Taarof is a tradition specific to Perisan culture, literally meaning ‘to offer.’ All tourists should be aware of this cultural act of hospitality as they will certainly encounter it frequently in Iran. Taarof is a ritual in Iran where Iranian’s are overpolite, but don’t necessarily mean what they are saying. It indicates humility and respect, but can often be confusing to a foreigner.
I remember being confused at the beginning of my time in Iran when taxi drivers and shopkeepers determinedly refused to accept payment for the journey or things that I wanted to buy. I would keep trying to pay them, until after several attempts the vendor would ‘give up’ and accept payment. I would leave bewildered about what had just happened. Until it happened again. And again. And again.
It was then I realised that this was actually a typical occurrence in Iran; something locally known as taroof. And while confusing for a foreigner, this tradition permeates every social interaction in Iran – people don’t say what they mean. The shopkeepers fully intend to accept payment, though tradition dictates that they must go through the ritual of refusing payment several times. Seeming unnecessary, foreigners must understand taarof in order to navigate Iran proficiently.
Taarof extends to other social situations as well. People will generously offer their personal items, such as an item of clothing or a pen, if you show interest in them, even if they don’t want, or intend to give them to you. I found this once when I complemented a friend of mine on her necklace. She immediately took it off and gave it to me, insisting that I take it. Feeling very happy, I graciously accepted what I thought was a generous gift and carried on with my work. It was only afterwards that I realised that I had ‘taarofed’ the necklace from her.
It is a strange phenomenon for British people, a clash of cultures if you will. In the UK we are used to people being direct and relatively standoffish as a culture. The opposite is true in Iran, where you are instantly accepted as a family member and invited to dinners, weddings. While this hospitality is sincere, and Iranians are lovely and welcoming, it is important for foreigners to understand the concept of taroof, and not take advantage of this generous and humble culture.
Taarof represents the kind essence of Iran’s culture, and their respect for others. Guests are cherished in Iran, and locals will go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. The trick is to always pay your way in situations that you would typically expect to pay, such as a taxi ride, or buying gifts – even if it may take three or four exchanges before they accept your payment. Though, you can graciously eat to your hearts content when offered extra portions at dinner!
We wish you a great time in Iran!