The Art of Taarof

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In a McWorld, it is often heart-warming to see cultural traditions survive. However, some of these traditions are not only quaint; quite the contrary, they can be quite annoying, especially for the uninitiated.

As a person living in a city becoming more and more multicultural by the second, I felt it was my duty to learn everything I could about various cultural customs and traditions. However, I quickly learned that, even if I were to spend every waking hour doing so, there was no way I could learn of every single cultural custom and tradition there is.

At first thoroughly discouraged (I distinctly remember a rant, hilarious in hindsight, about a very logical link between all these customs and the Apocalypse…), I remember having an Ah-Ha moment when I realised that knowing of every single tradition wasn’t as important as knowing that they exist and learning how to decipher them as they are happening.

I also learned that there are some cultural customs that are more amusing than others; here is one of them.

The Art of Persian Taarof

“Taarof is an aspect of routine cultural behaviour among Iranians, used in their daily interactions with old and new acquaintances alike”, Nazila Fathi explains. “It is a hollow system of flattery and false modesty to make others feel good; often, a practice of polite dissembling, where people express nice sentiments that they do not truly mean or feel.”

As Behrouz Bahmani explains, taarof is an: “Initial frontal attack, a probing parry from either, a counter attack, a defensive block, and then the mutually respectful disengagement. The 5 basic moves of Taarof when faced with the standard what-to-do-when-you-see-a-friend-in-the-restaurant scenario.”

“That’s right,” he further explains, “Taarof for us is a kind of martial arts battle, but with a major difference. It is all about outdoing kindness towards each other. It often ends up with the craftiest winning. But with one very strange difference, the winner loses and the loser wins. (…) Another thing to understand about the art of Taarof, is that the craftier and subtler you are, the less likely your opponent is to suspect what you are really up to and discovering your move, manoeuvre to counter. The goal of Taarof is not just to beat someone at this wonderfully Iranian game, but to beat them soundly, mercifully but preferably leave them mouths agape if possible. Often you will not see the agape mouths of your opponents, because having vanquished them, you will have successfully absconded, victory in hand, leaving to fight another day. But you know they are sitting there mouths agape. When done expertly, it is a beautiful thing.”

While many Westerners are often puzzled by taarof (and I know for a fact that most are), Nazila Fathi explains that “Iranians are not offended by taarof. In fact, a person who fails to engage in the system of taarof stands out as a person unfamiliar with Iranian culture and traditions. Taarof governs different aspects of social life. It may come into play when a host offers food to the guest. The system of taarof may demand that the guest declines politely, another form of taarof, waiting for the host to say taarof nakonid, which might be rendered as an emollient “don’t do taarof.” The exchange of taarof over this simple matter can go on for a long time. Taarof can be very tricky. (…)

A famous expression highlights Iranians’ keen awareness of the layers of meaning the word can convey, including a duplicity in their own behaviour: ze taarof kam kon va bar mablagh afza (“reduce from taarof and add to the quality”). When people go out of their way to perform taarof, the phrase suggests, they not only drive others crazy, but evoke suspicion that their flattery is merely based on hypocrisy. (…)

Taarof, in short, is an inescapable part of the patterns of courtesy, deference and consideration for others that are integral to Iranians’ social life. The following joke reveals not taarof exactly, but something of the shared culture out of which it flows.

Some years ago, a woman in a remote village went to see the doctor. She had been expecting a baby, but the baby was a month overdue and there was no sign of its arrival.

The doctor pondered, and advised her to wait.

A month later, she went back to see him. She was really worried by this time.

The doctor sighed, and said: this is a puzzling case – I think you’d better go to Tehran to see a specialist.

After a long bus journey, with lots of bumps but no signs of life from inside, she arrived in Tehran where a gynaecologist at a maternity hospital inspected her. We need to X-ray you, the doctor said.

The pregnant woman waited, even more worried. Finally, the doctors came in with the results. They projected them onto a screen. Inside the womb could be seen…twins. One was saying to the other: befairmaid (“After you…”), and the other was replying: “Nah, nah, befairmaid… ”).

You can find Nazila Fathi’s full description of taarof here, and the full story of Behrouz Bahmani’s taarof duel here.

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