How Being Polite Can Be Frustrating
I’m currently reading a short book called The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, by an Iranian who was raised in the West by his parents, members of Iran’s diplomatic class in the 1960s and 70s. Hooman Majd tells his story in short vignettes. He deconstructs the minutiae of his return trips to his homeland, visiting government officials and ayatollahs and old friends. His insights into Iranian culture are particularly vivid, as he is at the same time an Iranian at heart and steeped in Western culture. Being bilingual is certainly an asset in bridging that gulf. As Majd recollects his stories, he notes the persistence of ta’arouf, a form of politesse permeating nearly every interaction in Iranian culture. I can tell you, this idea of ta’arouf is thick in Azeri culture, as well.
Throughout the book, Majd explains the ta’arouf in almost every possible situation, whether it is in his meetings with the Iranian Foreign Minister, displayed in the minister’s offering his service while not really meaning it, or talking with taxi drivers about how much to pay, in which the taxi driver insists that paying for the taxi ride is an act unworthy but really just refuses the payment until you overwhelm with your own insistence that you must pay the fare. Of ta’arouf, Majd writes:
Western observers often define ta’arouf as extreme Iranian hospitality, or as a Persian form of elaborate etiquette, but since Westerners naturally engage in ta’arouf too (as everyone who has ever complimented a host or hostess on what was actually a bad meal knows), it’s easy to miss its true significance and its implications in Persian culture. The white lies that good manners dictate we tell in the West and general polite banter or gracious hospitality cannot begin to describe what for Iranians is a cultural imperative that is about manners, yes, but is also about gaining advantage, politically, socially, or economically, as much as anything else. One might be tempted to think of ta’arouf as passive-aggressive behavior with a peculiarly Persian hue, but although it can be, it cannot be defined solely so.
I can tell you: the Azeri culture that I experience is thick with ta’arouf. I cannot purchase something without hearing the phrase, “qonaq ol”, or “be a guest”, meaning that I shouldn’t pay. This goes for big meals to short taxi rides. Last time I was in Baku, I was told to be a guest for a cup of coffee I bought. And every greeting and goodbye is often a long trail of phrases that almost knock you over. This could involve asking “how are you?” in every permutation possible. This sounds great, a place of extreme courtesy, right? Well, for any foreigner who’s in Azerbaijan this can be a strong change of pace. And when the seller tells you to be a guest, the correct response is to insist on paying. This next part from Majd is right on, as well, describing the same tactic I use when walking in the street here:
Any visitor to Iran will also describe Tehran traffic as perhaps the worst in the world with, paradoxically for people known for their extreme hospitality and good manners, the rudest drivers of any country. True, for someone behind the wheel of an automobile, man or woman, is anonymous. There is good reason why Iranian drivers avoid eye contact with other drivers and pedestrians, for if they make eye contact, their veil of anonymity has been lifted, the gates to the walls of their homes have been unlocked and they must become social Iranians, which means they must practice ta’arouf. Many a time as a pedestrian I have made every effort to make eye contact with a driver bearing down on me at full speed as I step off a curb, and when I manage to, the car inevitably stops and the driver, usually with a smile, gestures “you first” with his hands.
It’s true. I can’t tell you how well this works in Azerbaijan. We PCVs have discussed that, often, the famous hospitality in Azerbaijan comes most commonly after you have engaged in a bit of the ta’arouf which makes your greetings long-winded marathons of niceties. Once an Azeri is no longer anonymous, the hospitality shines through. With the anonymity, you’ve got a much different situation on your hands.
For someone who’s not used to this state of affairs, it can be exhausting. It turns buying knick-knacks into a chore, when everyone knows what the end result is from the get-go. The other unintended consequence, as far as westerners are concerned, is that it leads to a frustratingly contradictory view of the people we are dealing with. While some of these folks can be some of the most generous people we’ve come across, offering their best, it can also lead to these same people saying things they don’t really intend to follow through on. Our Azeri hosts may say that they’ll provide something because it is the proper and polite thing to say, yet with no intention of delivering. You can imagine the frustration as we exclaim, “They just lie to us!” Yet, at the same time, we need to understand that this is less about lying than it is about trying to be a polite and appropriate host.
In a work setting, these frustrations can be even more pronounced, as my colleagues will want to make sure that they are exercising the right amount of politeness with me, the foreigner. And yet, they just can’t say no when that is what they are thinking. Efforts to appease someone like me as an advisor or someone who is in a higher position means putting forth an effort many western businesspeople would find inefficient and ineffective. However, ta’arouf has its role in business, as well:
American businesses and businessmen are known to succeed with brashness, determination, and sometimes even a certain amount of ruthlessness; Iranian businessmen succeed rather more quietly with a good dose of ta’arouf and in such a way that doors are opened before the ones opening the doors realize they have done so.
Reading The Ayatollah Begs to Differ has provided me a great voice to describe some of my experiences here in Azerbaijan. You can find a fantastic essay adapted from the book here. That essay, in particular, gives a great summary of why Americans have a very difficult time understanding Iran and Iran’s politics. While it might be too easy to say that everything Majd offers fits neatly with Azeris as much as Iranians, his writing is clearly appropriate for understanding my time in Azerbaijan, and very clearly shows a few ways in which Azerbaijan relates to the neighbors to the south.