Inevitably, when doing business with Iranian companies and individuals you will come across Taarof. But what exactly is that? Here per definition:
Taarof is a Persian form of civility emphasizing both deference and social rank.
Yes that makes sense, but what it is it really? Our team member Hoda Hosseinifar explained what Taarof is from her perspective:
Imagine a situation where you and your friends are sitting around a dinner table. The food served is very delicious, however, at some stage you are not able to eat more as you are full. Once you stop eating the host asks: Do you like the food? You answer: Yes, it is delicious. And now you can expect a whole sequence of attempts geared towards you eating more:
Why don’t you have some more? Pass the dishes… You might decline the first couple of attempts, but ultimately will have to give in. No surprise! This is Taarof.
Taarof is a common and excessive polite offer in Persian culture, which can occur during a variety of social encounters: Tea serving in a group, a friendly meeting in the street, entering or exiting a door together with your friend and the discussion about who should go in/out first (sign of respect), and so on.
In other words, Taarof is a system of politeness that includes both verbal and non-verbal communication. Iranians will belittle their own accomplishments in an attempt to appear humble, although other Iranians clearly understand that this is merely a courtesy and do not take the words at face value. It is a sociolinguistic phenomenon which roots in Persian traditions and can be quite confusing for foreigners.
Here some pros and cons to Taarof that I would like to highlight:
- It forms a kind and friendly relationship
- It ensures peace and serenity
- It is a manifestation of respect and hierarchy
- It is self-sacrificing for the sake of the respectable audience
- Ambiguity and misunderstanding are the offspring of Taarof, which in term might cause complexity when interacting with Iranians
- In a business context, there are an extensive amount of indirect words and phrases
- Taarof may also lead to a false interpretation of the intended message, as others are not necessarily able to understand one’s true feelings
Unsurprisingly it can seem ambiguous to foreigners with a Western background, as they do not know the specific rules. However, for Iranians in the know, Taarof makes things less (and not more) ambiguous. Iranians see it as an artful use of language, in order to negotiate the roles of a society that cherishes its language and appreciates the innovative utilization of it.
Concluding: If you are very frank and composed in your interactions with Iranians, and everything is to be clarified in detail, you might not be able to build a solid relationship base for friendships and business partnerships – please consider the essential etiquette of Taarof.
ILIA Corporation Consultant Hoda Hosseinifar