|Definition: Expressing courtesy and hospitality by exaggerated considerateness, politeness and modesty|
|Keywords: Iran – Middle East – MENA region – Etiquette – Hospitality – Conformity – Lock-in effect – Norms – Status – Ethnicity|
|Author: Amir Sayadabdi and Saman Hassibi|
|Affiliation: University of Canterbury, New Zealand|
By Amir Sayadabdi and Saman Hassibi, University of Canterbury, New Zealand
|In Iran, the Persian term ta’arof refers to the expression of exaggerated civility, modesty and consideration. Ta’arof, in general terms, encourages Iranians to provide courtesy and hospitality to others, and to avoid directness and objectiveness when expressing opinions, making requests, or asking for favours. Such courtesy can take many forms including making ostensible invitations and polite offers, insisting on making or rejecting offers, hesitating in making requests or complaints, and complimenting frequently. Failure to observe the conventions of ta’arof can render one ill-mannered or arrogant. The practice can help negotiate and lubricate relationships, communicate status and personal position, as well as provide opportunities to project a favourable social persona (Sharifian 2011). It is one of the most common social patterns in Iran, yet it is extraordinarily complex for the outsiders to master.|
There is no agreed-upon scholarly definition of ta’arof. Originally, in Arabic it means ‘to become acquainted with one another,’ although its transformed meaning in Persian is untranslatable into English. Several authors have described it as ‘ritual courtesy’ (Beeman 1986: 104), ‘communicative routine’ (Koutlaki 2002: 1741), ‘ritual politeness’ (Koutlaki 2002: 1740) ‘polite verbal wrestling’ (Rafiee 2014: 154), and ‘formalized politeness’ (O’Shea 1999: 122). Its range of academic translations corresponds to the variety of meanings ta’arof has for the native Persian speakers (Koutlaki 2002). Ta’arof has both verbal and non-verbal manifestations. Verbal ta’arof entails a polite, deferential and humble discourse. Non-verbal ta’arof includes social gestures of courtesy and hospitality, such as jostling to be the last one through the door, seeking a humble seating location for oneself while seating others in a place of honour, and standing up on the arrival or departure of the others (O’Shea 1999). Usually, any ta’arof exchange will be a sophisticated combination of both of these forms. The following is a common scenario in which the host and the guest engage in an elaborate exchange of ta’arof.
Host: Please have some more, sir (qorbān, lit. ʻmasterʼ)! Allow me to serve you myself!
Guest: Thank you (dastetun dard nakone, lit. ʻmay your hand not acheʼ). I’ve had too much.
Host: You’ve had nothing! It was insipid and not to your satisfaction, surely.
Guest: To the contrary, it was excellent! If anything, it was so good that I couldn’t help but be a glutton.
Host: Stop doing ta’arof. Have some more. I know it’s not as good as the food at your own home, and I’m ashamed for it.
Guest: You have the authority [to say anything you like], but what you said [about the food not being good] can’t be further from the truth. I’m not doing ta’arof, I swear to God. But now that you’re being too kind, I’ll humbly accept. I’ll have a little more, just for your sake (be khāter-e gol-e ru-ye šomā, lit. ʻjust for your flower-like faceʼ).
Host: You’re too kind (bande-navāzi mifarmā’id, lit. ʻyou’re too kind to your servantʼ).
In a case of ta’arof, interacting parties use elaborate verbal skills to indicate a lower, dependent, or even subservient status for themselves while elevating the status of the addressee. Engaging in continuous, back-and-forth exchanges of making or rejecting offers, giving or returning compliments, and trying to outdo one another in generosity can sometimes verge on the aggressive (Beeman 2017). Iranian humourists sometimes liken ta’arof to a ‘war’ or a ‘battle’ in which only the victor enjoys pride. For example, in his comic piece Iranian Hospitality Attack, Taghavi (1998) refers to situations involving ta’arof by writing:
If someone takes you to lunch, and the time comes for paying the bill, be ready. You’ll have to grab the bill at whatever cost. Don’t worry about grabbing, scratching, pinching or punching your host/opponent. In fact, you may see people at other tables in what appears to be fighting situations. Don’t be alarmed. Those are simple struggles to pay the bill. It is really a fight to the death. But unlike the Western countries, in Iran whoever pays is considered the winner.
However, in most cases, engaging in the practice leads to a win-win, with both parties being the ‘winner’; one party for having made an appropriate show of hospitality, and the other for being able to outdo the generosity by ‘fighting’ the offer in a sincere manner. Beyond the level of everyday communicative interactions, ta’arof may affect political discourse, especially where the foreign lack of familiarity with the Iranian concept could lead to miscommunications or propagandist misinterpretations in an international setting. Western media has often linked the role of ta’arof in Iranian culture with Iran’s nuclear deal framework – a deal, according to which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear activities and allow international inspection on its nuclear facilities in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. In an article for The Atlantic, De Bellaigue (2014) views ta’arof as a ‘malicious’ practice and considers it ‘a social or political weapon’ that is deployed by Iranians to deceive, confuse, and take advantage of others. Contrasting it with American ‘efficiency and frankness’, he believes that Iran’s approach in the on-and-off nuclear negotiations over several years have been indirect, circumlocutory, obfuscating and tended ‘to clothe everything in ambiguity and to spend an inordinate amount of time doing so.’ De Ballaigue links this to the ‘mischievous’ acts of ta’arof. Similarly, Slackman (2006) maintains that honesty is not a prized social principle among Iranians due to ta’arof and the resulting ‘practices of insincerity’ are equated to ‘manners’. In his view, ta’arof has made Iranians skilful at ‘hiding their true face’ and ‘clothing their true feelings.’ These ‘cultural foundation(s)’, he notes, have helped Iran to get an upper hand in the nuclear negotiations and to win by stalling, thus putting the US at a disadvantage.
The use of deferential language and humble behaviour embodied in ta’arof can be found in similar practices of other cultures such as limao of China, or kenjōgo of Japan, or görgü of Turkey (see also janteloven). In a high-context culture such as Iran, practices like ta’arof work as social lubricant; they make social life pleasant and suppress discord under a veil of politesse (Beeman 2017). What is unique about Iranian ta’arof is its extensive use in strategic dealings that rely on the noblesse oblige principles (Beeman 1986: 60). Such principles ensure that one interlocutor can dissuade others from refusing his requests on the basis of seniority or status. Ta’arof is also unique in its linguistic expression. Iranians put an extremely high value on the creative use of language in everyday interactions (as reflected in the fact that the majority of Iranian thinkers, cultural figures, and national heroes, such as Rumi, Omar Khayyam, and Ferdowsi have been poets). The innovative stylistic uses in everyday language give Iranian ways of interaction a distinct elegance and flavour.
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Slackman, M. 2006. ‘The fine art of hiding what you mean to say’, The New York Times, 18 Jun, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/06/weekinreview/06slackman.html
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