Navigating the complex social etiquette of Iranian ta’arof

Ta’arof is an Iranian social custom whereby playfully refusing an offer the first time round is a polite way to behave. For Westerners, it can be confusing - but here the author explains how to navigate this social convention. 


There are many ways of getting to know a stranger. You could bond by taking an interest in a person’s job, compliment their shoes, discuss a mutual hatred of bad weather (so British), or - engage in a playful and utterly frustrating game of ta’arof.


Put simply, ta’arof is the Iranian form of social etiquette. Although it can be frustrating, it is not designed to frustrate, but rather to show respect. It is knowing all your pleases and thank yous, sirs and madams amongst other formalities of language, but with an added myriad of very specific social rituals. It is playfully denying an offer of tea, even if you really want tea. It is saying no when you mean yes, and knowing that the person will thrust a cup of tea upon on you anyway.


Dr Abdorreza Rafiee, linguist and author of ‘Colloquial Persian’ explains ta’arof as ‘polite verbal wrestling’ in order to describe the elaborate back and forth that it entails.But is also not uncommon to see respectful-looking middle-aged Iranian men also physically wrestling with one another because of ta’arof — arms flailing like penguins elbowing one another out of the way, trying to be the first one to cover the cost of the social outing. It would seem ludicrous to see this comedic episode play out in any other Western situation, but amongst Iranians it is an everyday occurrence. Although each culture has its own traditional forms of social etiquette, clearly nowhere is it more extensive and exhaustive as it is in Iranian culture.


Tehran Bazaar


To non-Iranians unaware of how ta’arof works, it can seem complex, contradictory and downright confusing. Particularly for Westerners, where clear and direct forms of communication are praised, ta’arof can seem insincere. Its peculiarity is similar to an extended form of flirtation - you know where you’re trying to get to but both parties can’t help but be coy about it along the way.


Ta’arof is so embedded in the Iranian culture and language that everything from offering someone a glass of water to paying for a taxi is riddled with it.


Sofia Koutlaki, Greek-born professor, linguist and author of ‘Among the Iranians: A Guide to Iran’s Cultural Customs’ has found ways to navigate its subtle layers. Residing in Tehran, Iran’s capital city, her insight as both an outsider and an insider has given her a thorough understanding of the multiplicitous forms of ta’arof. She explains that ta’arof, originally an arabic word, loosely translates to ‘mutual recognition’ - like a form of getting to know each other. But of course (in true Iranian fashion), it’s meaning in Iranian culture has been altered and the getting to know each other part has been taken to the extreme in an absurd yet poetic reflection of the term itself. Ta’arof is so extensive it has become a living, breathing entity and although it manifests in many ways, it can easily be understood as an offer of something. But to understand ta’arof, we must first understand why Iranians do it:


“It really stems from the unwillingness to put the other person at an inconvenience. The person who offers it has to insist because he or she ideally has your own needs in mind rather than his or her own convenience. It is lowering yourself to elevate your guest.”


Koutlaki points out that ta’arof is really just a reflection (and thereby extension of) Iranian hospitality. In Iranian culture, being hospitable is everything, and they have a longstanding belief that everyone you come into contact with should be treated like a guest, and you should always be willing to accommodate your guest in whatever way you can. A little like not saving the best china for dinner parties, but getting it out every time you offer someone a glass of water - and then insisting that they take the whole set home because they complimented the pattern (even if it’s the only heirloom left from your grandmother).


If someone offers you a lift home, the first response should be a refusal.


Ta’arof encompasses many aspects of social communication and it is so embedded in the Iranian culture and language that everything from offering someone a glass of water to paying for a taxi is riddled with it. It can be somewhat compared with British sarcasm - its use is generous, but you’ll only catch it if you understand it. Where the British mock, Iranians ta’arof. Sarcasm, like ta’arof, can be used as a form of self-deprecation to make the other person feel more comfortable. There are of course instances where both can be used to artfully deceive another person, but the general purpose of ta’arof is clear - kill them with kindness. Pretty much every interaction with a stranger or acquaintance does not happen without some degree of ta’arof. But does its difference and frequency of practice compared to other cultures stem from actually, well, having a name for it?


“I don’t think any day passes in which a person has not actually made a use of ta’arof strategy. It’s everywhere and it’s extensive use may lie in it being recognised as an individual social concept in the Iranian language.”


Road in Tehran


But how does it work? And how do you navigate the many manifestations of ta’arof? Koutlaki’s number one advice for people engaging with Iranians who are unfamiliar with ta’arof is to always first defer the offer. For example, if someone offers you a lift home, the first response should be a refusal. Even if you want to be driven home instead of taking public transport, trust that they will insist. The standard sequence may go bounce back and forth several times but a good reply will be to say ‘I don’t want to give you trouble’ which (clearly), means yes. However there are some instances where ta’arof can be misinterpreted.


“Once, when my husband and I were students in London [he is Iranian], one of his English classmates drove him home to our house. My husband offered him to come in for a coffee, and his classmate said yes. It was late, I’d just got back from work and overall a really inconvenient time, and when I asked my husband why he did that he said ‘well, you know, I never thought he’d say yes!’”


Sometimes, even outside of Iran the convention of ta’arof is so deeply ingrained in Iranians that it is difficult to remember that not everyone engages in this ‘polite verbal wrestling’. It is especially key to understood instances of ta’arof when paying for something such as in a store - an Iranian shopkeeper may tell you to have it, but you should know better than that and insist on the price. But it’s not all bad news. Koutlaki reassures the reader that although ta’arof is well known between Iranians, most of them do tend to be a bit more clear with non-Iranians unfamiliar with the concept, but of course, like any cultural convention, it is useful to have a basic understanding of it.


When ta’arof is understood, it can be a playful and charming way to connect with an Iranian. There will be many occasions where ta’arof may elude you and the genuine, overt concern for your needs, flattery and politeness can be tiresome - but just because Iranians don’t always say what they mean, doesn’t mean that they don’t nearly always mean well. And, once you’ve mastered the rules of this social exchange, in the end it really isn’t so terrible after all.

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