If you live in a diverse city like Vancouver, you are probably exposed to many cultures and traditions.
From the red festivity of Chinese New Year to the rainbow beauty of the gay parade, there are so many events that we can look forward to throughout the year.
What we might not be aware of, however, is the “backstage” story of these traditions. Namely, the customs and habits of the people who create and showcase them to the rest of the world.
And of course, not all habits seem common in the eyes of the “rest” of the world!
If you are an attentive person who possesses a sense of curiosity, then you might have been exposed to the art of “taarof” in the Persian culture.
There is no literal translation of this manifold word in English, although one can argue that “etiquette” delivers the meaning.
Allow me to demonstrate the actual meaning of the word through a few examples.
Imagine you are at a grocery store doing your weekly shopping. You go to the cashier to pay for your cart and the shopkeeper insists that you’d be their “guest” this time and thus, not pay!
To an outsider, this might seem like the utmost hospitality you hear about in the Persian culture. To an insider, however, it is quickly acknowledged as “taarof”. The insider will probably play along for a while, insist on paying and thanking the shopkeeper for their kindness and finally, pay the amount and leave!
I have heard many tales about how outsiders fall for the insistence and walk out without paying!
Here’s a personal story on “taarof” and how this act of politeness can completely backfire if it is not handled with care and grace!
A French professor was visiting our campus while I was doing my undergrad in Iran and I was assigned to give him a tour around the campus and take him and his 9-year-old daughter to lunch afterward. I did my best to be charming, throwing in the limited French words I knew while explaining each and every detail of the campus (which, by the way, is historical and magnificent, thank you very much!). When we sat to eat, I had won the little girl’s heart but had failed miserably to come across as an intellectual in front of her famous father!
Lunch was served and out of 21-years of habit, I insisted for them to try my dish as well! The little girl surrendered after a few minutes, allowing me to pile a great deal of aromatic “Baghali Polo” on her plate. The professor nodded a few times, a forced polite smile on his face as he mumbled “no, Merci!” a few times. But I had been on a mission! If I couldn’t hold a professional conversation with him, I could at least show him how tasty Persian cuisine was!
Suffice to say, it didn’t end well!
Of course, I had been successful in sharing some of my food with the professor; although it was still left untouched in a corner of his plate by the time we left! But my eagerness to “share” my food had come across as the unpleasant habit of “not taking no for an answer” apparently; at least, that’s what he had told the hosting professor by the time we arrived back to the campus!
I had tried to take the art of etiquette to the next level! Or how my friend would later describe it as: “suffocating them with ‘taarof’!”
Did I learn a lesson? Yes. Did I try to tune my “taarofing” down? Maybe a little. Did I stop doing it? No! Of course not! After all, what would be left if we try to eliminate every little habit that shapes a culture?
If you are interested to know more about the art of “taarof” and look at it from a different angle, then try Julihana Valle’s article published on BBC Travel “The Persian art of etiquette“.