Monday, 12 December 2011

Politeness, pretence and ta'arof in Iranian culture

Here's a nice extended quotation that gives some great examples of ta'arof in Iranian culture. It explains the pretence of being humble and the complicated bluff and counter bluff that can ensue. This is the kind of dilemma that leaves foreigners, and even Iranians, not knowing whether their taxi ride was really free, are they really being invited to dinner and if so, will they be able to get through an evening meal without causing offence to their host.
Good Persian culture is peppered with politeness and a pretense at least of being humble. Iranians have a complicated list of things that are considered good and polite in social situations, and not different from those of other cultures. Generally, you want your child to marry into a good family. You want the families to be educated and wealthy and you want your children to be upstanding and polite. You also want to be looked upon by family, friends, and neighbors alike as a gracious, hospitable and welcoming host. “Taarof” has deep roots in the Iranian tradition of treating your guests better than your own family and being great hosts. 
Taarof is a verbal dance between an offerer and an acceptor until one of them agrees. It is a cultural phenomenon that consists of refusing something that has been offered to you even though you want it, out of politeness. On the giving end, it is offering something that may cost a lot in order to be polite, but not really wanting to give it away for free.
Some examples may clarify taarof. You go over to your aunt’s place and she makes a great Ghormeh Sabzi dish for lunch, which is your favorite. You help yourself to a healthy serving and at the end of it find that you are still hungry. Your kind, loving aunt will offer you another serving and you politely refuse. In this case you are taarof’ing because you would really like to eat more but you are too polite to say yes. But, alas, the Iranians have a solution for this. Your aunt will offer the food a second time and you refuse and then on the third try you can accept without looking like a glutton. Iranians tend to be very sensitive of what others will think of them so this sort of behaviour is expected, although annoying and perhaps antiquated, it is an inherent part of the culture. 
Another example is when you go to buy a dress at the store and ask for the price. If it is a small boutique in Iran, the shopkeeper will inevitably, out of politeness, say it is worth nothing. What he is trying to say is that you are worth so much more than the dress and have put him to shame for asking. In reality, he would like to be paid for the dress and is just being polite. After a second or third inquiry, the shopkeeper will probably give you the correct price and offer to accept payment. 
The art of taarof in the end becomes a ritual or a game that both participants are aware of playing. Some find it annoying, stupid, and a waste of time, asking the guest not to Taarof (“Taarof Nakonid”) when he refuses something. This is a double-edged sword because maybe the offerer is taarofing himself. This is where taarof can be misleading and land you in very sticky social situations. You never know the true intention of either party and you may not be sure if they really want to offer/take something or not. For example, if you are full and your aunt thinks you are taarofing, you are left having to eat the second serving of her food. And if you don’t eat it, you may insult her and her cooking. 
... It is truly one of the greatest distinctly Persian social behaviours that we can think of and is worth experiencing first hand.
From: Persian Mirror

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