Lesson 51: Introducing 'Ta'arof'

In this lesson, we talk about one of the most important concepts when it comes to learning about Persian culture- the concept of tārof. Tārof is basically the code of etiquette Iranians use in all social situations, and it's quite culturally pervasive. While western culture also has rules of engaging with others, Persians take it to a whole new level. For someone unfamiliar with the concept, sometimes the behavior of Iranians may seem a bit strange, but once these few simple rules are learned, a lot of cultural misunderstanding can be avoided.

LINKS:

We also explored this concept in our popular Youtube video, which you can see here.

In addition, Leyla was interviewed for PRI's The World about the concept- check it out on their webpage. Or checkout her interview with the LA Times, where again she championed the cause. 


GREETINGS:

salām
hello
سَلام
chetor-ee
how are you?
چِطوری؟

Note: In Persian, as in many other languages, there is a formal and an informal way of speaking. We will be covering this in more detail in later lessons. For now, however, chetor-ee is the informal way of asking someone how they are, so it should only be used with people that you are familiar with. hālé shomā chetor-é is the formal expression for ‘how are you.’

Spelling note: In written Persian, words are not capitalized. For this reason, we do not capitalize Persian words written in phonetic English in the guides.


ANSWERS:

khoobam
I’m well
خوبَم

Pronunciation tip: kh is one of two unique sounds in the Persian language that is not used in the English language. It should be repeated daily until mastered, as it is essential to successfully speak Persian. Listen to the podcast for more information on how to make the sound.

Persian English
salām hello
chetor-ee how are you?
khoobam I’m well
merci thank you
khayli very
khayli khoobam I’m very well
khoob neestam I’m not well
man me/I
bad neestam I’m not bad
ālee great
chetor-een? how are you? (formal)
hālé shomā chetor-é? how are you? (formal)
hālet chetor-é? how are you? (informal)
khoob-ee? are you well? (informal)
mamnoonam thank you
chetor peesh meeré? how’s it going?
ché khabar? what’s the news? (what’s up?)
testeeeee

Matt: Hello and welcome back to Chai and Conversation!

Leyla: And welcome back to us as well Matt.

Matt: Yes, welcome!

Leyla: We’ve been on a long long hiatus- probably our longest one yet. There’s been a lot going on for the Chai and Conversation team. To begin, actually, I want to introduce our newest team member, Chadwick. Salam Chadwick!

Chad: Salam!

Leyla: If you’ve emailed us lately, you might have received a reply from Chadwick. He’s been working with us behind the scenes for almost two years, so we thought it was about time to introduce him on air. Chadwick, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role on Chai and Conversation?

Chad: Sure! I’m Chadwick. I work as a web developer her in Austin. I love working with computers, but also have a big interest in culture and languages.

Leyla: Great! And to add to that a bit, Chadwick does a lot of the back house things that makes Chai and Conversation run smoothly. He redeveloped our entire website, remastered the sound on all of our episodes, and was instrumental in a lot of new features on the podcast. So anyhow, Chadwick, though you’ve been here for a while, welcome to the team!

Chadwick: Happy to be here!

Leyla: And Matt, just a quick update- you’ve been busy with quickly growing baby Kimiya and med school- have I left anything out?

Matt: That’s about it- those two things take up a lot of my time these days. Oh and we also moved cities and houses!

Leyla: That’s right! Matt and Ladan and baby Kimiya are now living in Dallas, and just moved in to a new home.

Matt: And you also have a big update.

Leyla: True- I got married last May. I wrote several blog posts about Iranian weddings, so hopefully you all had a chance to look at those. But anyhow that’s been quite an introduction. I do want to note one last thing. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from listeners that our introductions tend to be a bit wordy. So from now on, we’ll leave the intro music and an introduction to the unit on the first lesson of the unit. After the first lesson of the unit, we’ll dive right into the lesson from the beginning so you won’t have to fast forward all the time. If we have any news or updates, we’ll add them in special news podcasts between the lesson episodes. So, at long last, Matt, are you ready to jump back in and learn some Persian?

Matt: Ready!

Leyla: Great! Then let’s go ahead and begin to Learn Persian with Chai and Conversation.

 

Leyla: So Lesson 51 is the first lesson of Unit 6 of Chai and Conversation. As we’ve said before, language is all about communication, and one of the most important parts of communication is cultural understanding. For this reason, we’re devoting the next 10 lessons to Persian culture and the vocabulary that goes along with cultural topics.

A couple of years ago, we got a group of friends together to record a video about the Persian custom of ta’rof. Matt, can you describe tarof as you understand it?

Matt: Well, it’s the code of politeness in Persian culture, or I guess you could say, the code of etiquette.

Leyla: Exactly, it’s how you engage with other people in social situations. If you haven’t seen the youtube video we made about this topic, go to lesson 51 page on our website, and you’ll see a link to it there. So, we want to begin this unit by going over some of the vocabulary you need to navigate situations you find yourself in with other Iranians, when ta’rof is in play. So, first, the concept itself is called tarof

Matt: Tarof

Leyla: Great, exactly. So formally, the word is pronounced ta’arof, with the stop in the middle of the word. Ta’arof. But, colloquially, it’s simply pronounced tarof

Matt: Tarof

Leyla: So you said tarof is a code of politeness, and that’s a great way to describe it. It’s basically the way Iranians interact with one another, regardless of age, social standing, gender, etc. It’s kind of an extreme form of politeness, which you’ll see in some of the examples I’m about to tell you. People have mixed feelings about the concept of ta’arof. Some people say it’s too extreme, and some people thing it’s disingenuous. But, here in American culture, for example, you could equate it to, say ‘southern hospitality’. It’s just cultural codes that everyone learns and knows to abide by.

So one common situation you’d encounter tarof in Iranian culture is when you are visiting someone’s home. The host will show his or her hospitality in the form of tarof. So, often, the first thing the host will do is insist that you as a guest eat or drink something. The most common offering, of course, is chai. So, as we learned in lesson 13, the host will almost immediately ask the guest ‘chai meekhoree?’

Matt: Chai meekhoree?

Leyla: Do you remember what this means Matt?

Matt: It means, will you have tea.

Leyla: Exactly. Literally it means will you eat tea, but in Persian, eat and drink are the same word. So Matt, you remember the answer for this question from the video. When a host asks if you’d like something to eat or drink, what you invariably answer?

Matt: Na merci.

Leyla: Exactly, na merci, or no thank you. This is your way of being polite and respectful of your host. You’re saying that you aren’t there to eat or drink, but rather, you’re there to visit the host. In Iranian culture, the host has to offer you something, whether or not they have time to visit with you, or want to go through the trouble of getting you something. So it’s your job as the guest to refuse their offer. If you don’t refuse, and immediately accept, it’s seen as rude. It’s as simple as that. This is different than in American culture, where really you only offer something if you mean it, and you accept if you want it. American culture is much more direct. So, again, the host will ask ‘Chai meekhoree? and the guest answers ‘na merci’. So what if the host actually intends to give you something to drink? They’ll offer again. And again, you have to insist, ‘na merci.’ This usually goes on two or three times until either the host forces a cup of tea on the guest, or the guest makes an excuse and runs for it.

So now that we’ve gone over the scenario, let’s go over a few different ways to refuse that cup of tea, whether or not you want it. So again, there’s ‘na merci’

Matt: na merci.

Leyla: You could also use another word for thank you we’ve learned- mamnoonam. This is a bit more formal and means ‘I’m thankful.’ So ‘na, mamnoonam

Matt: Na, mamnoonam.

Leyla: As the guest, you could also insist to the host that you don’t want to trouble them. You do this by saying ‘zahmat nakesh’

Matt: zahmat nakesh

Leyla: And this means, don’t go through the trouble. The word zahmat means trouble, and it’s used a lot in tarof scenarios. So, don’t go through the trouble- zahmat nakesh.

Matt: Zahmat nakesh.

Leyla: And the hosts response to that could be ‘zahmatee neest’

Matt: Zahmatee neest

Leyla: This means ‘it’s no trouble’. Zahmatee neest

Matt: Zahmatee neest

Leyla: Let’s go through these responses again so we can get them down. So a very simple response to the question ‘would you like tea’ is no thank you. Matt, what’s a simple way of saying this?

Matt: Na merci.

Leyla: Exactly, na, merci. We learned a second way of saying no thank you, and that is

Matt: Na, mamnoonam.

Leyla: Great- na, mamnoonam. In addition, you can tell your host, please don’t go through the trouble. You say that using the words ‘zahmat nakesh’

Matt: Zahmat nakesh.

Leyla: And in response to this, the host can insist ‘zahmatee neest’

Matt: Zahmatee neest

Leyla: So now let’s go through a typical dialogue of visiting a hosts house and being offered some chai using the vocabulary we just learned along with a couple new phrases. I’ll start.

Leyla: Salam Matt, khosh amadee. Chai meekhoree?

Matt: Na, khayli mamnoonam.

Leyla: Cherah, barat chai beeyaram.

Matt: Na, merci. Zahmat nakesh.

Leyla: Tarof nakon, zahmatee neest.

Matt: Na be khoda, lotfan besheen.

Leyla: Befarma, een ham chai.

Matt: Bah bah, khayli mamnoon.

Leyla: Ok great, hopefully you got the general idea of this dialogue. So basically, I start off by saying ‘salam Matt, khosh amadee.’ We’ve covered this phrase before, it means ‘welcome’. Khosh amadee

Matt: Khosh amadee

Leyla: And then I ask ‘chai meekhoree?’

Matt: Chai meekhoree?

Leyla: Which we knows means’ do you want tea?’ And Matt you replied: na, khayli mamnoonam.

Matt: Na, khayli mamnoonam.

Leyla: Next, I say ‘cherah, barat chai beeyaram.’ Now the word cherah we learned a while ago. It’s a positive response to a negative sentence. So it means yes, when responding to a negative. Cherah.

Matt: Cherah

Leyla: And I insist ‘barat chai beeyaram’. Barat is the word for ‘you’. Barat

Matt: Barat

Leyla: And ‘chai beeyaram’ means bring you tea. So I’ll bring tea for you. Barat chai beeyaram. I’ll bring tea for you. Barat chai beeyaram

Matt: Barat chai beeyaram.

Leyla: You respond by saying, ‘na merci, zahmat nakesh.’ Na merci should be really clear by this point- na merci

Matt: Na merci

Leyla: Meaning ‘no thanks’. And zahmat nakesh means ‘don’t go through the trouble. Zahmat nakesh.

Matt: Zahmat nakesh.

Leyla: And here, the tarof dance continues as I completely call you out on tarofing. I say ‘tarof nakon’.

Matt: Tarof nakon

Leyla: And this literally means ‘don’t tarof’. So here I’m acknowledging the fact that you’re tarofing, that you do indeed want tea, and I ask you not to tarof with me. So I say ‘tarof nakon’.

Matt: Tarof nakon.

Leyla: And I respond to you zahmat nakesh by saying ‘zahmatee neest’, or ‘it’s no trouble.’ Zahmatee neest

Matt: Zahmatee neest.

Leyla: Matt insists one last final time, almost pleading with me by saying ‘na be khoda’

Matt: Na be khoda

Leyla: Which literally means ‘no, for god’, which is the equivalent to ‘no, for the love of god’. Just like in western culture, Iranians use these type of almost religious phrases as a figure of speech, and they’re usually secular in nature. But he’s getting desperate here, saying ‘na, be khoda’

Matt: Na be khoda.

Leyla: Which is like ‘no, for the love of god.’ And he concludes by saying ‘lotfan besheen’

Matt: Lotfan besheen

Leyla: Which means ‘please sit’. Lotfan besheen.

Matt: Loftan besheen.

Leyla: In the end, I bring the tea, and Matt happily accepts it, and we have a supposedly lovely time afterwards catching up. In this dialogue example, I, the host, really wanted Matt to stay, and you can tell this because I was so insistent. What if I was actually really busy, and didn’t have time for Matt to stay for tea, or if I really didn’t feel like making tea? Well, in the tradition of tarof, I offer the tea no matter what. And I’m just a little bit less insistent, and eventually give up. But it would be rude for me not to offer, just as it would be rude for Matt to accept my offering immediately.

Now what, ultimately, is the point of all this? Well, as we said in the beginning, tarof is a way of showing respect. The host is offering something in order to serve and respect the guest. The guest is in turn refusing the offering in order to make it clear that he or she is only there to see the host, not to take anything from the host.

To our American or Western sensibilities, the concept of tarof, of denying what you really want, or offering what you don’t necessarily want to give, might seem disingenuous at worst, or a waste of time at best. There are a lot of Iranians who feel this way as well. But, I have to tell you, I disagree with this notion and have sort of a soft spot in my heart for tarof. Lately, I’ve been a kind of advocate for tarof, and have even given some interviews about it. To me, being raised in Texas for most of my life, it’s a lot like our codes of southern hospitality. It’s a road map for communication that helps people navigate through different social situation. It might be trickly at first, but once you understand it, it becomes like a second nature to you.

So I think this is a good point to stop at. We’ve give you a little intro to the concept of tarof, and for those of you new to the idea, it’s a lot to take in.

Matt: If you haven’t seen our video about tarof yet, be sure to check it out as soon as possible. There’s a link to it at chaiandconversation.com/lesson51. You’ll also find links there to a few articles Leyla’s been interviewed for about the concept of tarof.

Leyla: We’ll explore this idea further in Lesson 52. And until then, khodahafez from Leyla.

Matt: And beh omeedeh deedar from Matt.