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Tendency to show the world that we make no mistakes and we work hard to be the best in what we do



June 7, 2006 

Our great cultural heritage may be what we’re all about, but despite its many good qualities, there are also aspects that diminish our ability to function in a more democratic society. One such weakness is our fear of criticism, which in some cases is not far from a full-fledged phobia. I know someone who never tried any sports for fear he wouldn’t be good enough. What he really means to say is that he didn’t want any coach yelling at him when and if he fumbled.

Indeed, as the saying goes, you can’t say to an Iranian, “There are eyebrows above your eyes!” While to the rest of mankind this may be an anatomical fact, to an Iranian it comes across as a clear insult, insinuating that we are not so perfect. This over-reaction to direct criticism is called anything from “pride” to arrogance to bruised ego, but the truth is we grew up thinking that mistakes are shameful. Many of us still believe this because as children, if we made mistakes we paid a heavy price.

Our crimes and punishments started years before school and the memory is so vivid that when we talk about it, we feel the same camaraderie as cellmates. The new generation of Iranians has seen a little less of such cruelties, but if you are middle-aged, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

In my years of practice as a children’s dentist, I came across all sorts of parents and noticed a huge difference in Iranian parenthood versus others. I say “others” because Americans raise their children in a variety of ways. The differences from one family to the next are so profound, it would be wrong to put them all in one category.

Among my young patients, there was a seven-year old boy, referred by a general dentist who described him as “unmanageable.” The boy would invariably wet his pants before dental procedures began. I couldn’t help but admire his mother for understanding that this was due to the extreme anxiety and perhaps even fear. She always brought along a change of clothes and when the “accident” happened, she would reassure him in a soothing tone that it was okay. I could not imagine how I might have reacted to such an embarrassing incident and found the entire scene to be a far cry from what I had witnessed in Iran.

Forget committing such despicable act in a doctor’s office, a child who wet his bed had to hang his head in shame for years to come! Not only did they call the poor kid names and scolded him for bed-wetting, but during the day there was the humiliating display of the soiled mattress to broadcast the shame to the whole universe. The most effective way every old nanny knew for a cure was to threaten the child with a “Jizz!” which could mean anything from a burn to a needle prick.

Yes, in our good old childcare, fear became the way to rule and humiliation was used against all kinds of unfavorable behavior. If a kid didn’t eat or drink neatly she would be asked if her mouth had a leak, if she ate too much, she was “shekamoo” and if she didn’t she’d be sure to end up a “reeghooneh!” And, God knows what kind of children we would be if there weren’t a “lulu” around every household to scare us into proper behavior. Somehow we became convinced that our little mistakes were mini crimes and Lulu was nothing but the angle of justice.

Miraculously, we survived the fearful infancy, reached school age and were given a chance to commit a whole new set of crimes that required more sophisticated methods of punishment. If a student was late to class, or didn’t have her homework, she stood in the corner of the classroom to be viewed by all as the felon. In addition, she could be told to face the wall, hold a trashcan and even stand on one foot.

And no, back in the old days, it wasn’t against the law for a teacher to slap a student, hit him with a ruler or kick him out of the classroom. I had a teacher in second grade, whose torture was to weave her pencil between the student’s fingers and squeeze. I tried that at home and oh, boy, it hurt! Sometimes I wonder about all the undiagnosed cases of ADD among the kids who were labeled lazy or dumb. To those who have experienced such a childhood, criticism means only one thing; it means they are bad.

On the other hand, some people grow up believing themselves far beyond human flaws. You know these people; they were the top students, the smart, the talented and the ones who could do just about anything better than anyone else. For these, criticism is nothing but an attempt to insult because they view themselves as perfect and think that the only reason one could find fault with them would be out of malice and to hurt their feelings.

Back then, we were rarely criticized in a positive manner, when a teacher discussed our mistakes, it was only meant to show others how dumb we were. As a result, we never had the chance to understand, let alone enjoy, constructive criticism. Making your parents proud was a duty, but if you made mistakes, you brought shame to the extended family. In fact, the expression “You made a mistake,” in Persian is a huge insult in itself. “Ghalat kardi,” is often followed by much worse insults that aren’t even worth mentioning.

Such a negative approach, paired with the high expectations imposed by parents has pushed us through life with a strong drive to prove everyone wrong. We are set to show the world that we make no mistakes and we work hard to be the best in what we do. But as soon as we hear the hint of disapproval in someone’s words and all is lost. Back we go to being the child who knows the meaning of unfair treatment, the child who thrives for approval, the one who is better than anyone and needs Mom to say so. And we use the only protective mechanism available to us: We reject the valuable comments that could help us to improve and opt to save our egos instead.

If you don’t agree, take a good look at the pages of Iranian.Com. Every day, there’s at least one article that could be summed up in one sentence: “Who do you think you are to tell me I’m not perfect?” This could be in reference to a political debate, religion, ethnicity or just plain talks. Some writers are proficient enough to camouflage their displeasure with politeness, others swear and use inappropriate language. There’s also a third group who hide behind friends and ask them to write a letter and defend their honor.

Such discussions and the mere fact that we are willing to engage in open debates – without bloodshed – are clear indications of progress. While occasionally the comments may come across as harsh, they help us to learn more about one another. No longer is criticism taboo among Iranians and soon a nation that could only exchange pleasantries,  may see the positive side of disapproval. True as it may be that some comments are clearly intended to offend, those are not part of a discussion, thus unworthy of a response. Most readers do think before writing back and in doing so, they help us to look at ourselves more objectively.

May constructive criticism strengthen the character of a people who are already, well, perfect!

Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani is a retired dentist and a freelance writer. She lives in San Diego, California. Her latest book is "Sharik-e Gham" (see excerpt). Visit her site

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