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T'aarof, Ta'arof, or Tarof (Persian: تعارف) is a Persian form of civility emphasizing both deference and social rank, similar to the Chinese art of etiquette, limao. The term encompasses a range of social behaviours, from a man displaying etiquette by opening the door for a woman, to a group of colleagues standing on ceremony in front of a door that can permit the entry of only one at time, earnestly imploring the most senior to break the deadlock.
The prevalence of t'aarof often gives rise to different styles of negotiation than one would see in a non-Iranian culture. For example, a worker negotiating a salary might begin with a eulogy of the employer, followed by a lengthy bargaining session consisting entirely of indirect, polite language – both parties are expected to understand the implied topic of discussion. It is quite common for an Iranian worker (even one employed in an Iranian neighborhood within Europe) to work unpaid for a week or two before the issue of wages is finally broached. Likewise, a shopkeeper may initially refuse to quote a price for an item, suggesting that it is worthless ("ghaabel nadaareh"). T'aarof obliges the customer to insist on paying, possibly several times (3 times), before a shopkeeper finally quotes a price and real negotiation can begin.
T'aarof also governs the rules of hospitality: a host is obliged to offer anything a guest might want, and a guest is equally obliged to refuse it. This ritual may repeat itself several times (3 times) before the host and guest finally determine whether the host's offer and the guest's refusal are real or simply polite. It is possible to ask someone not to t'aarof ("t'aarof nakonid"), but that raises new difficulties, since the request itself might be a devious type of t'aarof.
At times, t'aarof can lead to one performing a task that one does not want to perform. For instance, if one friend offers a ride to another friend only because they are being polite, they may become stuck in the situation if the friend agrees to get the ride. Of course if one was going by the rules of t'aarof, one would refuse the offer many times before accepting.
It is a way of denying your will to please your counterpart, although sometimes the will is only denied because of the custom and not just to please the counterpart. But there are situations where t'aarof persist upon a request to make the counterpart genuinely satisfied. T'aarof may cause misunderstandings between both parties and can be a source for awkward situations in a social setting.
Some political theorists have argued that during the period of serfdom, at princely courts, t'aarof regulated diplomatic discourse. It involved a sharp curbing of one's comportment, speech, and action to make people, honour, and prestige calculable as instruments for political advancement.
According to D. M. Rejali, for the feudal elite the ornamentation of speech symbolises prestige. With the advent of capitalism and its scientific paradigm, communication became more precise and the formality of t'aarof a hindrance in the pursuit for rapid capital accumulation.
In the West
The closest one can come to tarof in the Western culture is the question of "Who's paying the restaurant bill?" This is an awkward situation where everybody in the company is reaching for their wallets and it's usually resolved by social status, the one with the highest income, the most legitimate reason, or most power pays. But still, everyone insists on paying. In Southern Italy a custom similar to Tarof exists ("fare i complimenti"), and is part of table manners.
Common words used in tarof:
- Ghaabeli nadaare (It has no worth) = It's not a big deal.
- Ghadamet ru chesham (May your footsteps fall on my eyes) = You are more than welcome.
- Ghorbaanet beram (I will sacrifice myself for you) = Thank you very much.
- Cheshmet roshan (May your eyes be enlightened) = You're worth it.
- Khaahesh mikonam (I plead with you) = You are humbling me.
- Dastetoon dard nakoneh (Hope your hands don't hurt) = Thank you.
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A customer comes to the cashier to pay for groceries. The cashier says “it's okay, you honor me with your presence.” When the customer insists on paying, the charade of tarof continues with a customary word exchange which is culturally learned from a young age. The discussion concludes with a minor argument and the cashier is finally paid the full amount of the groceries and the customer leaves. The cashier wants the cash and the customer just wants to pay but this is a cultural and social game.
A person will offer guests every comfort available by discomforting him/herself. Sometimes this leads to offering things above one's means. As an example, the host will use the last funds to buy groceries to make an overly pleasant stay for the guest. This may have dire consequences for the host, but this is the generous side of tarof and its only purpose is to satisfy the guest. The host is satisfying the guests and feeling good about being a generous and humble person, independent of its consequences.
A host insists upon a request for the guest to sleep on the main bed while the host him/herself sleeps on the floor. Or a host piling food on a guest’s plate since the host is believing that the guest is tarofing, but the guest is actually full and satisfied. The guest feels awkward by putting the host in an uncomfortable situation. The guest might finish all the food to show respect to the host.
At times, not doing tarof can be considered very rude and almost offensive. For example, if one offers a present that you already have, telling the truth would be very rude. Likewise, if someone offers to take you for dinner, you must refuse at first, professing their great kindness. This will normally be two to three cycles of back and forth taarof, but one must be careful not to do it in excess, and to always end in a yes, so as to avoid offence. It is not expected of young children to tarof, but most Iranian children over the age of ten are aware of, and engage in, the custom.
- "Limao and Ta'arof Similarities" (PDF).
- D M Rejali, "Torture & Modernity: Self, Society, and the State in Modern Iran". An exception would be the Japanese Tea Ceremony, which seems to have adapted well to modern requirements (see MT issue no 1).
- D M Rejali, Torture & Modernity
- Umberto Eco, Political Language: The Use and Abuse of Rhetoric
- The New York Times, Iranian 101: A Lesson for Americans; The Fine Art of Hiding What You Mean to Say, Michael Slackman
- The Atlantic, Talk Like an Iranian, Christopher de Bellaigue, 25 August 2012
- This American Life: Oh, You Shouldn't Have - Act Three