Monday, February 14, 2011

The Unbearable Politeness of Being

Persian culture is not for the socially lazy. Take this scene:

Several years ago, at a Tehran bazaar, I was flipping through a pile of small handmade carpets as a portable gift for a friend back home. I spotted a lovely gabbeh, like the one in the photo, hand knotted by Ghashghai nomads. The carpet had striated shades of green, with a man astride a donkey in one corner.

My sister-in-law hovered at my shoulder. “Don’t let the bazaari see how much you like that,” she instructed. “Glance casually through all the carpets and try not to admire any one piece for too long or we’ll never manage to negotiate a good price.”

The gray-haired vendor eyed me sharply, lips curled into a knowing smile, and I realized that with decades of experience selling his wares, there wasn’t a customer trick he couldn’t detect a mile away.

I made my selection with what I hoped was an air of absolute indifference. As though the only reason I was purchasing the item at all was to spare him the embarrassment of offering such mediocre merchandise.

We settled on a price: 100,000 rials (around $10). I counted out a neat pile of green-and-blue 10,000 rial notes and handed them to him. He counted them again, smiled at me and just as I thought the bills would disappear into his metal cash box, his demeanor changed abruptly.

He tossed the money back at me with a dramatic flourish. “Ghabeli nadareh!” he exclaimed. “I cannot take your money for such an ugly, worthless little rug.”

I stared at him and, after a moment’s hesitation, turned to my sister-in-law. “He doesn’t really mean that, does he?” The problem was that I couldn’t be sure. In Iran, people are always giving me things—even bazaar shopkeepers. But not usually merchandise worth more than a few cents.

“He wants more money,” she said. Apparently the negotiations, which I’d considered concluded, had just been reopened.

We were engaging in a peculiarly Persian custom called taaroff, a complex social ritual that serves many different purposes, in the above case a business transaction. For no social interaction between Iranians is ever simple or straightforward but enveloped in layers of symbolism and implied meaning.

Anyone who has had even the most superficial relationship with Iranians has likely encountered taaroff, even if it was such a simple matter of offering them a glass of tea and seeing it politely refused. For the rules of taaroff dictate that it is rude to accept hospitality right off the bat. An elaborate show of politeness must ensue, with one party urging insistently and the other refusing until both people have established that the offer is meant sincerely and can be accepted with grace.

My biggest personality flaw when it comes to taaroff is that I tend to take everything at face value. So if a dinner guest says she couldn’t possibly eat another bite, I tend to believe her (while my Iranian husband will simply spoon another helping onto her plate). And if a bazaari tosses my payment back into my lap, my instinct is to say “How very generous of you. Thanks!” I think this could easily cause a small cultural war.

So back to my original point: Persian culture is not for the socially lazy. Every interaction, even a simple carpet purchase, is a social event. The goal is not just to pick out an item, hand over the cash, and go your merry way. That would be too cold and impersonal a transaction for Iranian sensibilities. There has to be a challenge, a pitting of wits and negotiation skills for both parties to feel they have gotten their money’s worth.


  1. You left us hanging! Did you buy the carpet? Was it a gift, did you pay more, less? as Rik says, inquiring minds want to know!

  2. Oh, yes! I bought the carpet for a dollar more and a few dollars less than the asking price, so we were both satisfied. Happy ending...

  3. I'm exhausted just reading about it! Have you finally mastered the art, Heidi?

  4. Oh, Alli, I don't think so. I keep revising my definition of what taaroff means.

  5. Judging by the photo, your taaroff was well worth it. Remind me to give you my shopping list next time you're in Tehran....

  6. I've got a better idea, Supriya. Why don't you come shopping with me in Tehran? We can hit the Grand Bazaar (and try not to get lost).

  7. I'm there!! And getting lost sounds like half the fun.

  8. Wow, that's so interesting - I've learned to bargain on the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul (where even the shop owners told me - "BARGAIN, it's no fun otherwise") but I've never encountered that taaroff phenomenon. Maybe, it's a Persian thing. Or maybe I was so obviously a Western woman that they spared me this complex social dance. I wonder now... The rug's gorgeous, though!

  9. Lina, taaroff is uniquely Persian, I think. Ironically, Persians are always telling each other not to do taaroff, but to relax and take it easy. But that itself is a form of taaroff. It's a labyrinth, I tell you!

    Supriya, getting lost in the Grand Bazaar can mean never finding your way out again. Really, it's a city all its own.

  10. I'm afraid I would take things literally at face value as well, Heidi! Good thing you had your sister-in-law with you to explain the nuances!

  11. Heather, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had pocketed the money. Would he have called the cops or cut me some slack for being a dumb foreigner?

  12. Oh, Heidi, I'm pretty sure it would be the latter!