'Tarof' on This American Life

Leyla Shams
March 31, 2011

One of the most important traditions in Iranian culture is the tradition of ‘Tarof.’ Tarof can be described as a specific form of Iranian etiquette or politeness, and comes with a very specific set of rules of how to interact with other people. Sometimes it can be extremely frustrating and seem disingenuous, but at other times, it provides a nice framework of how to interact with other people in an extremely polite and respectful way. A good example of tarof is that when you visit someone’s house, they must offer you something to eat or drink. Even if you are extremely thirsty or hungry, you must refuse the offer. They in turn must keep reinstating the offer, and indeed bring you food and drink, even if they are not prepared to give it to you.

This American Life is one of the best radio programs in the United States, airing on public radio throughout the states. They tackled the tradition of tarof a couple weeks ago in their program. As their program description stated-

“Nazanin Rafsanjani [speaks] about the Iranian custom Tarof, which leads people to constantly offer things they may not want to give, and to refuse things they really want. Nazanin is a producer for the public radio show On The Media 

You can listen to Nazanin’s report here (the entire program is interesting, but to hear the part on Tarof specifically, fast forward to 34:30 minutes)-



Since I started dating a Persian girl and meeting her sister, I've become fascinated with the customs around the house when it comes to asking for something to eat or just simply permission to make some tea or what have you; in Ireland it's considered polite, but for my Persian friends it's almost an affront. I'll have to tread carefully if and when I get to meet her mother...

Of course the show about gift giving has more then half of the stories from the middle east..

I am a Scot who married a Hungarian lady; and since first travelling to Hungary with my wife some 15 years ago, I have found that Hungary has its own version of tarof. It is perhaps not so excruciatingly elaborate as the Irani form, but it's certainly a close second -- I think of it as combative hospitality, or credit cards at ten paces.

After many visits to Budapest over the years, I have come to understand that, for example, if the family goes to a restaurant for dinner, it is absolutely pointless for me to attempt to pay unless I have engaged in extensive negotiations several days in advance with my brother-in-law, and even then it is a battle when the bill comes (and he is younger, fitter and a lot bigger than I am); and I have learned not to admire anything in his house in case he gives me it. I have also learned never, under any circumstances, to finish a glass of whisky in any Hungarian's house, for an empty glass cannot be tolerated, and the resulting hangover will reach epic proportions.

Nor does it matter whether one visits Hungarians in Hungary or receives Hungarians in one's own country: 'You are a guest in our country,' they will say, 'it is entirely unthinkable that you should pay for anything.' Or 'We are guests in your country,' they will say, 'it is entirely unthinkable that we should not show our gratitude.' You can't win.

I have been in Iran and experienced tarof at first had. But this is already long enough.