Taarof is a ritual politeness that levels the playing field and promotes equality in a hierarchical culture. Taarof between friends, or a host and guest, emphasizes the value of friendship as a priority to everything else in the world. Another understanding is that taarof is a way of managing social relations with decorous manners. It could be used as a basis for mutual goodwill (positively) or as "a social or political weapon that confuses the recipient and puts him at a disadvantage" (negatively). Those who are intimately familiar with Iranian culture seem to agree that taarof is one of the most fundamental things to understand about Iranian culture.
According to Middle East scholar William O. Beeman, "Taarof is an extraordinarily difficult concept encompassing a broad complex of behaviors which mark and underscore differences in social status." For example, in Iranian culture, whoever walks through a doorway first gets a form of status, but the person who makes the other go through the door first also gains status by having made the other person do it through their show of grace and deference. When it comes to matters of rank, "one defers to superiors (tribute), and confers on inferiors (favor), presses honor on equals (neither tribute nor favor) or accepts the honor from a proper source, and thereby "wins". Status is relative for individuals in different interactions, according to Beeman, and rights and obligations shift constantly with changes in social environments.
In the rules of hospitality, taarof requires a host to offer anything a guest might want, and a guest is equally obliged to refuse it. This ritual may repeat itself several times (usually three times) before the host and guest finally determine whether the host's offer and the guest's refusal are genuine, or simply a show of politeness. If one is invited to any house for food, then one will be expected to eat seconds and thirds. However, taarof demands that one can't go ahead and help themselves to more food after finishing their first helping. Good manners dictate that one must first pretend to be full, and tell the host how excellent the food was, and that it would be impossible to eat any more. The host is then expected to say one should not do taarof ("taa'rof nakon" - similar to "don't be polite!"), for which the appropriate response would be to say "no" two or three times, then pretend to cave in to the host's insistence and pile on the food. Done any other way, one can come across as either starving, or simply a bit uncouth.
Another example of taarof is inviting strangers or distant relatives for dinner with the expectation that they will recognize the offer as "merely taarof" and decline. Yet another example is when one crosses someone else on the street and, after a short chat, is invited for tea or something to eat. Iranians never just taarof once, but continue on.
Another form of Taarof is when one gets invited to an Iranian home for food. It is highly appreciated if the invited person helps the host in setting the table or with cleaning after. However, taarof can also force one into 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 be forced to oblige if the friend agrees to take the ride. However, if one was going by the rules of taarof, one would refuse the offer many times before actually accepting (and there would be a chance for the offer to be taken back).
Taarof often works in the opposite way. For example, an object, person, or offer may be refused when it is actually wanted. For instance, young Iranian ladies may never express their interest to someone, but they will still expect the person of interest to remain consistent in expressing their love. This also applies to objects (especially food), which are offered to individuals as a favor or donation. Taarof dictates that individuals refuse the favor or donation, no matter how badly they are needed. The refusing individual expects the object (or the favor) to still be given. However, the closer two people get in a relationship, the less taarof appears in their behavior towards one another.
The prevalence of Taarof often gives rise to distinctly Iranian styles of negotiation. 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, where both parties are expected to understand the implied topic of discussion. Likewise, a shopkeeper may initially refuse to quote a price for an item, suggesting that it is worthless ("ghaabel nadaareh"). Taarof obliges the customer to insist on paying (typically three times), before a shopkeeper finally quotes a price and real negotiation can begin. This can often put tourists who are unfamiliar with taarof in difficult situations — for example, if a cab driver refuses to take payment, and the tourists accepts this "gift" at face value. When a taxi driver says there is nothing to pay they do not mean it, and is actually saying that they have enjoyed talking with the rider and wishes to express his thanks." By stating there is no charge, the taxi driver is playing the role of a good host. This behavior comes from Iran's nomadic heritage, where guests were always welcomed and looked after.
The rules of taarof work differently depending on a person's social status. According to Beeman, there are few societies that take the obligations of status as seriously as Iranian society. A superior person is expected to treat an inferior person in patterns of mutual exchange as follows: doing something for another, providing material goods for another, and/or encouraging someone else to do (or provide) something. On the other hand, an inferior person is expected to provide services, provide tribute (to the superior), or petition others to do (or provide) something. Finally, if the interaction is between people of equal status, then exchanges are done without regard to status and are absolute. The ideal case of equal status is between two individuals involved in an intimate relationship, where others needs are anticipated and provided for without thought of service, tribute, favor, or reward.
The positive aspect of taarof encourages proper behavior toward others, particularly guests, polite language, propriety, gift giving, compliments, and showing regard to those who are truly deserving. According to Beeman, at its best, taarof is a form of selflessness and humility. However, taarof can be negative if it is used insincerely to control others, or if a superior person is shielded or protected from criticism due to deference.
Some political theorists[who?] have argued that during the period of serfdom, taarof regulated diplomatic discourse at princely courts. It involved a sharp curbing of one's comportment, speech, and action to make people, honor, 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 taarof a hindrance in the pursuit for rapid capital accumulation.
In the West
An example of similar behavior, sometimes found in Western culture, is the question of who pays a restaurant bill. This can be an awkward situation where those at the table reach for their wallets and is often resolved by social status; the bill is paid by the diner with the highest income, the most legitimate reason, or the most power. Despite this, all diners make a show of insisting on paying. In Southern Italy, a custom similar to taarof exists (fare I complimenti) and is part of table manners. Another example will be if a Western individual is not familiar with taarof in Iranian culture. When an Iranian individual is offering taarof, it is to first view it as a sincere offer with the hope of decline up to four or five times. After that, if the individual offers more than five times, we can conclude that the individual is not taarof-ing, and the opposite side should respectfully thank that individual and accept the offer with gratitude.
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- "In the Persian world of 'ta'arof,' they make offers that will be refused". LA Times. 2015-07-06. Retrieved 2015-11-30.
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- Ta'rof - Understanding Iranian Culture
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- 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
- Beeman, William O. (1986). Language, Status and Power in Iran. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-33139-7.
- The New York Times, Iranian 101: A Lesson for Americans; The Fine Art of Hiding What You Mean to Say, by Michael Slackman
- The Atlantic, Talk Like an Iranian, by Christopher de Bellaigue, 25 August 2012
- This American Life: Oh, You Shouldn't Have - Act Three, 31 March 2011