As a Middle Eastern dancer I have had to navigate many cultural minefields of communication besides music in dealing with people from the Middle East. Having social grace in a culture other than one’s own means you have to do some investigative research; it is not always going to be explained to you unless you ask. I have been involved with Persian culture since I was about 11 years old, and so learned about ta’arof early on from family, but as an academic I found little written on it. When I try to explain ta’arof to Westerners I always go back to the cartoon of the Chipmunks from the 1960’s where one is always deferring to the other, “no, you go first, no you, I insist…”, etc., and it goes on and on until someone complies. I spoke with Dr. Anthony Shay about this, and he suggested a book by William O. Beeman, Language, Status and Power in Iran (Advances in Semiotics), that was published by my alma mater, Indiana University. This book gave me the bulk of the detailed information written here, and I supplemented with a book by Shay, and some personal interviews.
The Persian Social Graces of Ta’arof
Etiquette is a part of life and culture that provides tools with which to help social interactions become somewhat predictable patterns, and to help social discourse operate more efficiently. Children are socialized by their parents as to what the normative social behavioral expectations are in their culture; these patterns provide a safety net of boundaries within which people live their lives. Underneath this etiquette, however, one can uncover the virtues that a given culture prescribes as honorable. In this article I will be taking a look at the Persian Iranian culture’s complex system of politesse called “ta’arof”, and what it tells us about their notions of expected social behavior, as well as honor and shame.
Etymology of ta’arof:
First I would like to take a look at the literal translation of the word “ta’arof”. The common way of using the verb “ta’arof kardan”, which is seldom used on its own, is: “to use compliments; to stand up to ceremony; to speak with courtesy; to offer politely; to show courtesy” (Beeman). This translates into “flattery”, or “niceties”, and possessing this ability to “ta’arof” gives one social grace. Persians are exceedingly polite when interacting with each other, but it is often taken to the extreme, and seldom do they really mean what they say. Although sincerity in ta’arofing also takes place, it is not the norm, as social hierarchy is the major dynamic with which this etiquette revolves around. The word ta’arof comes from the root word “arf” which means, “to know”, as in a custom, something that’s known, as in unwritten rules of communication (Mehdizadeh, 3/13/01). “Arf” also is the root word for “orf”, or “local law”, the interpretation of “Shar’ia”, or the divine law of the Quran by common people, not the authorities. “Orf” is seen in the common usage of “ta’arof”, as well, as local lore and legends influence people’s speech in common slang phrases, and indirectly influence the etiquette of communication (ibid).
Action definition of ta’arof:
How this literal definition translates into action is an interesting phenomenon, and as ta’arof mainly revolves around language it is one of the most difficult aspects of speech to master. Some of the extralinguistic aspects of ta’arof encompass body movements, facial gestures, and vocal tones, among other elements (Shay, 3/22/01). Ta’arof is a double- edged sword; it is expected, and if it is not done it is seen as rude. However, if two people know each other well, they can say “ta’arof nakan”, which means, “let’s not ta’arof” each other.
As ta’arof is literally “compliments” it really is more of a game, in that action is the outcome of the verbal communication; it is a kind of “verbal sparring”. The most common and obvious manifestation of this etiquette is in what I call the “yes/no game”. It rather reminds me of that old cartoon of the two chipmunks who are forever declining something so that the other may go first; “you first”, says the one, “no, no, you first”, says the other, then, “no, no, I insist!, you first”, until one of them relents (the whole time they know it is the one in the inferior position who will do this) and goes first. Often, the slang statement, “befarma’id” (the –id ending, second person plural, is proper for anyone), which means, “I insist” or “please”, is said along with the offer of something; it comes from the root verb “farmudan”, which means, “to command” (Beeman, p175). It can get rather extreme and out of hand, and a bit ridiculous, in my personal opinion, so it is no wonder that when two people know each other well they say with relief, “ta’arof nakan”. However, you don’t decline something you don’t want, as this is seen as rude. A humorous example of this yes/no game is seen in a newly-wed American bride’s story when she went to the ice cream shop with her Persian in-laws, as she did not know about ta’arof. She offered to buy the parents of her new Persian husband an ice cream; they, of course, declined, as they were being polite. She assumed their decline of “Oh no!” really did mean “no”; she went ahead and bought one for herself, and they sat there and watched her eat alone. Later, much to her embarrassment, she found out that “no” really meant, “no, I don’t want to be a bother (ask me again and I’ll say yes)” (http://arizonapersian.com/learnpersian/_disc3/0000036b.htm, 2/25/01).
An interesting manifestation of ta’arof that I have found is facial gestures, body movements, and vocal tones. As the inferior and superior social status, which we will discuss in detail later, between the two parties involved in ta’arof is the basis of what kind of etiquette will be used, usually an approving or disapproving look or nod of the head will accompany any speech used. Some of the extralinguistic aspects that are incorporated in ta’arof that I have noticed are: a slow side-to-side nod of the top of the head, usually accompanying some kind of pleasant surprise or amazement, and a verbal statement of, “oh, that is too much!”; a rapid and small shaking of the head usually back and forth three to four times with the eyebrows lifting, which means, “huh?”, or “what?”, usually when something is not heard correctly; the tip of the tongue touching the front roof of the mouth then quickly pulled away to produce a clicking/clucking sound, when done once this means, “NO” emphatically, and usually annoyingly, and when this sound is done in rapid succession it means, “that is too much” in a disapproving and condescending way. I include these as ta’arof because they are a part of the repertoire used in ta’arof interactions, and encompass unwritten rules of communicative behavior by Iranians.
Ta’arof as seen in hospitality:
A major area of life where ta’arof plays out is in hospitality, as receiving guests in one’s house can be from one’s inner circle of friends or family, or from outside strangers of lower or higher social status. Formal etiquette in the receiving of guests is a major function in Persian culture, as in other Middle Eastern cultures. I have had the pleasure of visiting several different Middle Eastern homes of diaspora communities in America such as Persian, Turkish, Azerbaijani Iranian, Arabic, Iranian-Jewish, and Iranian-Armenian to name a few, and I can say with confidence that the culture who takes hospitality to the most extreme is the Persian Armenian culture. A possible explanation for this phenomenon is that the Armenian culture in Iran is a minority and considered a lower social class, as they are Christians; hence they have to try much harder to be accepted by their Persian Muslim “superiors”. As I believe the importance and practice of hospitality is pre-Islamic, it is mentioned in the Quran and incorporated into Islamic practice; the section of the Quran it is in is: “li-ta’aarafuu”: 49:13=”alHujuraat” Suurah/Chapter 49, ‘aayah verse no. 13 (El Shamy, 3/2/01). I believe this translates into the meaning that a guest or neighbor visiting is a gift from God, and should be treated with the utmost respect and kindness. Even if it is a poor household that is visited the absolute best of food and drink of what is available is offered.
When paying a visit to a neighbor, or even going out in public, ta’arof starts at the door. When passing through a door the order of hierarchy of the guests is: ladies first; older people first; children last (or in modern day applications where the children’s safety is at stake, such as in a dangerous part of the city, children first); if none of the above are present, as in the company of all males, the person to the right enters first (Mehdizadeh). As most social circles keep to themselves socially, usually there is no hierarchy amongst guests, unless it is a business meeting. Then I would speculate that in addition to the above criteria the persons with the highest social status would go first.
When it is a spontaneous visit there are certain rules. For the visited there is “no bad time” to receive guests; this includes phone calls, too. The visited person/s must stay to receive guests; the idea is that you always have time to receive others into your household, even if this is not the case, you must act as if this is true (ibid).
When it is a planned visit there are additional rules. When the visitor arrives he must resist going into the home; this is an aspect of the “yes/no game” mentioned above; the visited person insists that the visitor comes in. Automatically, tea, coffee, or food is offered; the visitor resists only once, but when the refreshments are brought, the visitor must take it, and not decline it again. To decline a second time would be considered rude. If there is any fruit, nuts, or pastries already on the table the visitor should not touch anything until the visited offers it; once offered the visitor should not over-indulge. At this point the matter at hand is discussed, or simple conversation takes place. When it is time to clear the table the guests should not offer to help clean up; it is a matter of privacy and respect to not intrude into the kitchen of the visited. As the above interaction is specifically about simple refreshments if it is near a mealtime hour the visited will automatically ask if the guests would like to stay to eat. Again, the yes/no game will resume, until the visitor can ascertain if the visited is really sincere in their offer; if so, they will stay, if not, they will leave. Also, as far as timing is concerned, Persians are chronically late; if they are invited to dinner it is not unusual to show up at 9pm, when 7:30pm was the time stated for the meal. It is not seen as rude to arrive late, as punctuality is not observed by Iranians (ibid). Farewell taking and thanking to the hosts at small and large parties for a lovely time can also be a lengthy affair according to the unwritten rules of ta’arof (Shay, p 123).
Phone calls also have their own special version of ta’arof. The usual polite niceties of “thank you” and “you’re welcome” are of course used; but in addition at the end of the conversation a statement of “do you have any other requests?” is always made to imply that the person being called is giving their utmost help and attention to the caller. As Persians usually say “goodbye” once, after the above statement is made and it is gathered that there is nothing else the caller needs, I have found that Persian Armenians will say “goodbye” three or four times in succession back and forth between the two parties at the end of a conversation until the phone call finally ends. As to why this phenomenon occurs I do not know, but it is a fact, according to my Persian Armenian informants. It seems to be a custom that is overdone, such as the above-mentioned hospitality.
Dancing in public such as at social parties is seen as a potentially transgressive act, and may breach the boundaries of ta’arof. Even if one can dance well, one must decline the offer, as in the yes/no game mentioned above. One may dance only after much requesting by the hostess of the party, and then one must keep one’s movements small and modest, so as to not seem “gheir” or “vulgar” (Shay, p 135).
Virtues of a culture as seen through ta’arof:
Underneath the formal social etiquette of ta’arof are some fundamental virtues that Persians prescribe as honorable, and if not followed will lead to shame. I believe these are: grace, modesty, piety (humility in the eyes of God), and cleverness, or in Farsi, “zerangi”. As ta’arof is very indirect, and is meant to leave the other party feeling superior (even if the person ta’arofing is socially superior), there is a certain grace to the etiquette. To be direct and honest may hurt someone’s feelings, and put them in a position of embarrassment where they would “lose face”; to do this would be seen as a sort of “social stumble” and reflect poorly on the speaker, and is considered very “ungraceful” in language and social movement. This emphasis on the virtue of grace can also be seen in the Persian arts of calligraphy, music, theater, and Classical dance. It is the notion of what is considered effective or not effective, and is a sort of “aggressive vs. graceful” approach to dealing with others; brutal honesty does not exist in Persian culture. To age is considered to grow more graceful (Mehdizadeh).
Ta’arof also has the element of modesty, albeit it is a superficial modesty or shyness that is emulated. I would even say that there is a certain “phoniness” to ta’arof in that what is said is not meant, however, since all Persians understand this concept, I do consider ta’arof more of a game than as real rules for giving compliments. This modesty can be sincere, but usually only among trusted close friends and family, as when compliments or hospitality are given in generous amounts. In contrast, American culture views’ being direct and honest as virtuous, and to do otherwise is seen as phony, which is seen as being in poor taste.
Another virtue I see in ta’arof is piety, or humbleness in the eyes of God. Just as a guest is considered a gift from God, and should be treated accordingly, enacting ta’arof is a sign of humility towards others, and shows that the person sees himself as nothing compared to the Greatness of Allah, i.e., being a “good Muslim” by submitting to the will of Allah. It shows that one does not have a big ego, and considers him/herself of little importance in comparison to others, as well. Being humble in speech and actions is the guideline of ta’arof; even if one does not know the actual particulars of ta’arof, remembering this virtue can guide oneself in all social encounters.
The Persian concept of “zerangi”, which translates as, “cleverness” or “wiliness”, is seen as a virtue, as well (Beeman, p 27). It is an interesting phenomenon as it implies that while one may have true affection for another, one never can fully trust them and is always questioning another’s ulterior motives, even if the other is a close family member. This can seem contradictory to most Americans, as those trusted in American culture must prove their lack of “sneakiness”. However, as we will see, sometimes the clever actions of someone are not for their own selfish interests; it is in the interest of the common good, or to spare another from learning painful information. Beeman describes zerangi as: “an operation on the part of an adroit operator that involves thwarting direct interpretation of his own actions, or deliberately leading others to erroneous interpretation of those actions, while being able to successfully interpret the actions of others” (ibid). Zerangi may not always be for self-interest, but can have altruistic motives, as well (ibid, p 29-30). Perhaps the elements of certainty and insecurity of one’s position in social life, and the lack of control in one’s environment and places within it can lead to the mistrust of others, such as family, children, and most likely, oneself, and also can lead one to look for other means of control to make a safe and stable place in society (ibid, p 32). Zerangi as a virtue implies that people are so unpredictable that one never knows what malevolence they are going to inflict on one, or how they are going to fail to support one’s interests (ibid). This places the person who possesses zerangi as the actor who can interpret the actions of others to his own satisfaction, while concealing his/her own actions; it is a form of communicative maladroitness. To employ the virtues of zerangi is the reciprocal of the skills of employing ta’arof; in a meeting with a stranger one can use the tools of ta’arof to ascertain if one is lower or higher socially than the other, and to act and speak accordingly, as well as conceal one’s motives (ibid). In an altruistic encounter one can be zerang by revealing bad news in stages, rather than all at once, as it may emotionally shock someone, such as in telling of the misfortune of a relative to one’s family.
Zerangi points out an important facet of Iranian verbal communication situations; that is, obscurity and multiple-meaning are highly valued. There can be genuine affection for one’s relatives, while at the same time one can be certain that zerangi is being practiced and that one cannot detect it, which implies mistrust (ibid, p 33). In contrast, in American culture we hold direct dealings as a sign and proof of friendship, and affection. The Iranian system aims at multiple interpretations and indirectness.
An interesting example, and one of my particular interests, is the pre-revolutionary business dealings between the Americans at the embassy in Tehran, and the Iranians. According to Dr. Beeman, who was there during the reign of the Shah, Americans were known to Iranians to be too honest, and therefore predictably gullible in business dealings. When an Iranian wanted a direct and honest answer to a problem, they would come to Beeman, knowing that he would tell them the truth, but also knowing that they could not conceal their motives to him, either, as he knew about the concept of zerang. After the revolution, when many Iranians went abroad to study, they learned the American way of doing business. Many came back to Iran and employed their new skills when dealing with foreigners; however, the Iranian way of zerangi still reigns between Iranians in their business interactions.
Social hierarchy as manifested through ta’arof:
One can ascertain another’s social status or position by how well he/she ta’arofs. It does not necessarily indicate another’s economic status; rather, a person’s manners indicate if the family one belongs to is virtuous. If a person has excellent ta’arof skills, but comes from an economically poor family, it may indicate that the family at one time had money, but then lost it to misfortune. The family in this case usually holds onto its manners, as to lose that too would indicate a loss of face, and in turn, shame. To be strong and positive in the face of tragedy is seen as virtuous (Mehdizadeh).
Good ta’arof skills are also an indication of education. In Iran to be educated means that you are either from a wealthy family, or you have received religious education, but may be poor. In order to succeed in career pursuits one must have the etiquette and good manners that ta’arofing provides (ibid).
The use of singular/plural forms of verbs in Farsi also indicates good manners. In the hierarchy of who goes first through a door as mentioned above is the basic rule of thumb as to whom you address in the plural, with the important addition that older males are always addressed in the plural form of verbs. The inflection of verbs in speech can also tell a person’s social class. The “bazari”, or people who work at the bazaar in Tehran, have a very poor inflection of verbs, and are considered “low class” and impolite in mispronouncing the language that way. One can elevate one’s status in the eyes of others by using more ta’arof, even if the family background is poor (ibid).
The worst insult someone can give in the Persian culture is to call someone else a “peasant”. This is akin to calling someone a “farmer boy”, “hillbilly”, or “redneck” in American slang. It implies a lack of education, poor manners, and poor speech. Usually, the grounds for calling someone a peasant are making comments that are uncalled for, being inconsiderate, too open, or rude.
Relationships of equality in Iran:
As the skills of ta’arof are used to assess one’s status in the interactions with strangers, or unequals, so there are relationships of equals and prescribed norms of interaction. I believe that to appreciate the full value of ta’arof, we must now take a look at two relations of equality: “dowreh”, and “partibazi” (ibid, p 44).
The word “dowreh” implies one’s inner circle of intimates, or in American slang, one’s “clique”. Often there is a communality of life-experience, and similar ages. Persons of the same dowreh perceive themselves as social equals; most often they are directly related to one another, and have known each other for a significant amount of time. However, dowrehs can be formed in unusual circumstances, such as living abroad, where the persons concerned would not normally have been included in the same group in Iran. It is usually gender specific, as in all men or all women in one particular dowreh (ibid, p 45). The common bond of a dowreh may be: similar educational institution, similar cultural interests, common backgrounds of foreign residence, or the same political or religious beliefs. They often meet together socially to do such activities as listen to music, read poetry, or attend private parties. It is the obligation of the members of a dowreh to further the interests of its fellow members. Sufic orders are an example of a dowreh, in that each individual also has a conventional secular job outside of the order, and can influence for the members of the dowreh in other parts of life.
The family is a natural dowreh; members can further the interests of the family, which in turn provides for the survival of the unit. Therefore, it is advantageous to have diversity within the family as far as occupations, interests, political connections, and life styles are concerned (ibid, p 47). For this reason, marriage into a family is a highly considered endeavor, one that is based on politics for the survival of the family, not on love. Therefore, marriages are usually arranged; people do not marry people, families marry families (ibid).
If the function of the dowreh is to further its interests, then the vehicle it uses for this action is called “partibazi”; it is a form of “lobbying” (ibid, p 48). Representation of individual interests in the form of favorable acts such as employment, licenses, exemptions to certain laws, entrance to schools, and of course, marriage are among the functions of partibazi. A petition-request from a subordinate to the granter of a request must be within a few rungs of the dowreh ladder; if the granter is considerably higher in some respect, the favor may not be granted, whereas a favor must be granted if the subordinate is socially more equal to the granter. Personal advancement and privilege may be obtained by gaining knowledge of the members of another’s dowreh, so as to gain an “in” (ibid). If one’s parti skills are not good enough, it is seen that one is unable to take care of one’s dowreh, which can cause great shame.
Dowrehs and partibazi straddle every social class in Iran, from the upper crust of Tehran to the lower classes of the villages. Gaining political and social power, whether it is in the form of a government office, or the right to dispense the usage of a tractor for plowing fields is the outcome of these forms of relations of equality (ibid).
Relations of inequality in Iran–hierarchy and ta’arof:
Ta’arof is a tool that Persians use in the case where the status of individuals in any given social encounter is unequal and not of one’s dowreh; where there is hierarchy people assume the roles of superior and inferior. As Beeman so eloquently puts it: “Every time tea is offered to a group, every time several persons wish to proceed through one door, every time friends meet on the street, every time guests proceed to the dinner table at a party, the constant unceasing ritualization of the assessments of climate of relative superiority and inferiority occurs and recurs. It is this more than other factors that gives social life in Iran its unique flavor compared to that in other oriental societies.” (p 58). If no relationship has been made prior to an encounter there is a degree of polarity in the hierarchy of the social meeting, and one’s own superiority or inferiority is very much a relative matter.
Knowing one’s place in society relative to others outside of one’s dowreh and how to take effective and proper action using zerang is the path to operating at different levels all the time; ta’arof provides the tools for this path. Islam and the five pillars of faith (pilgrimage, prayer, fasting, tithing, and alms) makes it possible for one to elevate oneself in the eyes of ones peers, yet prostrate and be submissive in the eyes of God (ibid, p 51). Religion truly is the saving grace of society, as in God’s eyes all Muslims that practice the five pillars are seen as relatively equal; in society’s eyes it is a matter of family and etiquette, among other things, most of which are very hard to change. However, change is possible if one follows the faith of Islam.
Religion is trying to help us get rid of our ego, or “nafs”, and society is constantly reminding us of it and reinforcing it through social conventions such as ta’arof. There is a great Sufi story told by poet/writer/storyteller Idres Shah demonstrating this principle of spiritual vs. societal advancement: There are two houses across the street from each other. In one lives a Sufi devotee, and in one lives a drunkard. The devotee is constantly scorning the drunkard behind his back, yet to his face he seems to be helpful, and to provide service. The drunkard prays every day that some day he can be as pious the devotee, and is kind to him, even though when he sees the devotee he is most embarrassed of his intoxication. The Day of Judgment comes, and the Angel of Death comes to judge the two mortals living across the street from each other. The Angel whisks away the devotee to Hell, and the drunkard to Heaven. The drunkard asks the Angel, why is he being brought to Hell? Shouldn’t I go instead? The Angel replies that the devotee has been scorning him behind his back; that despite his formal prostrations before God, his heart was not pure, and therefore his prayers insincere and not acceptable. The drunkard, on the other hand, while did not fully follow the five pillars of Islam, at least said prayers every day that came from a pure heart; therefore, God listened and accepted them. The moral of the story is that while following Islam one may elevate one’s position in society’s eyes, society cannot judge the sincerity of those actions; only God can.
The interactions of superiors and inferiors follow a diagram of behavior that is understood by all. Superiors are bound by an ethic of duty and “noblesse oblige” towards inferiors, which are in turn bound by an ethic of service towards the superiors in the form of submission, gratitude, obedience, and respect. In an interesting parallel, I would say that this diagram can also be used when looking at the relationship between God and humans, obviously God being in the superior position, and humans being in the inferior. I am not trying to say that “superior” humans in any given social encounter could ever have God-like qualities or powers, but they do possess the political power to make the inferior supplicate for favors, much in the same way humans pray for supplication of favors to God. In this day in age of social reform this diagram seems quite archaic, but old ideas die hard. This type of social interaction is what has kept Iranian society running smoothly for over 3,000 years, and I suspect it is not changing any time soon.
The actions between the two groups flow from high status to low status in the form of material rewards, and from low to high in the form of material tribute (ibid). The stimulus for goods or actions from high to low is called orders, and the stimulus from low to high is called petitions. A degree of separation and stasis is characterized by the superiors in that they are removed from the inferiors in physical distance, and also in labor; the inferiors, usually the servants, young males, and women, being the ones who do the majority of physical labor on behalf of the older males. There is also separation and stasis within one social group, such as women; higher-class women are removed from society and work within the confines of the home, whereas lower-class women must work for a living and be exposed to the general public. If one uses zerangi one can petition one’s superiors for favors; one is not stuck in a social stratum, but can improve one’s lot, albeit incrementally.
Let’s take a look at some case studies of Beemans’ to see how this hierarchical dimension of ta’arof is seen in social situations:
Case 3: “A worker in a university office is consistently told to run personal errands for his superiors. He will expect a larger-than-usual cash gift at Nowruz (the Iranian New Year) if his services exceed that of his contemporaries” (ibid, p 53).
It is clear that the services provided by the inferior were great enough of a stimulus to action that the superior felted obligated to reward him with a favor.
Case 7: “Two workers in a government research bureau submit a report to their superiors. The report is subsequently translated and published in a foreign journal under the name of the superior. One researcher complains and is soon fired under some pretext. The other remains silent and is soon promoted” (ibid, p 54).
Here, the inferiors took two different routes, the one in choosing to remain silent and not looking for immediate reward conferred to his superior; he knew that some sort of reward would be forth coming. The other was impatient and did not follow proper protocol and wanted immediate rewards for his work. In waiting, the former inferior was eventually rewarded with more responsibility, and the latter was dismissed.
Case 9: “A man wants something in a government office, but the official he is dealing with is recalcitrant. The man finally begins to plead and breaks down crying. He immediately gets what he wants.” (ibid).
This is an interesting situation, in that the inferior puts himself in a more and more inferior position, resulting in a breakdown of tears. Weeping signifies a truly subservient position, implying that the superior must fulfill his request.
I have heard of this happening to the mother of a Persian friend of mine, as well. As the political climate post-revolution in Iran became much more religiously intense, it became mandatory for women to veil themselves in public at all times. My friend’s mother for some reason had been detained by the police for some minor indiscretion, possibly letting her veil fall off of her head in the car. As she was pulled over and questioned, her tears were her saving grace. They dismissed the charges, and she was allowed to leave.
Case 12: “Before land reform, villagers would always invite the landlord’s representatives to weddings and religious events and would entertain him, either in a separate room or at the head of the room on a raised platform. After land reform he is no longer treated in this manner and stops attending weddings, except those of his immediate family” (ibid, p 55).
Here the concept of separation and stasis of those in higher social positions is clear in that they are put “at the head of the room”. What makes this a striking example, however, is the difference in the interactions between superiors and inferiors after the Shah’s “White Revolution” prior to the Revolution of 1978 in Iran. Landlords were once in the superior position compared to the sharecroppers and squatters on his land. After the land reform, the landlord was no longer the superior, and therefore did not get the higher status treatment from inferiors.
The more inequality in relations between the superior and inferior the more the use of ta’arof comes into play. It is best seen in examples such as above where some sort of activity takes place, such as eating, drinking, or engaging in discussion or ceremony (ibid, p 56). The use of ta’arof underscores and preserves the integrity of culturally defined roles that are carried out in everyday life in Iran; apparently the youth of Iran would like to see a change in this unceasingly formal etiquette, but they are powerless against the tradition, and still practice it even as they complain about it (ibid, p 57).
The questions of propriety and correctness of behavior come into play in interactions between unequals. If one is not zerang and does not perceive the elements of interaction properly and act accordingly with the appropriate ta’arof, then one does not know how to manage one’s own behavioral repertoire, which makes one socially inept and shameful (ibid, p 58).
While social advancement and power are the sought after outcomes of using ta’arof, it would seem that playing the superior role is desired. Actually, quite the opposite is true; seeking the inferior position in social encounters is aspired to. As favors and rewards are the obligations are the actions supplied by the superiors, it can be advantageous to disguise one’s superior position in dealing with unequals to avoid any responsibilities. Being in the inferior position, even if it is truly not the case, can insure more maneuverability than being in the superior position.
The virtue of modesty is seen in deferring a reward or request of a petition to one’s inferior; in order for this acknowledgment there must be a third party present as witness to one’s actions. There are three steps in winning a confrontation with another in the strategic use of ta’arof: the offer, its denial, and the redirection of the offer to one’s equal. The redirection occurs, however, in hopes that the modesty of one’s actions will be noted, and the offer will eventually come back to oneself; one is purposefully aiming for a lower position. However, if the other equal accepts the offer that one has turned down, he in turn is seen as socially inept. This formula applies to any situation where ta’arof is used, whether it is simply in going through door, tea drinking, or in higher stakes social situations, such as the taking of a position of power in one’s social sphere (ibid, p 59). This is the formula for how one “wins” in situations where ta’arof is applied; one can lose by showing a lack of modesty and accepting any compliment, gift, or reward immediately without the deferment to an equal. One must also possess the virtue of zerang in order to pull this off.
As partibazi is used with groups of intimates, ta’arof is used between individuals that are unfamiliar with each other. Individuals wishing to fulfill a partibazi will choose several routes to fulfill the request from someone of their dowreh; they must satisfy their duties as a member of a dowreh, but they must also not upset their superiors in their given social arena by using ta’arof. For this reason some orders from members of dowreh will not be fulfilled. As stated by a friend of Beeman: “Doing business in Tehran is like trying to unravel a ball of string that has a lot of loose ends. You grab for any and all of the ends you see, and try to work at unraveling the ball from all sides” (ibid, p 61).
It is important to remember that one does not practice ta’arof with intimates. A clear show of genuine respect accompanies the sentiments between members of dowrehs, even if zerang is detected, there is a trust that it is for the common good of the group.
In conclusion, looking at the microcosm of Iranian social etiquette in the form of ta’arof, one can view the macrocosm of virtuous principles as seen by Persians of grace, modesty, piety, and cleverness.
1) Beeman, William O. Language, Status and Power in Iran (Advances in Semiotics). Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana. 1986.
2) El-Shamy, Hasan. Personal communication. March 3, 2001.
3) Mehdizadeh, Pouria. Personal interview. March 13, 2001.
4) Shay, Anthony. Choreophobia. Mazda Publishers, Costa Meza, California. 1999.
5) Shay, Anthony. Personal communication. March 3, 2001.
6) What is Ta’arof? http://arizonapersian.com/learnpersian/_disc3/0000036b.htm, 2/25/01; http://arizonapersian.com/learnpersian/_disc3/00000359.htm, 2/25/01.