Understanding Iranian culture of Taarof

Madi Jahangir – A costumer goes to the cashier to pay for the groceries. The cashier smiles and says: “Oh be my guest this time, your presence is enough honor for me.” The costumer instead insists to pay. The cashier refuses: “It is not a big deal really. Please be my guest!” while his hand is taking the money from the hand of the costumer and the costumer says: “Nice of you really, No way! Don’t say that. I will pay” While he is actually paying for the stuff. And the charade of verbal ‘Taarof’ continues, because the costumer who is actually taking the change back is at the same time refusing to take it!

The costumer has guests tonight; He has bought lots of groceries so to offer them everything above their means, even if it puts him in discomfort. The matter is that the guests would have a pleasant stay. Because they are some friends whom he has ‘Taarof’ with.

‘Taarof’ is an Arabic word indicating the process of getting acquainted with someone. In Iranian culture it is a form of civility for politeness and mutual respect. Opening the door for women is an example. Another example is when a group of people are going to enter a house and they usually invite one another to enter first:”You first please.” and they insist. Not sure from when ‘Taarof’ got so popular in Iran, but some experts say from the time of feudalism the etiquette came into practice. Even though they know it only for Iranians, i have seen similar etiquette by my Asian friends specially Japanese.

In Iran, Children learn the etiquette from the very early age via their parents and relatives. Even though the severity of the Taarof differs from families to families based on the social classes, anyone from the high profile to the low practices it to some extent. It is a type of unwritten way of treating others that everybody takes it on his own from the society. As a form of polite negotiation in the discussions, both sides usually understand this socially implied rules. It also derives from the fact that Iranians care so much to the image they present to others and the world. As my friends who visited Iran, often talk about Iranian hospitality, this ‘Taarof’ is the main rule of it.

It sometimes goes too severe, like half an hour to say the greetings and half an hour to say good bye while standing at the doorstep. It is sometimes fake and out of the social habit too. But when this Taarof is not so awkward, it is a pleasant and respectful way to ask or offer satisfying both sides of the conversation.  A way to sacrifice your will for the comfort of the person who is dear to you, a way to be nice to others so they leave you with a smile. Or just a polite way to say ‘No’ without making the displeasure.

So if an Iranian cashier insists that you need not to pay for the groceries you bought, you know he is just being nice, but you will pay with a smile and he will tell you in return: “Qurbunet Beram” and it does not mean he will actually sacrifice himself for you but he is simply thanking you Iranian style!

If an Iranian offers you a pen to fill your visa on arrival forms, and then says: “Qabel Nadare!” [It is not a big deal! or keep it]  you just return it back with a smile and say:”Saahebesh Lazem dare” [You may need it]

And if you are guest at the house of an Iranian family, and they tell you :”Qadamet be rooy-e Chashm” doesn’t really mean you are walking on their eyes. It means they are very happy that you are their guest and they are thanking you very much for your presence.

If they tell you: “Cheshmemoon ro roshan kardin” [you have lighten up our eyes] means you really worth it. They would do anything to make you happy and satisfied because in Iranian culture guest is a friend of God. You can simply relax and enjoy the hospitality because your Iranian host is so generous!

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