- Indirect Communication: Iranians tend to be quite in their communication. They generally look towards non-verbal cues and speak figuratively to make a point. This has the purpose of avoiding embarrassment or offence and respecting the other person in the conversation. If you need clarification on what is said, you can check several times and ask open-ended questions. It is common for conversation to be drawn out as people take time to reach a full understanding.
- Language Style: Iranians can take quite a long time to get to their point as they often explain themselves by using the example of a story, poem or traditional saying. Sometimes the ‘lesson’ embedded in these allegories is not immediately evident to a non-Iranian who is not familiar with the cultural context. It is okay to flag this to Iranians you are close with and ask them to be clearer.
- Refusals: refusals can be interpreted as rude and may indicate that the person wishes to end a relationship. It is best to go about saying ‘no’ to requests in an way, such as “I’ll see what I can do”. This advice does not apply when it comes to the first initial refusals one makes to show (taarof) – see Etiquette for information on this.
There are public and private rules regarding non-verbal communication in Iran. When in public, people generally have to behave more formally and keep a distinct distance from those of the opposite gender. These customs loosen significantly when people are in private and surrounded by their close friends. Iranian in Australia are likely to be a lot more informal with their body language than what is described below.
- Physical Contact: It is okay for friends and family to touch in a friendly way (such as backslapping) when in the confines of the home. However, in accordance with the public separation of men and women, it is inappropriate to be physically affectionate with any person of the opposite gender when in public. Male friends may walk whilst holding each other’s hands or kiss to greet one another. One may also see a husband and wife holding hands. However, women in particular are generally not supposed to show physical affection unless they are out of the public eye. Many push this boundary – especially among the younger generation.
- Personal Space: Iranians tend to keep a fair amount of personal space; however, the average proximity is still a little bit closer than the Western norm. For example, you may find public seating is quite squishy. Try to give a generous amount of personal space between you and someone else of the opposite gender.
- Eye Contact: When talking to people of the same age, gender or status, eye contact is expected. This communicates friendly affection and sincerity. However, in accordance to Islamic principles, males and females are expected to lower their gaze and avoid sustained eye contact with each other. This is considered respectful and observant of the partition between genders. Younger people may also lower their gaze when speaking to elders out of respect. Therefore, if an Iranian avoids eye contact during interaction, consider that it is usually done as a defence mechanism to remain respectful and modest and does not necessarily mean they are disinterested.
- Expressions: People tend to smile less whilst in public in Iran. To smile casually while passing a stranger of the opposite gender on the street could easily be interpreted as provocative and escalate to questions quickly. Therefore, try not to be intimidated by an Iranian’s apparent ‘serious’ demeanour. It is not necessarily a reflection on you, but the social expectation.
- Gestures: Iranians are generally reserved in their body language and gesture much less than their Arab neighbours. The thumbs-up gesture is considered rude and has the same connotation as raising one’s middle finger for traditional Iranians.
- Pointing: It is considered rude to point your index finger at another person during conversation.
- Feet: Displaying the soles of one’s feet to another person is improper. Similarly, placing one’s feet on top of the table is not acceptable.
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