On a hot day this spring, I stopped to get coffee at a coffee place with an older Persian friend. I asked if she would like some coffee or tea. She immediately responded: “No, thank you”. later, I returned with a cold iced coffee and started drinking while driving. At every red light, as I turned my head, I noticed she was staring at my unbroken enjoyment, with such gusto, while swallowing her saliva. At some point, I started feeling uncomfortable. Did she want some? So, I offered, and she accepted… I had to open the top of the coffee and let her drink some. Frankly, I am not a “share your drink” type of gal, so I stopped drinking it and let her finish my drink. She did not change her mind about having a drink, she simply did not want to impose on me and ask for a drink...This behavior is called taarof In Farsi and it is the topic of my note today.
Even though I have lived 75% of my life in the west, my heritage tags along with me, Since my parents never pushed their culture on us; at a certain age, I became more eager to learn about their culture and my heritage. The more I read, inquired, and researched, the more intrigued the topic became. I knew the farsi language and worked on improving it by staying in touch with my elementary school friends via WhatsApp or Telegram.
As much as I love my heritage, there are some elements, that I still cannot relate to. One of these elements, is a phenomenon called taarof. According to Wikipedia "Taarof is a ritual politeness that levels the playing field and promotes equality in a hierarchical culture." Though taarof is an extremely complex concept to explain, I am going to attempt to describe it here. I also must remind everyone; in no way, I am making fun of my heritage; I am simply sharing my observation as a dual-cultured person. As Hegel, the 18th century German Philosopher, indicates, language is something we are born into and it forms us. If you speak Farsi, taarof normally comes effortlessly, and it is part of the language.
In the Farsi language taarof has a positive connotation. The dictionary translates it to the word "complement". But in reality, the taarof means “to be hypocritical in order to please”. Hence, when properly translated to English, it is quite negative. I believe it is a form of humility, so one can ensure the other party feels good. In essence, Taarof is a form of self-sacrifice. for instance, my friend’s consideration to not ask for a drink; in a way, was sacrificing her desire to have a drink, in order to make my life easier. Here are few more examples of taarof:
You go visit a friend. You are starving; however, since you do not want to come across as inconsiderate, when offered a meal, you say that you are full. Meanwhile your stomach is growling loud enough to make the host’s dog bark, thinking there is someone inside of you.
You come home exhausted after a long day at work, and your mom’s friend is visiting and needs a ride home. Instead of calling an Uber, you get in the car and drive her to her house, 30 miles away, with a forced huge smile.
At a dinner party, you thank the host for a delicious meal, and they return with a second serving for you to eat; and, if you say no, they will ask what was wrong with their food and keep insisting until you eat the second serving. Later, you sit (lie really) on a big chair, fully bloated and ready to fall asleep.
The best type of Taarof is when paying a bill at a restaurant. The yelling and wrestling on who should pay for the bill, is a scene for a comic sitcom. Those around think they are arguing over who should pay the bill, but in reality, they are insisting to pay the bill, even if they are broke and don’t have enough to pay their rent.
And finally, saying goodbye in my heritage is like pulling teeth. When you say goodbye in my heritage, in reality, you are just saying hello over again. Because that is when everyone remembers all the topics they wanted to discuss during the visit. Sometimes the host is so tired, and they can pass out in the street or foyer, but they keep the half hour conversation going, while standing.
I never doubt that taarof stems from good intentions. To me, it is like dancing the tango. Both dancers have to know the moves, or you can step on each other's toes. It is also very important to know the other party's proficiency at the dance, or things can get quite confusing. Though I do my best not to step on my fellow compatriots' toes during this unnecessary dance; I sometimes get in trouble and do/say exactly what I mean. I have witnessed a variety of reactions to my inaptness. Some laugh when this happens, and kindly blame it on the fact that I came to America too young; some continue dancing, as if they want to teach me how to dance; and others simply stop calling me!
Formulating a strategy to please someone at your own expense, is so effortless for the experts in my heritage. I am still a rookie and at times, I get tired of being someone that I am not. When I am the receiver of taarof, I enjoy the attention and the others' self-sacrifice; but when I want to Taarof, I truly am not good at it, as its not innate in me and I feel pretentious. I sometime wonder how much more "time" these beautiful tango dancers could gain by simply dropping the taarof business and placing more focus on real issues of society and individuals.
I must clarify that my family and many of us who have lived here long, have brought the taarof level few notches down. Frankly, writing about this topic was quite confusing too. In one hand, I wanted to spill the beans on my heritage, and how their form of civility and etiquette is pure hypocrisy. Should I have been brutally honest and say how I find taarof confusing and inefficient? On the other hand, I thought about my compatriot’s feelings. Even though I find not expressing one's real feeling disturbing, yet I believe it is done with so much good intentions, that it feels like a beautiful sin, a sin that brings people together. It makes people relate to one another. Who am I to judge an ancient culture?