Eye Exams, Customer Service, and Paris Hilton

“Of course, the eye exam is free if you purchase a pair of glasses.”  The optometrist seemed somewhat puzzled by my question.

“Of course.” I replied in Arabic, “But how much is it for just the eye exam?” His selection of frames looked expensive.  Besides, I like to keep my options open.

“The eye exam by itself?”  Another puzzled look, “Just 2 dinars.”

$2.82 for an eye exam.  It was in that moment that I realized that all of my assumptions about the price of eye care in Jordan were probably incorrect.  “Ok, great.  So how much for a pair of glasses?”

“For frames and lenses?”

“Yes, for everything, the exam, the frames, the lenses . . . ”

“Well it depends on the frames, of course.  But these ones here are around 25 dinars, and these here maybe 30 or 35 dinars.  Like this.”

Different definitions of expensive

I couldn’t believe my ears – I had always heard from Joe our building super that glasses were expensive in Jordan.  I automatically assumed it would be like so many other things here – the US dollar price simply changed to JDs.   So a $149.99 pair of eyeglasses would be labeled 150 JD, which would come out to just over $200.  Based on this thinking I hadn’t darkened the doorstep of an optometry shop since arriving.  However, the problem was that I hadn’t factored economy of scale into my assumptions.  You see, for Joe, a industrious member of Jordan’s working poor, 25 JD was like $200 to me – probably even more.

It was actually because of Joe that I was at the optometrist that night.  His daughter’s glasses had been broken for a week or so and I had asked him if he could take them to an optometrist to have them fixed.  Because of the expense that did not seem to be an option to him.  So I took the glasses and set out to find a place to have them fixed.  As it turns out, replacing a few screws and straightening a bent frame for a stranger who walks into your shop 15 minutes after closing time is free here in Jordan.

I wished for God’s strength to be given to the Optometrist, he wished the same to me, and we stated that if it was the will of Allah we would see each other again. We exchanged words of peace and I stepped into the cool Amman night air, knowing I would return.

Fashion Sense vs. UV Protection

It took me a few months to actually find a time to go back for my free eye exam and “expensive” glasses.  I walked in to the shop without an appointment and exchanged the customary greetings with the optometrist.  He remembered me from the errand of mercy a few months before and welcomed me warmly into the eye exam room.  We started off communicating in Arabic, but I soon realized that his skill in my first language was probably greater than mine at his, and for the sake of my eyesight and new prescription we switched over to English.  I probably didn’t need to be worried – the exam was much like it is in the States, “Which is better?  View #1 or 2?  View # 1 or 2?”  I never know. I’m always nervous I’m going to give the wrong answer.  I have a sneaky suspicion that I’ve consistently failed these dichotomizing T/F type portions of the eye exam over the years and that has led to the consistent degradation of my eyesight.  Maybe I should study more before I go in for the exam next time.

Paris might fit in ok here in Jordan, long sleeves, head covered, and most importantly - BIG sunglasses!

Anyways, as it turned out I needed new lenses.  I was in the market for a pair of sunglasses (I had lost my old one within a few months of moving to Jordan 2 summers ago), and a pair of titanium based metal frames.  For some reason I have an allergy to the metal that is in most eyeglass frames (and metal watches for that matter) and have to wear titanium or plastic or I get a rash. To my surprise he had titanium, albeit a limited selection.  Then came the sunglasses.  This is where I got into a bit of a culture clash.  He pulled out the biggest pair of frames you can imagine.  Something straight out of the Paris Hilton fashion manual.

Laughing I tried them on for a few seconds and asked him for something smaller.  He protested and handed me another huge frame.  I asked my son what he thought as I sported the next ginormous pair.  He screwed up his face in horror like I was some sort of alien about to abduct him.  Big sunglasses are IN among Jordanians these days – for both men and women.  Seriously, a guy friend of mine bought a pair of stylish sunglasses a while ago and I all I could think of was Paris Hilton when I saw him.

I explained to the optometrist that I was heading back home to the States for the summer and that my culture had a different opinion of the size of sunglasses for men.  He protested that his selections weren’t about fashion, but for the protection of my eyes from harmful UV rays. Riiiighht! We had an amusing few minutes of him extolling the virtues of large framed sunglasses and me trying to convince him that all the same I would like a smaller frame.  Like most Middle Eastern negotiation sessions, we ended up somewhere in the middle.  I’m not sure either of us were 100% happy, but we pretended we were.

A more pleasant surprise was his willingness to cut new lenses for my old glasses.  I didn’t even ask him about it, he offered.  I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this in the states, but if you go into a shop and ask about this idea there is always an excuse why it can’t be done.  “You didn’t get those frames here.”  “Those frames have been discontinued.”  “Ha-ha, new lenses in old frames, no we can’t do that.”  Everything is so much more complicated in the States.  The big optometry companies advertise special deals to get you in the door, but then after the eye exam (which is $30 if you don’t buy glasses) you often find out that the special deal only applied to the 1950s coke-bottle glasses no one wants to wear anymore.  Then everything has a special price – the frames, the lenses,the special material lenses, the thin lenses, the special coatings, the blah, blah, blah.  I alway feel like I’m being taken to the cleaners.  BUt here was this guy offering to make lenses for my old glasses as if it were a matter of routine. The cost?  15 JD.  I asked how long it would take.  “When you come back for your other glasses I will make them in 10-minutes while you wait.”  And when would the other glasses be ready? “Tomorrow, of course. American style!”  In the end the damage for a pair of new glasses, new sunglasses, and a new set of lenses was going to be right around $100 US.  Not bad for 3 pairs of eyewear.  $33.33 each. Expensive to Joe, but cheap to me. Kinda like the deals you hear advertised back in the States – but with absolutely no catch.

The Jordanian Approach to Customer Service

Truth be told, returning to pick up the glasses the next day was anything but American-style; a true reminder of one of the thing I love so much about Jordan.

I arrived an hour before closing time.  The optometrist and the pharmacist from next door were sitting in chairs on the sidewalk between their shops playing chess and sharing a hookah.  The optometrist stood up when I arrived and welcomed me into his shop.  I glanced at the board and saw that white was sure to win soon.   I encouraged him to finish the game.  After a couple of protests he sat back down.  The pharmacist pulled up a stool for me and I watched their friendly contest as the first stars were appearing in the night sky.  The optometrist had better pieces on the board, but the pharmacist had a better defensive position and made his opponent work hard for the win.  About 15 minutes into the endgame I realized that I had crossed an important cultural threshold at some point in the last year.  I had exchanged my western style transactional customer service script for an eastern relational one.  I mean, really, how many Americans would calmly wait while the guy from Lenscrafters finished off his game of chess with the guy from Walgreens while waiting to pick up his new glasses before getting irritated?  10 minutes? 5 minutes?  2?

When we first arrived in Jordan their different approach to customer service was shockingly obvious to us.  Like a blue Slurpee to the face.  You see, at that point of our cross-cultural experience we thought that Jordanians had no sense of customer service.  As it turns out – they do, it’s just different from ours.  Speed and efficiency tend not to be priorities.  And don’t expect that lines will work the same way that they do back home.  There isn’t necessarily a first come, first served policy either.  Things are more fluid, and social standing, family relationships, and keeping and maintaining honor have a tremendous effect on customer service interactions here in Jordan.  As does the classic Arab practice of hospitality.  Which has nothing to do with actually selling you the thing you came to buy, but a lot to do with making you feel welcome and walking around town with you if they don’t carry the item in question.   But I digress.

So after 20-25 minutes of watching my optometrist put the pharmacist in checkmate we got around to my new glasses.  The lenses were great and, well . . . I’ll get used to the frames =).  When it came to making the new lenses for my old frames my new optometrist friend invited me into the back to see how he did it.  I won’t go into detail here, but it was a fascinating process.   It really did take only 10 minutes.  He laughed at the British system, where apparently they still make you wait a week or two for your new glasses to give the appearance that it’s a very complicated process.  We had a rambling conversation in English and Arabic that started with lens-cutting, but detoured into language learning, sport fishing, country music, and an invitation to stay for coffee.

After the optometrist made me some arabic coffee (he had a hotplate in the lab), and knocked on the wall signaling the pharmacist that his was ready too, we spent another 1/2 hour or so easily chatting about family, life, work, American movies and those supposedly taboo subjects of politics and religion.  The pharmacist had shut down his shop and come over.  Apparently they carpool. I began the customary process of leave taking  and realized I had forgotten to pay my new friend the remainder of what I owed for the glasses.  I don’t think he would have ever asked about it.  We wished peace upon each other and asked for Allah’s presence to be with each other and hoped that Allah would allow us to see each other again sometime.  I smiled and stepped into the night air as he closed down his shop an hour later than usual.

Like many things here in Amman, buying a new pair of eyeglasses is not just about the frames and lenses.

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10 Responses

  1. […] Eye Exams, Customer Service, and Paris Hilton  […]

  2. Very interesting post… so true of Arab culture. I’m in optometry school in America now and happened to come across this while doing some light research on Arab eye health. This has been more interesting than what I’ve found so far. Thanks for the insightful post. I loved the lenscrafters/walgreens analogy…especially because I’m not a fan of corporate optometry. I’ve noticed while visiting Arab countries that it seems as though time is irrelevent. It can be frustrating at times but I like how you took it in stride and it didn’t seem to phase you. I’ll try that next time 😉

  3. Fascinating comments on your immersion process into Jordanian culture. Your experience is rather insightful, but, your deliberate avoidance of political commentary by local Jordanians about American Foreign Policy is rather obvious.

    Political debate and commentary in the Middle East consumes quite a bit of daily conversation. Jordanians are always eager to discuss political issues affecting their daily lives, especially with visiting Americans.

    I know you try to avoid any political issues, but would love to hear your personal comments and reactions.

    Thank you.

    • George – thanks for reading and commenting on the blog – I really appreciate it!

      I wouldn’t say that I avoid political issues. I have written a fair amount about the situation in Gaza/Palestine and I think my personal political opinions on that matter have been made clear over time. As far as general political commentary – I’m not so sure my primary readers are interested in too much on politics so I pick and choose what I write about. I usually reserve my political entries to something re. gaza/palestine as that is something I know about and am passionate about.

      From my point-of-view I haven’t deliberately avoided “political commentary by local Jordanians about American Foreign Policy” that I know of. Perhaps it’s unconscious. You are correct that there is much political discussion in daily life in Jordan, however, the discussions I have had have not been particularly earth-shattering. I attribute this mostly to my middling ability in the Arabic language and the desire of my Jordanian acquaintances to not offend me. Also, I tend to be fairly conciliatory towards Palestinian and Middle Eastern issues having lived in Gaza – it’s hard to have a lively debate with someone who mostly doesn’t oppose your views. Perhaps some of the thoughts expressed in daily life on American Foreign Policy elude me because I don’t understand what is being said. Or perhaps they don’t stand out to e because they don’t seem terribly shocking or that incredibly different from my own views.

      That said, I will keep my conversational radar up and see if a more political entry percolates to the top.

  4. Fun stuff! Keep writing – you have the knack!

  5. Honestly, these are the things I love, seeing you integrate with the culture, seeing them being patient with you, and all the in-between. So amazing how little we (over here, at least) know about the world around us. I’m preparing to go with the High School kids into Germany for a short trip (10 days) and I’m totally shocked by the small, but important differences in culture there, even such a western nation… Anyway, great stuff! Thanks for continuing to enlighten us back here! May God bless you and your family!

  6. “how many Americans would calmly wait while the guy from Lenscrafters finished off his game of chess with the guy from Walgreens”

    love it

  7. Mom- haha – I’ll have to post a pic soon!

    Dave – nope – haven’t been back to Gaza for years. The situation there is much worse than bad with little practical earthly hope in sight.

  8. Super duper, much better than Facebook quality.
    I wonder: how is your work going? Do you ever go back to Gaza, where, I understand, things are bad and getting worse?

  9. Tried to rate that excellent…not sure that happened, but way to go!
    Can we see you in your almost paris Hilton glasses? haha

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