Description of Informant
MV (79) is a retired engineer, chess master, and violinist from Tehran, Iran. At 19, he came to America to study at Ohio Northern and remained in the states for his adult life (Missouri and California). While in Iran, he lived a very traditional life under religious parents. He has embedded many of the traditional views of his youth into his personal values
Original Text: چه گويم كه ناگفتنم بهتره؟
Phonetic: Cheh gooyam keh nah gōftanam behtareh?
Transliteration: What can I say that it is better not to say?
Free Translation: What should I say, if saying nothing would be better?
Context of Use
The phrase is a playfully solemn response to “How are you?” It works to inform the asker that the speaker is sad/down, but also that they aren’t interested in discussing their emotions with the present party. It is most often used between friends or peers.
It is also a proverb, serving a similar function to the English “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Unlike the English phrase, it is not directed outward, and instead focuses on the speaker. I.E. If I don’t have anything positive to say, why should I speak?
Context of Interview
The informant, MV, sits on a loveseat, feet planted on a brightly colored Persian rug. He is opposite the collector, BK, his grandson. Text spoken in Farsi is translated and italicized. Instances of the phrase have been replaced by [the phrase].
MV: *muttering* [the phrase]… One of the things, for instance, we used to say… somebody says “How are you, what are you doing?”, you say [the phrase]. Um… meaning that, for instance, you see a friend who asks “How are you doing?” and if you don’t feel like good you say [the phrase]. What should I say if— if I keep quiet— would be much better?
BK: Who would you say this to? If your boss asked “How are you?”—
MV: No, it was when we were teenagers. Just among friends. Not with parents.
BK: Was this something funny or something serious?
MV: Nah we just— we’d just say he doesn’t feel good but he doesn’t wanna talk about it. Then they know not to pressure you.
In Iran during the 1940s and 1950s, when MV was a teenager, discussion of emotions between men, even peers, was extremely taboo. Men were not encouraged to express themselves, and were expected to remain stoic. The phrase was invented as a tool to allow young men to inform their peers of their emotional state, while remaining distant.
MV is an interesting man. He embodied traditional Iranian masculinity well into his 60s: stoic, serious, commanding respect. All this despite living in America since his 20s. Admittedly, American masculinity standards don’t exactly scream “vulnerability” either. However, when MV retired at the beginning of his 70s, everything changed. He was able to loosen up, smile, joke, we even saw him cry. This once formal and scary man became a teddy bear. One couldn’t imagine him using the phrase now, as he would much rather discuss his emotions. One could read this as a sign of aging, but I consider it to be a sign of the times as well. MV noted that his Iranian friends have all become more comfortable with vulnerability in recent years as it has become more socially acceptable. As the definition of masculinity changes worldwide, perhaps this use of phrase will fade to memory; perhaps not, time will tell.
The phrase will continue to find relevance as a proverb, though it is less regularly used as such.