say this is a "No Spin Zone" haha No, seriously, I am not a fan of FOX but I just like to listen to something in English showing live US news. We have CNN, but it's only US news in bits and pieces.


At 9:28 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Wow, quite the emotional reactions. Well, at least I hope we've got some people thinking about empathy and how to teach it to their loved ones... Thanks all for dropping in.

At 1:40 PM , Blogger Ali Dahmash said...

I don't know what is wrong with Karmah, but maybe I shouldnt care but then I will be called not to have Empathy ;) haha
anyways education starts from home and kids learn from the way we behave and react to each other and how we treat people. The way we deal with things when we are under pressure. How we treat and talk to our maids! makes you wonder how kids are becoming rude right?
I think many Jordanians careless about others especialy when they do things that affects others. When they smoke when there are kids around. when they drive recklessly. when we polute our country. do i need to say more?

At 2:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

One creative project you could do with your kids to go along with this idea is to re-write a fairy tale from a different perspective. I have my students do this and they come up with the neatest perspectives. For example, Cinderella from the step-mother's point-of-view was interesting. I also had a student write it from the lost shoe's point-of-view. very creative. She was so desloate without her sister shoe...

At 3:28 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the first things I noticed about Jordanian culture was the lack of empathy (e.g., the few rich versus the many poor with seemingly little awareness on the part of the former of the plight of the latter, the relative lack of volunteerism and philanthropy, honor crimes). A close second was the inability to take a cold, hard look at reality and deal with events and situations with forethought and reason and relative calm. In fact, the two are probably related. But the latter makes it very difficult for expats to relate to Jordanians without having to pander, as we have seen so wonderfully with this blog post.

Anonymous/MB is correct, although the aid amount is in the millions, not the billions. Suspect that was just a typo.

To my mind, almost worse than the lack of empathy is watching some parents indoctrinate their own children to be cruel and disrespectful. I have witnessed this too many times to count, and shockingly even among the supposedly educated and the self-described upper classes. One woman I know taught her 17-year-old daughter literally to snub an expat woman whose largest crime was helping that same daughter write university applications to Western universities. Great parenting. If I'd have shown such disrespect for an adult when I was that age, my parents would've revoked my driving privileges and grounded me for life. But these parents, I guess, are proud of the values they are teaching their minor children. Shameful.

At 7:25 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thank you for pointing out my typo regarding billions/millions. I just noticed it after reading through the replies.

It's so true about the kids. These little brats of today are the jerks of tomorrow. I see it in the store, in the schools, etc.

Ya'll, please don't think I'm too bad, my bark is worse than my bite. I'm not saying there are no nice people here, I have met people who floored me with there niceness. But, I will say THOSE people are the people who have spent time somewhere else or are not from here originally.


At 11:21 PM , Blogger Ali Dahmash said...

Anonymous, you are stereotyping Jordanians. Just like what average Americans say when they meet Muslims in America who are moderate and not extreemist, they say "well they have lived here (in America) for a long time to be influenced by us"
Jordanians born and living in this country came im all shapes and colors, just like any nation and country you will visit. You will meet nice Americans, bad ignorant Americans, racist, down to earth kind Americans. So your statement is not true at all about this. But as for Empathy, yes the Rich in Jordan do not always care to help the Poor, we lack this culture though it's in our relegion and tradition in the Middle East.

At 12:15 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Emily, thanks for the awesome suggestion. I hadn't thought about trying that creative exercise. They actually allude to that in Enchanted. She talks about how her chipmunk Pip helped the poor wolf when Little Red Ridinghood is chasing him with an axe. When challenged, the heroine says, well Red tells the story a little differently...

Ali, I agree learning begins at home and fixing this issue should begin at home. However, I'm afraid it will have to begin at school and the kids will need to teach their parents...

Anonymous, I agree that as a society on the whole, parenting and discipline (in fact empathy) are lacking.

MB, However, I would not use that to generalize about Jordanians. I'm with Ali in that I have met many, many people here who are beyond nice and have never lived anywhere else. Although, to your point, I do think it is easier for foreigners to relate to people who have lived abroad. Not because they picked up good traits necessarily, but because they typially have a broader world view (the same being true of Americans who have lived abroad having a broader world view).

At 1:26 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ali, I am not meaning to purposely stereotype Jordanians or anyone else for that matter. I guess why I seem so negative about this is because I am so burnt out by the whole idea of being here. I know there are jerks in every country, society, etc.. not only here in Jordan. I'm having a hard time explaining myself without talking from both sides of my mouth. I see your point, but.. I don't encounter the crud in the States like I do here on a DAILY basis. Not to say it doesn't exsist, I didn't say that, but it's not there like it is here. Does that make sense?


At 1:35 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

At K#2 school, if there aren't trees on the sidewalk, there are cars. The school is partially on a one way street, no one observes the one way signs. While picking K#2 up in the afternoon, he always walks on sidewalk, I walk on the street, very close - touching the parked cars. I was HIT (clipped)by a car going the wrong way on the one way street. He stopped the car, looked at me like I inconvenienced him, then drove off. I yelled/cussed him out and told him he was going to wrong way. Oh well.... Never mind the security guard was standing there scratching as high as possible AND as low as possible. That's what I'm talking about.


At 3:12 AM , Blogger Ali Dahmash said...

MB, I hear you, I think we lack curtosy in Jordan as many are becoming very selfish. I might explain this to the difficult economic situation in this country and how the government enjoys screwing the people by imposing more taxes everyday.

At 1:31 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous/MB, I get what you mean. In larger countries, it's easier to align oneself with a pod of like-valued people, thus minimizing exposure to the arses of the world. In smaller countries, it's not as easy. Everything and everyone's connected.

I don't know what the solution to this low EI, lack of empathy situation is. No one sat down and taught me empathy and reasoning. I learned mostly through example and through behavioral expectations set for me by my parents. But when there are too few examples or when having empathy is interpreted as being a naive patsy or an opportunity to be exploited, then I suppose it has to be taught in the schools, in the mosques, in the churches, and through more formal institutions. And there have to be consequences for acting like a jerk, whether they be social, cultural, monetary, or something else. Peer pressure can be very powerful.

At 6:22 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

I think some of this goes back to being the one who stands up to people and calls them on their behavior. We have discussed this before. The key is calling people out in the best possible way (I know I am not too good at this) and using words that they will understand and that will get the message thru to them. I think we need some workshops where we role play how to talk to average Jordanians on the street. I think it would be really beneficial. I am one of the last people who wants to do that 'Allah ya tik al afia' stuff to every person I meet. I think that it is wrong to say what you don't mean. We need good dialog to say what we mean and get the message thru. Any takers? We need students and we need teachers!

At 1:38 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice post. Keep up the good work. Whatever any of the above feel about the US, this does not affect the message about Empathy in Jordan. I am affraid it just make the message bolder. I liked the post and could/would not read most of the comment

At 10:56 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this is a great post, thanks for writing it. It kept people thinking and writing about it.

KARMA; I feel with you and I know that what you wrote is due to deep hurt, but I feel that you are still young and I am sure, I am much older than you.

I have three points of advice for you if you would allow me to present them:

l. Do not take things personally when somebody tries to write or critisize our society. We need the change for the welfare of all.

2. Do not generalize about all people and try to understand people betterer.

3. When you read, read in depth so that you understand what the whole article is about.

You are young it seems and challenged, but you can win people to your side if you act differently.

God bless

At 2:09 PM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Anonymous (Tareq) and Anon, welcome and thank you for your comments. I hope that through self-review and consideration we will be able to improve ourselves and the people around us. Thanks for joining the conversation.

At 11:40 PM , Blogger Ahmad Hamdan said...

Hey MommaBean,

How r u?

I think I am dropping by a little bit late, as the discussion has been going for almost a week now (but it is work)...
Well... Thank you so much for this important post, that almost resumes our main problem here in Jordan. The word EMPATHY goes for a big, really big part of our problem. But I will add to it Social Intellegence, as we dont have it at all. The simplest and clearest example is about how we drive, we only think of ourselves, and even that I am not sure about... We need to have a real discussion with ourselves, and to ask ourselves the following questions: Do we really want to be a SOCIETY, a group of people who SHARE the same land, culture, past, present and future? Do we really want to evolve (from the social point of view)? Do we really care for our lives and our children?
Once we start to seriously ask ourselves these questions, then we may get to the point of having some EMPATHY...
(P.S.: I am a Jordanian who loves this country above all, but this doesn't mean that it is Heaven. We DO have tons of problems, and it is time to begin to put solutions...)
Thanx again MommaBean for this great post...

At 5:27 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Ahmad, Those are indeed very serious questions. The answers will highlight a conversation where people decide what they wany rather than accepting the "hayk" mentality that currently exists. As a fellow Jordanian who loves this country, I hope the dialog will begin soon...

At 12:48 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms. Bean,

I'm with you completely when I see things that drive me nuts (short drive) like triple parking, cops smoking under the no smoking sign at the airport. People smoking everywhere. Not being able to choose your own medical care because your cancer makes you of "unsound mind."

There are some things that are culturally out of whack by a Western standard. I think everyone could treat others better. It will take some time. How long did it take for your sweet home (Alabama) to give up segregation, and then it took a war to try to assert a state's right (to be slavers). I keep hoping things will change in Jordan like they did for us in the States.

Can I tell you how smart you are to have put your kids in an Arab school rather than American Community School? We are really hating that school. It's not just us. The administration totally ignores us; it sometimes makes many of the Jords and the Americans unhappy.

One parent we know had her daughter harassed by boys in her class. They made sexual comments about her, played with her hair and so forth. She took her concerns to the teacher, principal, and superintendent. All the superintendent did was to say, "My daughter goes here and this never happened to her." He did nothing. The parent home schooled the child for the rest of the year and chose another school. We think it was because the boys were from other countries that they were allowed such latitude.

Another incident we did not like was an exercise in which a teacher asked the students what they would do if they could do anything for a day. One of the Arab-speaking kids said "Blow up the United States." The teacher said nothing. Imagine that in a true American school!

It's good you're bringing your kids up in a way that will allow them to experience and appreciate the culture they're living in now. Bravo!!!

At 12:04 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...


Thanks. I won't get into a detailed conversation about the American Civil War and its true reason/roots which were not so much about slavery as popular understanding holds.

I'm sorry to hear of your challenges at ACS. I'm sure there are many who have good experiences as well, but I find most folks I talk to have some issue or another. For the money they charge, you'd think it shold be Nirvana there ;). For us, the decision was based on a desire for the Beansto actually speak Arabic, which is highly unlikely at a school that treats it as a second language rather than the first language. Best of luck in executing change (either in the school or to another one, teehee).

At 12:04 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...


Thanks. I won't get into a detailed conversation about the American Civil War and its true reason/roots which were not so much about slavery as popular understanding holds.

I'm sorry to hear of your challenges at ACS. I'm sure there are many who have good experiences as well, but I find most folks I talk to have some issue or another. For the money they charge, you'd think it shold be Nirvana there ;). For us, the decision was based on a desire for the Beansto actually speak Arabic, which is highly unlikely at a school that treats it as a second language rather than the first language. Best of luck in executing change (either in the school or to another one, teehee).

At 1:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks MB.

I empathize with your position. I even used to believe it. I think the notion of the state's rights argument is largely one promulgated by southern revisionist historians just after the War and is largely recognized as such by modern historians. It is no coincidence that most of the articles of secession in CSA state list the right to keep slaves prominently. And I am from Southern roots.

I wish we could do a detailed comparison because (maybe in another post) of schools. I certainly would have appreciated it when I arrived; it is hard to find good information when you first arrive here and are trying to find a good school for your child. When no one talks, people tend to go with the crowd. So, will the beans speak Arabic, English, and Redneck? They would be invaluable in Iraq right now, right there (in the rear) with the 3rd Army.

Thanks again for your blog and for letting me lurk.


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