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In the Persian world of 'ta'arof,' they make offers that will be refused

The Battle of the $18 Ice Cream Bill had a certain "Game of Thrones" quality to it.

The two middle-aged Iranian men strode to the register at Saffron and Rose Ice Cream with their hands on their wallets. One quickly unsheathed his credit card and gave it to owner Farbod Papen. The second man promptly put his friend in a near chokehold and snatched his credit card.

With his arm still wrapped around his friend's chest, he presented his own credit card. Take this! But the first man wouldn't yield so easily, and boxed out his rival. Then the two men crashed into the table where the cash register rested, breaking one of its legs.

Just another day of "ta'arofing" in Westeros, er, Westwood.

"This happens every Saturday," Papen said, laughing. "I swear to God. It gets pretty vicious, man. It's hard-core in Westwood."

In the world of ta'arof, the Persian art of etiquette, people fight over who pays the bill, seem to refuse payments for a purchase, pretend they don't want something to eat when they're starving. In a culture that emphasizes deference, ta'arof is a verbal dance that circles around respect.

In most cases, it's simply an exaggerated version of universally human behavior — like offering to pay for a meal.

"It's like extreme Southern hospitality," said Leyla Shams, an Iranian American who runs a Persian culture blog. "Being from Texas, we have Southern codes too. That's a lot like ta'arof. People see it as disingenuous, but it's just a nicety."

Sometimes, though, ta'arof has no Western equivalent.

Most people would be hard-pressed to find a jeweler who says "Ghabeleh shoma ra nadareh" — "It's not worthy of you" — when asked the price of a diamond necklace, but Iranians do this frequently. Everyone knows to just ask again. Or those watermelons? "Just take one!" a merchant might say. (Hint: Don't. The seller doesn't mean it.)

The move can come off as disingenuous, manipulative and frustrating in American culture, which often celebrates being upfront and direct. But Iranians understand it as a ritual politeness that levels the playing field and promotes equality in a hierarchical culture.

"Americans get in trouble when they entertain Iranian guests, because they offer tea and the Iranian says no," said William Beeman, author of "Language, Status, and Power in Iran." "Then the American says 'OK,' and they end up without tea when they wanted it."

An estimated 215,000 Iranians live in California, according the American Community Survey, many of them in the Westside's "Tehrangeles." Iranian community estimates place the number much higher, at about 500,000 in Southern California alone.

No matter how you cut it, that means a lot of ta'arofing.

Whether they're 8 years old or 80, whether they're Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian — it doesn't matter. If they're Persian, they probably practice some form of ta'arof (pronounced TAH-rofe).

That's why Papen wasn't shocked by the grappling war of wills that broke out over a simple ice cream bill. It's standard in Westwood's Persian Square, where storefronts are scrawled with names in both Farsi and English and the streets are lined with Mercedes-Benzes, Lexuses and BMWs.

"I've had people throw the money at me," Papen said. "It's relentless."


Anthropologists trace the origins of ta'arof to an Arabic word meaning "acquaintance" or "knowledge." Like many Arabic words that have found their way into the Persian language, ta'arof has been transformed into something uniquely Iranian.

In Iranian culture, it is customary to offer guests a glass of water or a cup of tea; many Western cultures do the same. But an Iranian guest who's ta'arofing would refuse the beverage at first pass. The host would insist and offer again. Finally, on the third round, the guest would accept the drink. Any other scenario would be considered rude.

Ta'arof is about more than just offering and refusing things, Beeman said. It is about raising others and "self-lowering" oneself. It is often filled with self-deprecation — something he calls "getting the lower hand."

No matter what twist and turns ta'arof might take, the goal is to be respectful, Beeman said.

To that end, it is similar to the Chinese etiquette of fighting over who pays. People tug at the bill, trying to free it from the grips of someone else at the table. They shout. Faces turn crimson. People pretend to walk to the restroom to secretly pay the bill. It's over-the-top, but it's also considered polite.

The practice is much stronger in Iran and among immigrants from that country than it is among their offspring born in America — though younger Iranian Americans are still expected to ta'arof to some degree.

And then there's the matter of explaining the practice to non-Iranian Americans.

Papen, the ice cream shop owner, does his best to bridge cultural divides that might arise. When a Persian woman comes into the store with her parents and non-Persian boyfriend, for example, he makes sure to give the man a brief education on ta'arof.

A guest is not supposed to pay for a meal, he explains to the boyfriends. It's also considered rude if someone pays for his elder, but it's also rude not to offer.

"I tell them, 'Look, you're going to have to figure this out on your own, but you can't pay,'" Papen explained.

The cultural disconnect has led to a few awkward dates for Shams, who was just a toddler when her family moved to the United States.

And if the dates went well, she had to lay down the rules for how to interact with her Iranian family. Even the right way to say hello came up.

"It's a big ta'arof thing to acknowledge each person in the house," Shams said. "I think in a lot of American households you can get away with not saying hi to every person."

She added: "It's also important to be really thankful for food that you get and try to kind of figure out when people are offering something for real or not really."

The culture shock worked both ways, Shams said. She often found herself ta'arofing with Americans who had no idea that she was just trying to be respectful. Sometimes, it backfired.

"I would go to someone's house and they would ask, 'Would you like a glass of water?' And I would say no, no," she recalled. "But then everyone else had water and I was like, 'Well, now what do I do?'"


Masud Valipour, owner of Ketabsara bookstore in Westwood, said ta'arof can be strategic or genuine depending on who is offering.

"The heart of ta'arof is good," he said. "Sometimes people take advantage of it. It's just like anything else."

Down the street from his shop, two women sipped tea in a small cafe and caught up on the latest gossip. A round of ta'arof erupted when a waitress brought a slice of cake to their table.

"Here, please have some," one woman said in Farsi.

"No, I already had one, I couldn't possibly," her friend replied.

At first blush, it seems like a universally feminine move. But in Iranian culture, it transcends gender — both men and women refuse food, not because of its effect on their waistlines but because accepting it on the first offer would be rude.

The back-and-forth continued for minutes, until one finally took a bite. Seconds later, the woman who said she was full stuck in her fork.

In less than five minutes, the pastry had vanished.

Twitter: @sarahparvini

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