During your stay in Iran, you are certain to encounter “taarof” in one way or another. In its simplest form, taarof means politeness. Compared to most other societies, Iran is very polite. Iranians address each other with much respect, consideration and thoughtfulness. It is for example customary to stand up when a person enters the room, to offer your seat to women and those older than yourself, and to let others through a door before you. An Iranian would never eat in front of others without inviting them to his/her food, sit with his/her back against someone without apologizing dearly, or end a telephone conversation without a tirade of well-wishing phrases. Instead, Iranians belittle their own accomplishments, refuse invitations several times before accepting, and, when receiving compliments for a new shirt or dress, insist you take it as a gift.
Another aspect of taarof is the well-known Iranian hospitality and generosity. As a tourist, you can see this in restaurant settings when the men in bigger gatherings argue about who is going to pay the bill. Such friendly arguments could drag on for some time until someone finally gives in and lets the other person pay. When invited to someone’s home, you will also experience an endless hospitality as your hosts are likely to offer you the best from their household. Another example of taarof occurs when shopping and it is time to pay and you ask for the price. The initial and automatic response from the shopkeeper is always “It is nothing; you do not owe me anything”; any other way of responding would be considered rude and abrupt.
As a foreigner unfamiliar with Iranian culture and customs, you will most probably feel clumsy and unsophisticated. You may also be flattered and believe that the invites expressed under the taarof scheme are sincere. Expressions of taarof are however almost per definition without authenticity, meaning that the person uttering them seldom means what he/she says. During your stay in Iran, people may thus offer you things without the intention of ever giving, and they may make promises to you that risk being hollow. Figuring out what is taarof and what is a genuine invitation is sometimes challenging even for Iranians. One thing is for certain though, when the taxi driver says that the ride is free of charge for you, “Ghabel nadare!”, you should categorize this as taarof and insist on paying until he/she accepts; anything else will be awkward.
Compared to other languages, it is fairly easy to be polite when speaking in Farsi since it is a language packed with ready-to-use phrases and idioms that express politeness and good manners. There are numerous phrases for showing appreciation and admiration (unfortunately, when translated into English, the poetry is lost): for example, “May I be sacrificed for you”; “May your breath be warm”; “I will sacrifice myself for your hand”; and, “I will circle around you”. There are expressions for when you appreciate someone’s hard work, when you receive flowers from someone, when you get a compliment, and when someone who has been traveling returns home. There are even ways of apologizing if your back is toward someone, “I am sorry my back is to you”, and also a ready response to the one apologizing: “A flower has no front or back”.
The system of taarof is much more complex than a few polite routine phrases; it is also closely connected to prestige and status and a way of marking out one’s class and position. Scholars argue that taarof historically was a central element in the discourse of the privileged that worked to normatively reinforce the existent power system, giving the elite an instrument to further their interests. Taarof is deeply rooted in Iranian rhetoric and mastering the art of persuasion in Iran not only implies great linguistic knowledge, but also showing extreme humility vis-à-vis one’s opponent, deceitfully wrapping him/her around one’s finger with praise and flatter, and making tempting but oftentimes empty promises. In a similar vein, giving the most exclusive present and picking up the restaurant bill are tacit strategies for safeguarding ones ranking in the social strata.
That said, the culture of taarof makes being around Iranians a rather pleasant involvement. As a people, Iranians are very nice to each other and public life is friendly and familiar; people never hesitate to help one another even if they are strangers, smiles are abundant and so are jokes and laughter, people talk to the person sitting next to them on public transportation, and harsh or impatient tones are rare (except when in traffic bear in mind).