TAʿĀROF

TAʿĀROF, an Arabic term (lit. ‘becoming acquainted’) used in Persian to define a nearly untranslatable concept encompassing a broad complex of behaviors in Iranian life that mark and underscore differences in social status. Laurence Loeb glosses it as “compliment, ceremony, offer, present” (1969). William Beeman defines it as “the active, ritualized realization of differential status in interaction.” (1976, p. 312; 1986, 1988, 2001). It underscores and preserves the integrity of culturally defined status roles as it is carried out in the life of every Iranian every day in thousands of different ways. Iranian youth cry in despair at its pervasiveness, but they are powerless against it, and practice it themselves even while complaining about it.

Taʿārof has both a linguistic and a social behavioral component. Linguistic taʿārof involves two kinds of language phenomena. One aspect has to do with word choice. Iran is a hierarchical society, and social hierarchy is marked linguistically by using vocabulary that emphasizes the higher status of the other person, while denigrating one’s own status. Many common Persian verbs have corresponding “other raising” and “self lowering” forms.

The system is very elaborate, and it is not possible to provide a comprehensive description here. William K. Archer and Forough Al-Zaman Minou-Archer, William Beeman (1986), John Boyle, Michael Hillman, Mohammad Jazayery, Yahya Modaressi and Paul Sprachman all provide partial descriptions of taʿārof. The verb “to give” (dādan) provides a good example of the functioning of the system:

Neutral form

Dādan

Other-raising (describing one’s own action toward the other)

taqdim kardan (lit. to offer)

Self-lowering (describing the other’s action toward one’s self)

marḥamat kardan (lit. to do a “mercy”), moḥabbat kardan (lit. to do a kindness), loṭf kardan (lit. to do a favor)

More deference can be shown by substituting the verb “farmudan” (lit. to command) for “kardan” in the self lowering forms.

Pronouns are similarly marked for status.

Pronoun Description

First Person singular

Second Person singular

Neutral form

man

to (intimate),
šomā (polite, formal)

Self lowering

banda (lit. bonsman), nowkar (lit. servant), čāker (lit. servant)

 

Other raising

 

janāb-e ʿāli, (lit. excellency)
sarkār (used mainly in addressing women; lit. head of affairs)
ḥażrat-e ʿāli (lit. highness)

The second linguistic dimension of discourse has to do with polite and deferential general discourse. Iranian discourse routinely uses phrases that emphasize the low, dependent, or even servile status of the speaker, and the exalted status of the addressee, such as qorbān-e šomā (lit. your self-sacrificer), used as a routine departure phrase, or closing to a letter. There is no exhaustive list of these expressions. They are limited only by the imagination of the speaker. Some people are extremely skilled at this kind of discourse, and provide taʿarof that rings true and sincere. Indeed, there are definitely people to whom this kind of language is due, such as revered teachers, parents, intellectuals, and leaders. Others are clearly using this language to flatter or deceive. The ambiguity in this language is part of its charm, contributing a distinct flavor to Iranian interactions.

The other area of taʿārof has to do with social gestures that provide courtesy and hospitality to others. Simple gestures such as allowing another person to go first through a doorway or seating someone in a place of honor are common examples of everyday taʿārof. However, taʿārof can be much more elaborate. Extravagant offers of service or hospitality are labeled as taʿārof in everyday discourse. Similarly refusing hospitality or favors is labeled as taʿārof. When a generous gesture is offered and the recipient demurs, he or she is often told “please don’t do taʿārof.” Since hospitality and generosity are deeply ingrained in Iranian society, it is often difficult to discern genuine from insincere offers. Sometimes it is a win-win situation. If the recipient accepts, the giver feels pride. If the recipient succeeds in refusing, the giver feels happy that he or she made the gesture. Taʿārof can verge on aggressive behavior as participants try to outdo each other in their generosity. Needless to say, taʿarof is an important social lubricant in Iran, and when everyone is practicing it, social life can be pleasant, and discord can be suppressed under a veil of politesse.

These actions are universal in Iranian culture, whatever the religious, ethnic, or linguistic community of the participants. Laurence Loeb (1969) provides examples for the Iranian Jewish community. His observations apply equally to Zoroastrian and Christian communities. Azari Turks, Kurds, Baluchis, and tribal peoples are equally famous for their hospitality and use of taʿārof in their own languages, though they may lack the elaborate vocabulary for “other raising” and “self lowering” found in Persian.

The dynamics of deferential language and polite behavior embodied in taʿārof are widespread in the cultures of the world. If Iran is to be differentiated from Japan (Seward), Indonesia (Errington) or the Wolof of Senegal (Irvine) among others, it is in the extensive use of taʿārof for strategic dealing in Iran. While much taʿārof is utterly sincere, it is possible by “getting the lower hand” as a behavioral and rhetorical strategy to compel others to acquiesce to one’s wishes. Essentially, one uses this strategy to invoke noblesse oblige in the other person, making it difficult for them to refuse requests.

Bibliography:

W. K. Archer and F. Minou-Archer, “Some Observations Concerning Stylistics Amongst the Persians,” in B. B. Kachru and H. Stahlke, eds., Current Trends in Stylistics, Edmonton, 1972, pp. 15-36.

W. O. Beeman, “Status, Style and Strategy in Iranian Interaction,” Anthropological Linguistics 18/7, 1976, pp. 305-22.

Idem, Language, Status and Power in Iran, Bloomington, Ind., 1986.

Idem, “Affectivity in Persian Language Usage,” in B. Good, M. J. Good, and M. J. Fischer, eds., Affect and Healing in Middle Eastern Cultures: Special Issue, Culture Medicine and Psychiatry 12/1, 1988, pp. 403-24.

Idem, “Emotion and Sincerity in Persian Discourse: Accomplishing the Representation of Inner States,” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 148, 2001, pp. 31-57.

J. A. Boyle, “Notes on the Colloquial Language of Persia as Recorded in Certain Recent Writings,” BSOAS 14, 1952, pp. 451-62.  

J. Errington, Structure and Style in Javanese: A Semiotic View of Linguistic Etiquette, Philadelphia, 1988.

M. Hillman, “Language and Social Distinctions in Iran,” in M. E. Bonine and N.R. Keddie, eds., Modern Iran: The Dialectics of Continuity and Change, Albany, 1981, pp. 327-40.  

J. Irvine, “Strategies of Status Manipulation in the Wolof Greeting,” in R. Bauman and J. Sherzer, eds., Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking, London, 1974, pp. 167-91.

M. A. Jazayery, “Observations on Stylistic Variation in Persian,” Actes du Xe Congrès International des Linguistes III, Bucharest, 1970, pp. 447-57.

L. D. Loeb,  “Mechanisms of Rank Maintenance and Social Mobility among Shirazi Jews (Iran),” Paper presented at the 68th annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, New Orleans, 1969.

Y. Modaressi-Tehrani, A Sociolinguistic Analysis of Modern Persian,” Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 1979.

J. Newton et al., Taʿārof Expression in Persian, Tehran, n.d.

J. Seward, Japanese in Action: An Unorthodox Approach to the Spoken Language and the People Who speak It, New York, 1971.

Paul Sprachman, Language and Culture in Persian, Costa Mesa, Calif., 2002.

(William O. Beeman)

Cite this article:

William Beeman, “TAʿĀROF,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2017, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/taarof (accessed on 6 December 2017).