One of the essential parts of every trip is communicating with the people who live in your path and destination. Communication is the tool for solving your problems, getting help, avoiding loneliness, and having a better trip in general. Meeting new people and making friends with them is one other advantage of the ability of communication which develops good feelings and experiences during your journey. The ability of communication includes not only knowledge of the language but also the culture and customs of people. Many misunderstandings come from the differences between cultures and lack of knowledge about these differences.
Iran is a culturally varied country with so many subcultures in it and Iran’s culture is deeply intertwined with its long and rich history, especially from the Persian Empire. The main reason for this status is that many nations live in this land because of the historical reasons and Iran’s geographical position. Art, literature, architecture, and music have deep roots which are still visible today. In fact, Persian artifacts can be seen in many leading museums around the world, such as the British Museum and the Louvre. Iran’s society has also been strongly influenced by its neighboring countries, such as Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. Knowing the general Iranian culture and customs can help you a lot in communication and setting your timetable for visiting. In the following, we will explain some parts of Iranian culture and customs.
Iran is a Middle Eastern country located at the crossroads between Arab Asia and Central Asia. While it borders seven different countries, the Iranian people do not seem to affiliate themselves with the Arab world; nor do they share many commonalities with those in South/Central Asia. Rather, the distinctive Persian identity engenders a strong sense of pride and belonging among its people. Indeed, one commonly hears Iranians calling themselves “Persian1”, as they often prefer to be associated with the prestige of the historical empire. Iranian culture and people have a history of being one of the most progressive in the Middle East. Iranians can often recount the country’s legacy and heritage in great detail.
Ethnicity, Language, and Religion
It should not be assumed that all Iranians share the same language, cultural, religious or political beliefs. There is a huge variation in social codes, behaviors, and beliefs between different regions of Iran. Although most Iranians seem to be unified across ethnic divides. Whilst there is a broad range of opinions and beliefs within the Iranian community, a sense of national belonging is strong and great pride is found in the national character. Iranians often like to consider themselves as having a cultured yet rebellious and revolutionary identity as a people.
Today, Iran is home to a population of around 83,133,956 individuals. Persian, Kurd, Balochi, Arab, Turkmen, Azeri, and Turkic tribes are the major ethnic groups residing in the country. Persian is Iran’s official language. Other ethnic groups usually speak their respective languages at home.
There are approximately 50 million Persian speakers out the 80 million inhabitants of the country which makes up 61% of the population. There are nearly 110 million Persian speakers worldwide, and the language holds official status in Iran as well as the neighboring countries of Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
There are many different minority languages in a country such as Iran with rich cultural and anthropological history. Azerbaijani, a Turkic language, is spoken by around 14 percent of the population of Iran. Individuals who speak Kurdish as their primary language accounts for roughly 7 percent of the population. Other minority languages within the country include Arabic, Balochi, Gildaki, Mazandarani, and Lari among others.
The vast majority of Iranians are Muslims of the Ithnā ʿAsharī, or Twelver, Shīʿite branch, which is the official state religion. The Kurds and Turkmen are predominantly Sunni Muslims, but Iran’s Arabs are both Sunni and Shīʿite. Small communities of Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are also found throughout the country. Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are the most significant religious minorities. Christians are the most numerous group of these, Orthodox Armenians constituting the bulk. The Zoroastrians are largely concentrated in Yazd in central Iran, Kermān in the southeast, and Tehrān.
- In Iran, the family is the basis of the social structure.
- The concept of family is more private than in many other cultures. Female relatives must be protected from outside influences and are taken care of at all times. It is inappropriate to ask questions about an Iranian’s wife or other female relatives.
- Iranians take their responsibilities to their family quite seriously.
- Families tend to be small, only 1 or 2 children, but the extended family is quite close.
- The individual derives a social network and assistance in times of need from the family.
- Elderly relatives are kept at home, not placed in a nursing home.
- Loyalty to the family comes before other social relationship, even business.
- Nepotism is considered a good thing. since it implies that employing people one knows and trusts is of primary importance.
Public vs. Private
- Iranians see themselves as having two distinct identities: “Zaher” (public) and “Batin” (private).
- When they are in public, they must conform to accepted modes of behavior. It is only within their homes among their inner circle that they feel free to be themselves. Family members are always part of the inner circle.
- The inner-circle forms the basis of a person’s social and business network. Friendship is very important and extends into the business. The people from the inner circle can be relied upon to: offer advice, help find a job, or cut through bureaucracy.
Modernity and Education
One of the most notable characteristics of the Iranian people is their thirst for knowledge. In first interactions with a stranger on the street, one may find that a taxi driver is, in fact, an ‘expert’ on architecture or a colleague can explain the complex history of countries they’ve never visited. Education is greatly valued in Iranian culture and so people often seek to have at least a basic understanding of a broad range of topics
In relation to the premium placed on education, there is also a common openness to innovation. Iran has been swift and forthcoming in adopting and bringing forward new ideas. One can notice it in the institutions dedicated to technology and medical sciences, but also in the general population’s remarkable mobilization of multiple social networks.
Pride and Humbleness
Behavior in Iran is also noticeably influenced by people’s perceptions of pride and dignity. This is based on the traditional idea that people should protect their personal and family honor by giving a public impression of dignity and integrity. However, Iranians generally do not try to talk themselves up to defend their honor. While prestige can be gained through achievement, boasting of it is seen as pretentious and can draw quick dislike and denigration. Instead, people are expected to self-deprecate their success. The more humility a person shows, the less likely they are to be criticized.
‘Taarof’ (Politeness and Mutual Respect)
Politeness and etiquette are demonstrated on a daily basis in Iran. It is often exhibited through the traditional verbal and nonverbal system of politeness – ‘taarof’. Under taarof, Iranians strive to make the other person in the interaction feel as appreciated and welcomed as possible. This is commonly done by making one’s self appear secondary in comparison to the other person and insisting to put them first. For example, it is common to hear “You first, please” followed by “No, after you”. That dialogue can continue for a prolonged time as each person adheres to taarof. People also commonly protest compliments and criticize their own accomplishments in an attempt to appear humble.
In exhibiting taarof, shopkeepers may insist that you do not need to pay for their wares. If you borrow something from a friend, they may argue that you do not need to give it back. These words are tokenistic and should not be taken for their face value. It is expected that you protest equally politely and do not accept the grand gesture. Iranians can put themselves in difficult situations if Australians don’t understand this, as their offers of politeness can extend beyond the means they have to fulfil their gesture.
Broadly, correct etiquette involves insisting on the other person’s precedence to you, yet following the normal behavior expected. If you are offered something, decline at first before accepting after the person has insisted. This etiquette naturally loosens with close friends.
- When someone offers something to you (e.g. tea, sweets), refuse it initially out of politeness before accepting.
- It is rude to put your feet on the table.
- Burping and sniffing in front of others is considered rude.
- One should not touch people of the opposite gender unless they are very close family or friends.
- Conservative Iranian men may find it particularly dishonorable and disrespectful to enquire about their female family members unless you know the family or person well.
- If you are a woman in Iran, it can be a good idea to wait for your male accompaniment to introduce you to another man before engaging with him.
- If you are a man, wait for an Iranian woman to initiate a handshake or conversation before doing so yourself.
- Respect a Shi’a Muslim’s religious duty to pray three times a day, but note that many Iranians do not observe this.
- Some religious Iranians observe a separation between the functions of the hands. This custom is tied to Islamic principles that prescribe the left hand should be used for removal of dirt and for cleaning. It should not be used for functions such as waving, eating or offering items. Therefore, one should gesture, touch people, or offer items using both hands together. Using the one hand alone can seem too informal, but if doing so, use the right.
- It is common for Iranians to be late. It can be a good idea to allow more time for an arrangement or meeting with an Iranian than you normally would as their hospitality and communication style also means engagements often take longer.
- It is generally expected that the person with the lower status greets the other individual first. Therefore, it is polite to offer your greeting first to indicate that you consider your counterpart to be of a higher status than you, regardless of what your actual status is relative to the other person.
- Use a person’s title and last name when greeting them until they indicate it is okay to move on to a first-name basis. Men should be formally addressed as ‘agha‘, and women as ‘Khanom‘, followed by their surname. If someone is a Doctor or holds a Ph.D., use their professional title.
- Titles can also be used to address a person by their first name. This indicates a more acquainted relationship whilst still giving respect. For women, the title comes after their first name (i.e. “[first name] Agha”). It is interchangeable for men (i.e. “Khanoom [first name]” or “[first name] Khanoom”).
- The Persian word “Salam” means “Hello”.
- Greetings may involve a handshake with the right hand only. Men and women generally will not shake hands unless the female outstretches her hand first and the man is willing to reciprocate the gesture.
- Iranian men commonly greet women by placing their hand over their heart and nodding/bowing gently. This greeting may also be used with other people who they perceive are unaccustomed to being touched.
- For a Western woman, it is best to bow to greet an Iranian man and wait for him to initiate a further handshake if he feels comfortable.
- Greetings may involve two or three kisses on each cheek if the other person is the same gender.
- Women generally greet other women with a handshake for the first time and may embrace the next time they see each other and from then on. However, if they are in a conservative company, they may restrict how affectionately they greet each other to avoid drawing negative attention.
- Iranians expect and appreciate punctuality.
- If your Iranian host is not wearing shoes, remove yours at the door.
- Greet any elders present first before individually greeting everyone with a handshake.
- Entertaining happens in the guest room, which is usually the most lavishly furnished.
- In some rural or traditional households, people may be seated on the ground. If so, avoid extending your legs out in front of other guests or the elderly. It is considered impolite.
- Men may socialize together whilst women socialize in a different room – sometimes on a different floor of the house. However, this is usually only in the most conservative of households and is more rarely.
- If dining, honored guests may be seated at the head of the table.
- When leaving, expect goodbyes to be prolonged. You may have to politely insist on leaving.
- Make your best effort to accept and try everything offered.
- You will likely be served second or even third servings. Every time one is offered, protest politely (in accordance with taarof) before accepting the generosity.
- It is a great gesture to eat more servings, so it is best to serve yourself less initially so you have more room to eat another serving.
- Iranians often offer a portion of whatever they are eating to anyone present, even if no one shows interest. It is okay to politely decline.
- Eating everything on your plate generally indicates you enjoyed your meal.
- An Iranian may prompt you to have multiple servings. You can say that you do not want any more food, but consider that they may take initial refusals as politeness and serve more anyway. You might have to clearly insist you are full.
- Gifts are usually given when visiting someone’s home. These are small (i.e. sweets, flowers, pastries).
- It is best to wrap a gift as elegantly as possible.
- If presented a gift, decline to accept it initially out of politeness – for example, “I can’t possibly, that’s too kind”. When they insist, thank them gratefully with praise.
- Receive any gift with both hands together.
- If you give a gift, be humble about it and apologize for its shortfall.
- Gifts are not opened in front of the giver.
- Never give alcohol as a gift to a devout Muslim, Bahá’í or any Iranian you do not have a close personal relationship with. If you know from first-hand experience that your friend drinks, you may give alcohol, but ensure that it is done tactfully.
- Similarly, do not give gifts that contain byproducts of alcohol or pork.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Acknowledge the achievements of Iran and the country’s cultural heritage. If you show an understanding of Iran’s culture and history, they will likely be impressed.
- Take care not to give the impression that you assume the West to be superior. Iranians are likely to respond negatively if they feel that you have an elitist understanding of the Middle East.
- Respect an Iranian’s intelligence if they show evidence of higher education. It is likely that an Iranian in Australia is very educated and technically trained. Many hold one or multiple university degrees.
- Make sure your actions and your words correspond. Iranians may notice if you are hypocritical or contradict yourself.
- Remain humble about your success and achievements. In Iran, people generally tone down their own success and self-deprecate out of politeness.
- Respect an Iranian’s privacy. Avoid asking questions that could compromise their discretion.
- You can expect an urban and educated Iranian to know quite a lot about your cultural background and Australia. They are generally very well informed about the world.
- Do not confuse Persians with Arabs. This is a quick way to annoy Iranians and indicates that you are poorly informed about the Middle East.
- Avoid assuming that all Iranians are Muslims because they come from the Islamic Middle Eastern country – many are not.
- Do not criticize an Iranian for the actions of their government. Doing so is insensitive considering that many Iranians in Australia have faced persecution by the authoritarian regime.
- Similarly, do not blame the Iranian government’s restrictions and exclusions on Islam. The situation is more complex than that and most Iranians recognize the current Islamic political culture to be different from their own interpretations of the religion.
- Avoid mentioning divisive topics between the West and Iran (such as women’s rights, civil liberties, and Iran’s nuclear power program). If you must do so, make sure it is in a sensitive way that doesn’t disparage your Iranian counterpart.
- Avoid talking down to an Iranian for having poor English skills or assuming that they can’t understand deep concepts. It is a good idea to talk slower if English is their second language, but they may find it patronizing if they notice you over-simplifying conversation for them.
- Avoid telling dirty jokes or jokes that are at the expense of someone else. This is considered to be unintelligent humor.
- Depending on the situation, do not take an Iranian too seriously if they talk down about themselves or make a grand gesture to put you before them. This is usually done out of taarof (politeness) and is a tokenistic gesture. See Etiquette for further information on this.
- Indirect Communication: Iranians tend to be quite indirect in their communication. They generally look towards non-verbal cues and speak figuratively to make a point. This has the purpose of avoiding embarrassment or offense and respecting the other person in the conversation. If you need clarification on what is said, you can check several times and ask open-ended questions. It is common for conversation to be drawn out as people take time to reach a full understanding.
- Language Style: Iranians can take quite a long time to get to their point as they often explain themselves by using the example of a story, poem or traditional saying. Sometimes the ‘lesson’ embedded in these allegories is not immediately evident to a non-Iranian who is not familiar with the cultural context. It is okay to flag this to Iranians you are close with and ask them to be clearer.
- Refusals: Direct refusals can be interpreted as rude and may indicate that the person wishes to end a relationship. It is best to go about saying ‘no’ to requests in an indirect way, such as “I’ll see what I can do”. This advice does not apply when it comes to the first initial refusals one makes to show politeness (taarof) – see Etiquette for information on this.
There are public and private rules regarding non-verbal communication in Iran. When in public, people generally have to behave more formally and keep a distinct distance from those of the opposite gender. These customs loosen significantly when people are in private and surrounded by their close friends. Iranian expats in Australia are likely to be a lot more informal with their body language than what is described below.
- Physical Contact: It is okay for friends and family to touch in a friendly way (such as backslapping) when in the confines of the home. However, in accordance with the public separation of men and women, it is inappropriate to be physically affectionate with any person of the opposite gender when in public. Male friends may walk whilst holding each other’s hands or kiss to greet one another. One may also see a husband and wife holding hands. However, women, in particular, are generally not supposed to show physical affection unless they are out of the public eye. Many push this boundary – especially among the younger generation.
- Personal Space: Iranians tend to keep a fair amount of personal space; however, the average proximity is still a little bit closer than the Western norm. For example, you may find public seating is quite squishy. Try to give a generous amount of personal space between you and someone else of the opposite gender.
- Eye Contact: When talking to people of the same age, gender or status, direct eye contact is expected. This communicates friendly affection and sincerity. However, in accordance with Islamic principles, males and females are expected to lower their gaze and avoid sustained eye contact with each other. This is considered respectful and observant of the partition between genders. Younger people may also lower their gaze when speaking to elders out of respect. Therefore, if an Iranian avoids eye contact during the interaction, consider that it is usually done as a defense mechanism to remain respectful and modest and does not necessarily mean they are disinterested.
- Expressions: People tend to smile less whilst in public in Iran. To smile casually while passing a stranger of the opposite gender on the street could easily be interpreted as provocative and escalate to questions quickly. Therefore, try not to be intimidated by an Iranian’s apparent ‘serious’ demeanor. It is not necessarily a reflection on you, but the social expectation.
- Gestures: Iranians are generally reserved in their body language and gesture much less than their Arab neighbors. The thumbs-up gesture is considered rude and has the same connotation as raising one’s middle finger for traditional Iranians.
- Pointing: It is considered rude to point your index finger at another person during a conversation.
- Feet: Displaying the soles of one’s feet to another person is improper. Similarly, placing one’s feet on top of the table is not acceptable.
- As the region of Iran was once called Persia, ‘Iranian’ is often assumed to be synonymous with ‘Persian’. The two can usually be used interchangeably. However, “Persian” specifically refers to the particular Persian ethnicity or Farsi language within Iran. This distinction is important to make in order to recognise the many ethnic minorities in Iran (e.g. Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Balochs). Most of these minority groups are ethno-linguistic and have learnt Farsi (Persian) as their second language.
- Iranians can be quite conscious of their country’s negative international reputation. This is understandable as the Pew Research Centre found it to be one of the least popular countries in the world, with majorities in most countries holding unfavourable opinions of it. In the 2013 report, the Centre found that “global publics are virtually united in the view that the Iranian government does not respect the personal freedoms of its people”1. This indicates that the negative opinions are mostly directed at the government more than the Iranian citizens. Nevertheless, many Iranians seek to avoid this stigma and may prefer to be referred to as ‘Persian’.
- It is a common misconception that all Iranians strongly dislike the West. While there are people on the fringe of society who hold very strong negative views about America in particular, Iranians generally admire the West and its capabilities.
- Iranians living in Australia are generally aware of the negative opinions many Australians hold of refugees. With this in mind, some may not wish to identify themselves as a refugee out of pride and honour. Be sensitive to the fact that an Iranian may not tell you if they experienced incredibly hard circumstances or were forced out of their country.
- More conservative or older Iranian Muslim women wear a ‘chador’ to hide their hair and figure from the public eye. However, most women have discarded the custom and only wear a hijab (usually a shayla).
- Many Shi’a Muslims pray three times every day. Each prayer session requires that they ritually wash their body beforehand. While not all Iranians pray every day, anticipate that these prayers could interrupt your time with an Iranian if they are observant.
- Friday is a holy day for Muslims. In Iran, most businesses close on this day and Thursday in respect of that. This means the ‘weekend’ falls on Thursday and Friday instead of Saturday and Sunday.
- Observant Bahá’í Iranians do not drink alcohol or take medication that is non-prescription.
- Iranians often admire work that has taken a significant amount of time or painstaking effort to complete. Woven finery, ornate jewellery or interior designs usually have an incredible story to their craftsmanship. It is a good idea to ask for an object’s history and join in praising it.