There is a social principle in Iran called taarof, it is the concept that describes the practice of politeness through linguistic indirectness and insincerity.

In Iran, people deal with the concept of honesty in a different way than most Western cultures in which directness and bluntness are, to a large extent, accepted and even encouraged communicative principles.

In the context of taarof, Iranians are expected to give false praises and insincere promises. Not out of deviousness, but out of the sociocultural expectation to tell people what they want to hear out of politeness, to avoid conflict, or to offer hope when there is none.

Examples of common taarof situations include: people imploring others to go through a door first; hosts insisting that they do not want customers to pay for dinner; dinner partners refusing to let others share in the cost of a meal; hostesses serving food even though their guests claim they are full; and people being invited to dinner when the host does not really want their company.

“Symbolism and vagueness are inherent in our language. […] Taarof is a sign of respect, even if we don’t mean it.” – Nasser Hadian

On The Quran

“The idea that this is the best book ever written – on any subject – can only be maintained in an enormous intellectual isolation.”[1]

– Sam Harris

[1] Consider: the country of Spain translates more of the world’s literature and learning into Spanish every year than the entire Arab world has translated into Arabic since the 9th century.

The Facts of Morality

‘If our well-being depends upon the interaction between events in our brains and events in the world, and there are better and worse ways to secure it, then some cultures will tend to produce lives that are more worth living than others; some political persuasions will be more enlightened than others; and some world views will be mistaken in ways that cause needless human misery.’

Harris, S. 2010. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values New York, United States: Free Press p. 126

Innocent Gestures

Different cultures can be tricky to handle. Sometimes, westerners can seem so ignorant, set in their ways, or even plain rude. Here is a short-list of things never to do, say or gesture whilst travelling abroad:

Extend your hand, palm outward in Greece

– What you think you are saying:
“That food was excellent.”

– What you are actually saying:
“That food was excellent. Now I’m pretending to rub excrement on you.”

– How come?
In Greece, the hand out gesture is known as the moutza. It dates back to the time of the Byzantine Empire, when criminals would be paraded through the streets on horseback, their faces blackened to indicate their shame. If they were lucky, the blackening agent would merely be charcoal. If they were unlucky, it would be a substance much, worse.

Give the thumbs-up in the Middle East

1753 Vaugondy Map of Persia, Arabia and Turkey...

1753 Vaugondy map of Persia, Turkey and Arabia

What you think you are saying:
“Hello, nice to meet you, we’re just passing – isn’t this a nice day.”

What you are actually saying:
“Hello, nice to meet you. I am going to have you killed.”

How come?
It’s not just in the Middle East. This seemingly universal gesture is also hideously offensive in West Africa and South America. The thumbs-up sign has been confusing people for thousands of years. Contrary to the Hollywood legend, Roman gladiators were not spared by a thumbs-up, but by a thumbs-down. A thumbs-up is still linked to the order of killing someone.

Say “Hi” to a member of the opposite sex in Saudi Arabia

What you think you are saying:
“Hi […]. How are you? Fancy getting a soft drink?”

What you are actually saying:
“Hi, […]. How are you? Fancy booking a hotel room so that I can do immoral sex acts on you?”

How come?
According to sharia religious laws, it is deeply immoral for a woman to greet a man in public, or associate with any man other than her husband without an escort.

Though, perhaps this is nitpicking considering women are not allowed to drive, vote, own shops, testify in court or ride bicycles in Saudi Arabia. Bizarrely, it’s perfectly fine for women to fly high-powered jet planes.

Give an even number of flowers in Russia

Flowers 1

A field of flowers

What you think you are saying:
“Darling, you have been so wonderful this week. These are for you.”

What you are actually saying:
“Darling, my condolences.”

How Come?
In Russia, even numbers of flowers are only ever given at funerals, and such a gift is seen as inviting death.

Choosing the right gift seems to be a minefield of morbidity everywhere you go. For instance, never give a clock to a Chinese person, as the word “clock” is almost identical to a Chinese word for “death”. Don’t wrap your present in white paper there either, as this suggests funerals. Don’t give white flowers to anyone in Bangladesh for the same reason.

Give a gift with your left hand in China

What you think you are saying:
“Please accept this gift.”

What you are actually saying:
“Please accept this rubbish. You are not worth anything more.”

How come?
Toilet paper may have been around in China since 589 AD, but for much of the world, it remains a prohibitively expensive luxury. In places such as India, Sri Lanka, Africa and the whole of the Middle East, doing anything with your left hand is seen as unclean, as it is – as least symbolically – the hand which is used for wiping. Do not even use your left hand for eating, this is considered vile as well and is awfully bad form.

Of course, this is not the only reason left-handedness is bad. According to the Qur’an, Satan himself was left-handed.

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