Years ago in England, when Hussein was studying, we rented an upstairs bedroom of a family’s house. This one room served as our bedroom, study room, and dining room. I had just got home from work and was resting. Suddenly Hussein burst into the room, evidently perturbed, woke me up, and said that a fellow student, who has given him a ride home, was coming upstairs for coffee.
“why on earth did you invite him in?” I asked him.
“ I was only doing ta’arof; I didn’t know he would come!” he said.
Ritual politeness can mean different things in different cultures: among Iranians, an off-hand invitation like Hussein’s is an indication that the speaker would like to bring the interaction to a close. At the same time, it serves as a “sincere expression of thanks or regard,” even though it is not meant as an invitation proper, as the expression of good intention counts for more than the outcome. Hussein issued an invitation for coffee to his fellow student as an expression of thanks for the ride he was given.
Ta’arof is a style of polite communication, or “ritual courtesy,” that permeates much of Iranian communication, and its practice is related to religious teachings of hospitality and generosity. The word ta’arof is Arabic and means “mutual knowledge,” which emphasizes the important function of ta’arof as a tool for negotiating relationships.
Ta’arof is generally used to express the speaker’s deference, humility, and cordiality toward a speaker. Here’s a conversation I heard between two brothers-in-law:
A: where have you been? We haven’t seen much of you lately.
B: we are [i.e., I am] under your feet
Ta’arof may sometimes be seen as an empty formality when the outward expression of these positive qualities (e.g. hospitality, warmth, and respect) is not accompanied by sincerity of feeling, but going through the ta’arof motions conveys respect and enhances the face of both speakers.