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You think communication is complex? Try Taarof

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, August 27, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Finely Crafted Discourse, or Yo Dude?
Linguistic Form Anticipates Substance

In an ancient culture where poetry is revered and people have resisted centuries of oppression, artfully selected words and phrases come with invisible webs of mysteriously moored strings.

The persianmirror.com, a site devoted to Persian culture and community explains, "Taarof has deep roots in the Iranian tradition of treating your guests better than your own family, and being gracious hosts. Taarof is a verbal dance between an offerer and an acceptor until one of them agrees. It is a cultural phenomenon that consists of refusing something even though you might want it, out of politeness. On the giving end, it is offering something…to be polite…but not really wanting to give it away.”

An August 6, 2006 New York Times story by Michael Slackman describes the Iranian social principle of taarof, a complex interactive ritual of manners, pretense, and polite expectations. Americans accustomed to short declarative sentences and no frill facts might consider it lying. But taarof is a time-honored element of Iranian communication that linguists and diplomats say Americans need to learn.

As Nasser Hadian, a political science professor at the University of Tehran tells theTimes,"You have to guess if people are sincere, and you are never sure. Symbolism and vagueness are inherent in our language.”

Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian social scientist who lived in England and the US for many years before returning home a decade ago, explains in the same story, "Speech has a different function than it does in the West. In the West, 80 percent of language is denotive. In Iran, 80 percent is connotative.” Even Iranians are kept guessing, but perpetually ambiguity is indelibly worked into the texture of life. Says Tajbakhsh, "This creates a rich, poetic linguistic culture. It creates a multidimensional culture where people are adept at picking up on nuances.”

As the Persian Mirroradvises, even if you would like a second helping of a tasty dish, you can’t accept unless it has been urged upon you several times. If your host says don’t taarof, that can be dicey too, because the host herself may be taarofing. Should you eat and appear gluttonous, or refuse and risk insulting her cooking? This custom is perilous for foreigners. If you ask a shopkeeper the price of an item, he may say it’s nothing, be my guest. If you take him literally, you’ll be in trouble and you'll be pursued as a thief. The shopkeeper’s elocution is really a polite way of approaching the indelicate matter of price. The same principle applies in other interactions. An invitation to someone’s home may be a courteous expression, not an actual desire for a visit. Body language and signs need to be considered as well. The bilakh is a one-thumb up gesture that has a terribly rude meaning in Iran. To Westerners, thumbs up has positive connotations, so misinterpretations are inevitable.

If taarof challenges the social skills of individuals, imagine how it can confound foreign diplomats and politicians. What did President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really mean in the 18-page letter about religion, values and history that he sent to President Bush? In centuries of occupation by Arab, Mongol, French and British forces, Iranians learned to express themselves with elaborate caution. In fact, an ancient practice called takiya, or al-takeyya, allowed Muslims minorities to avoid persecution and preserve their lives and and honor by holding their true beliefs in private while using subterfuge to disguise them in public.

And then there is the cultural love art, literature and poetry. The beautiful Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was written more than a thousand year ago by a Persian who was both scientist and poet. It is still read throughout the world. Americans who have traveled to neighboring Afghanistan report that there too, poetic expression infuses commerce and social transactions. Trying to hurry a negotiation risks failure. A Wall Street Journal piece Afghan Poetry Groups in DC Fight a War of Words on Their Art by Masood Favirar tells the captivating story of two Afghan cab drivers in Washington whose poetry clubs have differing commitments to their traditions. As the story point out, the passion for poetry extends to everyday modern life: "Afghans pepper their conversation with snippets of poetry and engage in poetic duels in which each side recites a line of verse that begins with a letter than ends the opposing side’s line.”

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture 

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