Tarof is basically a form of etiquette in Persian culture that’s extremely important, especially when you are dealing with older generations of Iran— in the younger generations it’s not as important, but in the older generations especially it’s much more important. [laughs] I never know what the first way to introduce this is. So in Iran, hosting is a very important part of the culture. Having people over and offering them food, and tea, and snacks, and a place to sit outside or do they want [to sit by a] window. It’s a very important part of the culture and Iranians take as many chances as they can to offer that kind of service to people, especially if it’s family or a respected elder, or peer like a boss per se, or a teacher. Its very important but in Iran— and I’m sure other cultures as well— but in Iran it has a very specific name.
The polite thing to do in that situation when you’re offered something is actually to decline, not to be like “Thank you, this is so wonderful you made these delicious cookies!” Or “This dinner you made is so good!” It’s to be like, “No, no, no thank you, but no,” even if you want that thing. The polite thing to do is be like, “I really don’t want that.” But the thing is in that scenario, the other people who’s offering up whatever it is, the polite thing is not to go, “Okay, I respect your wishes,” it’s “No, no, no, I want you to have this.” So every time that interaction happens it’s kind of like a battle every single time. And it can be over something as small as “I’m passing this bowl of peanuts, would you like some?”
My informant is of Iranian heritage, and this is a custom that he grew up experiencing within his household. The reasoning behind this tradition is a demonstration of respect to your elders, peers, and anyone with a higher status. He further explains that even within his own family, the custom is still practiced between them. To him “it’s almost like second nature,” and so ingrained in him that he’ll even practice tarof with his friends. However, he does say that this custom is usually only practiced around other Persians, and not as much with outsiders.
This piece was brought up when I was giving my informant examples of folklore, such as traditions or proverbs. I then listed customs as an example, and asked if he knew of any customs within his own culture, to which he then provided the above piece.
I like how my informant expressed how crucial tarof is to Persian culture, to the point where he realized that he has a tendency to practice it around people outside of his cultural group, and that he was able to provide a thorough explanation of the custom. In this piece it’s very clear that tarof is a demonstration of status between the host and the invited guest, and is especially practiced by the older generations, indicating that the tradition is passed down through families. Additionally, the fact that it’s only practiced around other Persians shows that this is a custom that takes place within a certain peer group, and as such, to be considered part of the group, one has to know that there’s an expected way to conduct oneself. For example, if a non-Persian were somehow to be in this scenario and offered food, they would not know that the correct response is to decline the offer, and would expose themselves as an outsider to the group. Lastly, I think that this piece is a good way to determine the values of the culture, one of which being respect and hospitality.