Ta’arof can be particularly dis­orienting
for Americans, who tend to prize efficiency,
frankness, and in­formality.
From The Atlantic magazine:
I may be wrong, but I believe I am the only Englishman to have applied for Iranian citizenship since the 1979 revolution. "We would be happy to receive such an application," said the smiling man from the Department of Alien Affairs. "It would be an honor to consider your case, and I should say, given your accomplishments, that you stand a good chance of success." I happily filled out some forms, gathered the required documentation, and went home to tell my Iranian wife the good news. "What accomplishments?" she asked.
Six weeks later, as requested, I returned. The same official received me, with obvious pleasure. He called for tea, asked after my health and that of my family, and spoke to me of this and that. Then he informed me with an air of great confidentiality that my case was "going very well." "Do me the kindness of visiting again in six weeks," he said.
I visited the same official four or five times over the next eight months, and on each occasion the pattern was the sameelaborate courtesies, tea, and encouraging words. I had every reason to believe that my name was sailing upward to those regions of the Iranian bureaucracy where decisions are made.
I cannot say exactly when doubt took root. Despite all the courtesies, however, there did seem to be a lack of verifiable progress. I decided to learn more about the citizenship process, and was dismayed to find out that, for all intents and purposes, there wasn’t one. Only the Iranian cabinet could award me citizenshipa prospect that seemed rather unlikely. The forms and documentation and the repeated visits had been a polite fiction. For well over half a year of blissful self-delusion, I had been suckered by ta’arof.
In the Iranian context, ta’arof refers to a way of managing social relations with decorous manners. It may be charming and a basis for mutual goodwill, or it may be malicious, a social or political weapon that confuses the recipient and puts him at a disadvantage.
Read the article: Talk Like an Iranian. As the author learned in Tehran, yes sometimes means no. The Atlantic>>
Illustration by Alex Nabaum