Iranian Culture

Etiquette

‘Taarof’ (Politeness and Mutual Respect)

and etiquette are demonstrated on a daily basis in Iran. It is often exhibited through the traditional verbal and nonverbal system of ‘taarof’. Under taarof, Iranians strive to make the other person in the interaction feel as appreciated and welcomed as possible. This is commonly done by making one’s self appear secondary in comparison to the other person and insisting to put them first. For example, it is common to hear “You first, please” followed by “No, after you”. That dialogue can continue for a prolonged time as each person adheres to taarof. People also commonly protest compliments and criticise their own accomplishments in an attempt to appear humble.


In exhibiting taarof, shopkeepers may insist that you do not need to pay for their wares. If you borrow something from a friend, they may argue that you do not need to give it back. These words are tokenistic and should not be taken for their face value. It is expected that you protest equally politely and do not accept the grand gesture. Iranians can put themselves in difficult situations if Australians don’t understand this, as their offers of can extend beyond the means they have to fulfil their gesture.


Broadly, correct etiquette involves insisting on the other person’s precedence to you, yet following the normal behaviour expected. If you are offered something, decline at first before accepting after the person has insisted. This etiquette naturally loosens with close friends.


Basic Etiquette

  • When someone offers something to you (e.g. tea, sweets), refuse it initially out of before accepting.
  • It is rude to put your feet on the table.
  • Burping and sniffing in front of others is considered rude.
  • One should not touch people of the opposite gender unless they are very close family or friends.
  • Conservative Iranian men may find it particularly dishonourable and disrespectful to enquire about their female family members, unless you know the family or person well.
  • If you are a woman in Iran, it can be a good idea to wait for your male accompaniment to introduce you to another man before engaging with him.
  • If you are a man, wait for an Iranian woman to initiate a handshake or conversation before doing so yourself.
  • Respect a Shi’a Muslim’s religious duty to pray three times a day, but note that many Iranians do not observe this.
  • Some religious Iranians observe a separation between the functions of the hands. This custom is tied to Islamic principles that prescribe the left hand should be used for removal of dirt and for cleaning. It should not be used for functions such as waving, eating or offering items. Therefore, one should gesture, touch people, or offer items using both hands together. Using the one hand alone can seem too informal, but if doing so, use the right.
  • It is common for Iranians to be late. It can be a good idea to allow more time for an arrangement or meeting with an Iranian than you normally would as their hospitality and communication style also means engagements often take longer.


Visiting

  • Iranians expect and appreciate punctuality.
  • If your Iranian host is not wearing shoes, remove yours at the door.
  • Greet any elders present first before individually greeting everyone with a handshake.
  • Entertaining happens in the guest room, which is usually the most lavishly furnished.
  • In some rural or traditional households, people may be seated on the ground. If so, avoid extending your legs out in front of other guests or the elderly. It is considered impolite.
  • Men may socialise together whilst women socialise in a different room – sometimes on a different floor of the house. However, this is usually only in the most conservative of households and is more rare.
  • If dining, honoured guests may be seated at the head of the table.
  • When leaving, expect goodbyes to be prolonged. You may have to politely insist on leaving.


Eating

  • Make your best effort to accept and try everything offered.
  • You will likely be served second or even third servings. Every time one is offered, protest politely (in accordance to taarof) before accepting the generosity.
  • It is a great gesture to eat more servings, so it is best serve yourself less initially so you have more room to eat another serving.
  • Iranians often offer a portion of whatever they are eating to anyone present, even if no one shows interest. It is okay to politely decline.
  • Eating everything on your plate generally indicates you enjoyed your meal.
  • An Iranian may prompt you to have multiple servings. You can say that you do not want any more food, but consider that they may take initial refusals as and serve more anyway. You might have to clearly insist you are full.


Gift Giving

  • Gifts are usually given when visiting someone’s home. These are small (i.e. sweets, flowers, pastries).
  • It is best to wrap a gift as elegantly as possible.
  • If presented a gift, decline to accept it initially out of – for example, “I can’t possibly, that’s too kind”. When they insist, thank them gratefully with praise.
  • Receive any gift with both hands together.
  • If you give a gift, be humble about it and apologise for its shortfall.
  • Gifts are not opened in front of the giver.
  • Never give alcohol as a gift to a devout Muslim, Bahá’í or any Iranian you do not have a close personal relationship with. If you know from first-hand experience that your friend drinks, you may give alcohol, but ensure that it is done tactfully.
  • Similarly, do not give gifts that contain byproducts of alcohol or pork.

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