General —

Empty Etiquette

Reflections on the Iranian custom of ta’rof.

Imagine the scene. Fresh from a flight, you’ve flagged down a taxi outside the airport to get to your hotel quickly and begin your break. You explain to the driver where to go and as you set off, you exhale deeply, relieved that all your travel is nearly at an end. You keep an eye on the meter as the streets roll by and as you chat to the driver, you prepare some notes in the local currency, ready to settle up. But as the taxi comes to a halt and you offer payment to the driver, you are shocked at his response.

“No, no, don’t worry about it, no charge, no charge!”

Confused, you insist on paying the man for his service, and it’s only after a few attempts that he finally relents and accepts the cash. As you pick up your bags and walk away, confused about the interaction, you wonder if you should just have accepted the man’s generosity. 

taxi driver
taxi driver

If this happened to you, it’s very possible that the place you’ve just flown to is Iran and that the back and forth you’ve experienced with the taxi driver is a result of ta’rof, a particular Iranian etiquette which emphasises deference. 

Ta’rof is a challenge for an outsider to understand. Iranians will bend over backwards to elevate those they encounter, even offering services free of charge as an indication of how highly they esteem the customer. Of course, payment is still expected – traditionally it must be offered three times before it is accepted.

Ta’rof can be observed even in how Iranians greet one another. A common response to the question “How are you?” is “Ghorburnet”, which literally means “I’ll sacrifice myself for you.”

For most of us, this etiquette will seem over–the–top and insincere. Those who practise ta’rof do so out of politeness, but with empty words. For an example of humility without pretence, we can turn to our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul describes the true humility of Jesus in his letter to the Philippians. Here he speaks of the Son who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but rather stepped down from heaven to take the form of servant, being born in human form. So truly humble was Christ, that He would be able to repeat the Iranian saying of “Ghorburnet” with honesty, as proven by His obedience to the Father and willingness to go to the cross for the sins of the world.

It is this mind that Paul urges the Philippian church to share – one of humility and looking to the interests of others. We too are to emulate the humility of Christ as we serve those around us. To be humble and self–sacrificing requires more than the lip service of ta’rof. Rather, we must truly lay our wants and priorities down as we serve others with love for the Kingdom of God. 

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