The thing about Taarof is that it can put you (and a local) in an awkward situation if you’re not familiar with it. Many social behaviors in Iran are influenced by the tradition of Taarof, which involves politeness as a form of respect. It is form of exaggerated politeness.
Should you encounter a shopkeeper or taxi driver who refuses to accept your money, this is Taarof in the play. You should insist on paying a few times until they take your money.
Sometimes, Iranians might make offers, invitations, or say things that are overly kind/polite but are not really sincere. This is also Taarof. If you’re a visitor in Iran, I would recommend reading up about this interesting Iranian cultural practice to avoid sticky situations or misunderstandings.
Here is an Explanation of Tarrof from Velo Mina who was traveling in Iran for a while:
Here are some examples of situations you might encounter in Iran, and whether something offered is genuine/sincere, or is just being offered as a part of ta’arof and is not actually meant to be accepted:
1) You just had a taxi ride and the taxi driver, after exclaiming how happy he was to drive you around and what a pleasure it was, tells you that you don’t need to pay him for the ride, saying “you are our guest, welcome to Iran!”. Is this ta’arof? YES this is ta’arof, pay the driver! This is something that drivers also say to Iranians, and Iranians always know to respond with “no no, I will pay, here is my money”. You might have to insist 3 or 4 times even, but even then, this is ta’arof, and you should pay the taxi driver or he will be sad and will be berating himself (and you!) for it later. Same thing for if a storekeeper offers for you to take something for free or not pay… this is ta’arof, you should pay for it.
2) You meet a friendly person while doing sightseeing and they invite you to their home for tea/dinner/free accomodation with their family. Is this ta’arof? MAYBE, but probably NOT… first, tell them “no” a few times and see how insistent they are after 3 refusals. Look for other cues. Is the person in the middle of work or busy at the moment? Don’t make them leave their workplace! (It is difficult for an Iranian to directly rescind a ta’arof offer… it is too impolite for them to do that, so they will inconvenience themselves to make good on an offer even if they didn’t actually mean it). However, likely, they DO want to take you home and have you meet their family – your presence is an interesting, welcome diversion from their normal lives! But, don’t overstay your welcome – they will not tell you WHEN it’s been too long. If they feed you often, offer to buy groceries (or better yet, just go ahead and buy some without asking, so that they can’t refuse). Clean up after yourself, help with some chores. Find other ways to reciprocate their hospitality.
3) You are eating at a restaurant with Iranian friends and when the bill comes, they insist that they pay everything. Is this ta’arof? MAYBE. First, if you can afford it and if your Iranian friends have already been very generous with you, YOU should insist on paying the whole bill in response. Then they should refuse that (if they are polite Iranians) and again insist that they pay it. At this point, pay attention to other cues as to what is correct to do… do these Iranians have minimal disposable income/ would it be a financial hardship? If so, refuse to let them pay for you, repeatedly if needed, and maybe even pay for them if you can afford it or if they have already been generous to you. If they can afford it… refuse 3 times, and maybe offer to pay half, tell them that that is your culture (if you are Dutch, then it really would work!). If they still insist over and over, then you can accept it, but then when you leave the restaurant, offer to take them somewhere for ice cream and pay for them. Be hospitable back!
4) You mention that you would like to see the desert while you are in Iran. Your Iranian friends/hosts say “Oh! Let us take you there! We can go tomorrow”. Is this ta’arof? LIKELY, but maybe not. Look for other clues – is the weekend (Thursday/Friday) approaching (so no work for them)? Do they have a car and other things needed to guide you? Did you really bond with them and you think this is their way of extending the time they get to spend with you? If so, then maybe they mean it, but that is unlikely. Refuse insistently 3 times at least, and see if with each successive invitation, if they get less insistent. If their level of insistency goes down, then it was ta’arof. If their level of insistency goes up, then it might still be ta’arof, but if you finally accept, they can blame themselves for insisting too hard! LOL. But, give them a “way out” – for example, if they insist too much, you can say “okay, it sounds good, but let’s see how we feel tomorrow morning” and then they can feel better if they withdraw their invitation the next day (if it was ta’arof). Also, look at their demeanor/facial expressions when you indicate that you might accept their offer. If they look delighted, that is great. If they look a little apprehensive, then it was probably ta’arof.
5) You want to buy some souvenirs for your friends back home and your Iranian friends accompany you shopping; when it is time to buy, they insist on paying for it. Is this ta’arof? PROBABLY. If it was something you were going to buy anyway, please pay for it yourself! Insist on this!
6) You are at an Iranian’s home and admire something, and they say “Please take it! It is my gift!” Is this ta’arof? PROBABLY. Please refuse it over and over and don’t let them give it to you. If they really really insist, perhaps they do want to give it to you. If it is something very valuable, don’t accept it no matter what. However if it is a small thing or something they can easily replace, and they insist repeatedly for you to take it, then it is probably okay to take it after refusing a couple times.
7) You are at an Iranian’s home and they offer you a gift to remember them (something that you didn’t explicitly admire). Is this ta’arof? Probably NOT, they probably want to give you a gift. If it is something that they picked out themselves to give you, it is probably something that they are able to give you. Still, refuse it a couple times, to be polite. Accepting gifts right away is rude
8) You offer your Iranian hosts/friends some chocolate that you brought from home, and they say “no”. Is this ta’arof? PROBABLY. Insist that they take the chocolate! Insist 3 times! Take a piece of chocolate and put it in their mouth (Okay I am joking about the last one, but it is something that Iranians have done to me!). But in general, if you want to offer something to an Iranian, expect that they will refuse at first, even if they would like to take up your invitation – to not refuse is to be impolite. So, you need to offer things multiple times, and be insistent so that they know that you mean it, before they will accept your offer.
Iranians are not able to admit that something IS ta’arof (it is considered too impolite for them to say that!), so asking “is this ta’arof or do you mean it?” will always generate the response “no, it is not ta’arof” even if it is. Usually, ta’arof is not even done consciously – it is ingrained etiquette to offer anything a guest might desire, and it is done subconsciously, with the subconscious expectation that you will refuse because that is what Iranians do. If you accept something from them that they didn’t actually mean to offer you, there are multiple possibilities of what will happen: 1) they will pay/do the favor for you anyway, but will secretly be unhappy about it and might grumble to others that you are a greedy person, 2) they will find an excuse as to why they can’t do what they had offered, or 3) they will avoid returning your phone calls and will avoid you completely (“ghosting”) because it is unbearable to them to say to your face that they cannot do for you what they had said they would do. People who have had hosts “ghost” them or cancel last minute, this is possibly what happened… the person hosting you didn’t actually mean to host you, but didn’t know how to extricate themselves from the situation that their cultural habit of ta’arof got them into.
Try to decipher what Iranians “mean” through their body language (e.g. facial expressions, or if the offers get less insistent with each cycle of refusal) and also with your knowledge of the difficulties involved in their offer (e.g. if someone offers to drop you off at the IKA airport in the middle of the night, when you know that they have to wake up early in the morning for work… no matter how much they insist, don’t let them do it, pay for your own taxi there…. whereas if they are unemployed or otherwise free, yes you can maybe accept the ride (after a few refusals) but it is nice if you pay for some gas/benzene since it’s a long trip… although that is another opportunity for ta’arof, they will refuse money for gasoline, so if the person doesn’t have much money, don’t accept the ride because the gas they will use will be expensive for them). Try to interpet what Iranians really mean, as they are indirect in expressing their desires and wants. If you are staying at someone’s home and one day they suggest that you go and do some sightseeing on your own, that might be a hint that they want you out of the house that day. They are too polite to directly tell you that, though, so they will couch such requests as polite suggestions.
HOW TO REFUSE SOMETHING YOU DON’T WANT!!!! This is one of the hardest parts of ta’arof culture – it is so difficult to refuse something if the Iranian is insistent on giving it to you. Part of the difficulty is that the Iranian is so used to ta’arof that he/she doesn’t know if your refusal is a real indication of your desires or if it is just YOU being polite (because it is polite to refuse invitations). If you really don’t want something, be firm and say “This is not ta’arof, I actually do not want that.” Give a reason (if it is honest, even better): e.g. “I am a vegetarian, I cannot eat that kebab” or “I already have my money ready, I insist on paying for it” or “I am allergic to that” or “I don’t have time to go to the desert, I have other things planned for my trip” or “I already paid a guide to take me there, thank you so much for offering”. You can have fun with this; coming up with creative ways to refuse an offer can elicit laughs from the person offering, and break the cycle of ta’arof. Sometimes…. You have to accept because otherwise it is rude. E.g. sometimes it is more polite to drink tea offered to you (as long as you are not allergic to tea!) because otherwise your hosts will feel bad about themselves and will think that they are terrible hosts. Refusals should also be done in an indirect way… e.g. if an old woman you barely know insists that you come to her house for tea sometime this week, and you know you will be busy and don’t want to do that, DON’T say “I am sorry, I have a very busy schedule and can’t make a visit”… That sort of direct, though honest, answer is rude to an Iranian. You should say “I would love to visit, if I can find time this week then I will try”… then just don’t visit the person. It is more polite to do that than to directly tell them it’s not possible, especially if it is in front of other people. At the same time, be aware that you might be berated for not visiting should you see this woman again… just suffer through it.
And finally… Iranians really ARE hospitable and generous. Often, they really DO want to do amazing things for their guests! And sometimes, they are so insistent as to make it impossible to refuse an offer. Once, I walked into a tiny little tailorshop to get my beat-up backpack patched and sewn up, and the tailor, a sweet old deaf man, not only patched it up expertly, but absolutely REFUSED to take any money from me. REFUSED. I couldn’t make him do it. He somehow could tell that I wasn’t from there and indicated that I am a guest and that there was no way he would take money from me. In these cases, accept the generosity with gratefulness and warm thanks, and perhaps find a way to return the hospitality to them in another way in the future.
I hope this helps people as they navigate their way through the amazing, but complicated, culture of hospitality in Iran.