Originally an Arabic word, taarof تعارف can be translated as ‘offering courtesies’ or ‘compliments’. Taarof تعارف (or tarof) is one of those words that is difficult to simply translate it to English, because behind it lies a vast cultural concept in Iran. In Persian culture, Taarof is a highly valued behavior and is part of the everyday life of almost every Iranian. 

What Does Tarof تعارف Mean in the Persian Culture? 

Taarof is offering what’s yours to others, or, not accepting easily what others offer to you. Thus taarof is made of two parts:

  1. Showing a willingness to offer what is yours to another person.
  2. Not accepting the offerings of someone so easily (even if you really like to).

In Persian culture, being generous is a highly valued virtue.

That is why one might go out of his/her way to offer something to a guest, a friend, or even a complete stranger. 

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Iranian people are often known for being extremely hospitable.

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Taarof: A dance of respect and honor

Taarof is like a intricate dance of respect and honor between two people. Initially, it can seem complex and sometimes confusing to people coming from other cultures. There are a few basic rules about taarof that you can easily learn. 

Let’s examine some common examples that will help you understand the basic rules of taarof. Then, not only will you know the Iranian culture better, but you might enjoy accompanying them in this dance.  

3.  Taarof when offering guests to stay for dinner

You go to visit a family member for afternoon tea. Right before leaving, he will ask you to stay for dinner:

  • “Shaam tashrif daashteh bash.id” شام تشریف داشته باشید (Please, stay for dinner).

Even if you feel like staying, you first refuse the offer by simply saying:

  • “Kheili mamnun” خیلی ممنون (Thank you very much).

The host will reassure you that it would be a pleasure for him:

  • “Khosh.hal mishim خوشحال میشیم (We will be happy to).

As a guest, you will refuse a second time:

  •  “Nah zahmat ne.midim.” نه زحمت نمیدیم (No, we won’t cause trouble).

The host insists once again:

  •  Khahesh mikonam, hich zahmat.i nist.”  خواهش میکنم، هیچ زحمتی نیست (Please, it’s no trouble at all).

This dance of offering and refusing can go on for a few times before you as a guest either accept or refuse the offer.

A trick in taarof!

If the guest refuses the offer the first time, and the host doesn’t insist any longer, the dance of taarof ends there. It’s said that “it was only taarof.” That means that the host only wanted to be courteous, but he didn’t actually have the intention of going through with making the dinner.

If the guest accepts the offer the first time, the host has to go through with it, even if it was “only taarof.” In this case you might say he was busted! 

However, be careful about accepting the offer right away. Because accepting the offer right on the first time, can be considered too forward in Iranian culture. 

Common examples of taarof: 

  1.  Taarof when going through the doorway.

Two people want to pass by a doorway; one offers for the other person to go first. Sometimes the offering can go on for a long time, until one person finally gives in and walks through first.  This happens especially between men in Iran.

  1.  Taarof when offering someone to come inside the house. 

Let’s say a friend or family member stops by your place to drop something off.  In Iran, it is considered etiquette to always offer them to come inside; even if they are clearly not there with that intention. You may say something like: 

“befarmaaid tu!” بفرمایید تو (Please come in.)

3. Taarof when paying a store salesman or a taxi driver.

Sometimes even when you are at a store or taking a cab, they might offer you not to pay by saying something like “ghabel nadareh (قابل نداره)”.

However, This is to show their respect, it does not mean you have to accept the offer. 

4- Taarof when people offering to pay the bill at a restaurant.

When you go to eat or drink with an Iranian, you have to prepare yourself for the “fight” afterwards, as to who is going to pay the bill!

The norm is that everyone should offer to pay. If there are families involved, every head of a household will offer to take care of the bill. A whole routine of taarof follows, something similar to:

  •  “Khaahesh mi.konam!”  خواهش میکنم (Please!) 
  • “Nah, ne.misheh!” نه نمیشه (No, no way!)  
  • “Ejaazeh bedid”  اجازه بدید (Allow me!) 

Rule of thumb for Taarof in Iran, when at restaurants:

Even if you guess who will end up paying at the end, you should always offer your willingness to pay the bill. Usually the person with the higher income, higher age, or social status will ‘win’ and take care of the bill.  If they all have around the same income, then the person with more willingness wins the battle. However, if you don’t offer, and simply let others go ahead, you might be seen as inconsiderate.

Who is the “winner” in taarof?

Who really wins in the world of taarof? The person who accepted the offer or the one who offered? It’s not important who wins in taarof. What’s important is that everyone pays the ‘due’ respect to each other through this dance of honor.