تعارفات ايراني or The Iranian ways of courtesy

تعارفات [ta’ārofāt] is a Persian word meaning ‘courtesies, polite formulas and expressions’. As Persian society is a very politeness-conscious one (and loquacious, too), the Persian language is exceptionally rich in polite, formal ways of saying things. Without knowing them it is virtually impossible to survive in the Iranian society. This page is an attempt to gather and list for your reference all I know about Persian verbal etiquette. Some of the expressions may seem poetic, or perhaps even baroque, be sure though that in Persian they sound perfectly natural. Be also warned, that often they are almost deprived of ‘real’ meaning and used just rhetorically.

A note on convention used. The Persian expressions I wrote below are written in their literary forms. By-the-book (ie. almost never used in live speech) pronunciation of these forms follows in [square brackets]. I use the /slants/ to mark colloquial Tehrani pronunciation when applicable (ie. when it differs from the literary standard). A short systematic list of the main differences between these two versions of the language is given here. Following the pronunciations you find literal translation, then, if needed, an explanation of what is meant and finally – usage notes which tell you what is meant for real. Yes, a bit complicated, but do get used to it, Persian is like that. Very much so.

Enough speaking – I hope you’ll find my efforts useful and/or interesting.

    1. Greeting formulas.
      • سلام [salām] ‘peace’ – a usual way of greeting.
      • سلام عليکم [salām aleykum] ‘peace upon you’- a somewhat more formal (and more… uhm, Islamic) version of the above
      • درود [dorud] ‘praise; greeting’ – a native Persian word (the two above are Arabic in origin), used by non-Muslims and, especially, the anti-Muslims. Actually, I’ve never heard it.
      • صبح به خير[sobh be xeyr] ‘good morning’ – another greeting; as you expected variants with other times of the day are also used
      • صبح شما هم به خير [sobh-e shomā ham be xeyr] ‘your morning also good’ – an answer
    2. Approaching the farewell – it is considered bad manners to bluntly end conversation. One should first make the interlocutor aware of his intention of bringing the talk to an end.
      • از ديدن شما خيلي خوشحال شدم [az didan-e shomā xeyli xoshhāl shodam] ‘from seeing you I became very happy’ – it is a formula used when one wants to politely end conversation.
      • از ملاقاتتان خیلی خوشحال شدم [az molāqātetān xeyli xoshhāl shodam] ‘from your meeting I became very happy’ – variant of above
      • من (بنده) هم همچنين [man (bande) ham hamchonin] /manam hamchenin/ ‘me (slave) too, the same way)’ ie. I was happy to see you too – a customary answer after which one may safely proceed into the farewell stage.
      • کاري نداريد [kāri nadārid] ‘don’t you have (any other) business (to discuss)’ – a somewhat more colloquial way of making sure if your partner is ready to say goodbye
    3. Farewell formulas
      • خدا حافظ [xodā hāfez] ‘God guardian’ ie. may God guard you- usual way of saying ‘goodbye’.
      • خدا نگهدار [xodā negahdār] ‘God safekeeper’ ie. may God keep you safe – meaning very similar to the above one, but ‘pure Persian’ and much less used.
      • به اميد ديدار [be omid-e didār] ‘in hope of seeing’ – a… uhm ‘secular’ greeting
      • خدا حافظ شما[xodā hāfez-e shomā] or خدا نگهدار شما [xodā negahdār-e shomā] – more elaborate versions of the greetings. شما [shomā] is a polite word for ‘you’. Here it means ‘your’. Hence ‘God your guardian/safekeeper”
      • فعلاً [fe’lan] ‘for now; so long’ – a colloquial farewell
      • تا بعد [tā ba’d] ‘until later’ – another one
      • می بینمت [mibinamet] ‘I(‘ll) see you’ – yet another colloquial farewell greeting
      • با اجازه [bā ejāze] ‘with permission’ – what you say when you have to leave somebody’s company for a minute
    4. Addressing people
      • تو [to] ‘you’ – informal second person singular pronoun. Used between close friends ie. not so often.
      • شما [shomā] ‘you’ – formal and plural second person pronoun. This is the one normally used when addressing someone.
      • آقا[āqā] ‘Mr, sir’ – usual polite form of addressing a man. It’s plural is آقايان [āqāyān] /āqāyun/
      • خانم [xānom] ‘Mrs. ma’am’ – usual polite form of addressing a woman. It’s plural is خانمها [xānomhā] /xānomā/
      • جناب آقا [jenāb āqā] ‘excellency sir’ – even more polite form of addressing a man.
      • سرکار خانم[sarkār xānom] ‘overseer lady’ – even more polite form of addressing a woman.
      • جناب آقايان و سرکار خانمها [jenāb āqāyān-o sarkār xānomhā] – a Persian version of ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’
      • جنابعالی [jenāb-āli] ‘highest excellency’  – as translation suggests, it’s so reverential that it’s rarely used
      • حاجی [hāji] ‘haji’ – haji is a title of any man who has performed the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca); but it’s also used in addressing clergymen or middle-aged or older men of high social standing regardless of whether they have performed the Hajj or not (and how would you know if they have, anyway?)
      • حاج آقا[hāj-āqā] ‘Mr. haji’ – meaning and usage as above, with regard to both real and ‘presumed’ hajis
      • حاج خانم [hāj-xānom] ‘Mrs haji’ – as above, but for the ladies. The tricky part is… well, remember that “middle-aged or older” above? It certainly carries this sort of connotation and some ladies can be very touchy about their age. So, use it with care and caution!
      • برادر [barādar] ‘brother’ – presumably, ‘brother in islam’. It’s used by the more Islamic-minded types
      • خواهر [xāhar] ‘sister’ – as above but for the ladies (as if you couldn’t figure this one out)

        Now for some colloquial/slangy adresses:

      • داداش [dādāsh] ‘brother’ or rather ‘bro’- this is a very colloquial word, one some people might not find acceptable in polite company
      • آبجي[ābji] ‘sister; sis’ – counterpart of the above; also a blue-collar/slangy word
      • رفيق [rafiq] ‘friend, mate’ – a colloquial term
      • بابا[bābā] ‘dad’ – this is an interesting word; on one hand, it’s how Persian children call their fathers, on the other it’s used to address someone informally (esp. with undertones of amusement, impatience or slight irritation); on the third hand – see below
    5. Talking about third parties):
      • او [u] ‘he; she’ – the ‘normal’ third person pronoun; note the lack of gender distinctions
      • وی [vey] ‘he; she’ – slightly more formal then above; used especially in official/press language
      • ایشان [ishān] ‘they’ – a 3rd person plural pronoun used as a mark of a respect to refer to one person.
      • بنده خدا [bande-ye xodā] ‘God’s servant’ – often used ironically or jokingly
      • یارو [yāru] ‘guy; fellow; chap’ – very colloquial word
      • بابا [bābā] ‘daddy; guy’ – a colloquial word; yes, it also means “dad” and is used as a term of address
      • طرف [taraf] lit. ‘side’ – another not-very-formal term
      • فلانی [folāni] ‘so-and-so; such-and-such’ – used when you want to omit the name of the person spoken about
    6. The thankyous – note that these sometimes are used one immediately following another. These are ‘fit-all’ expressions ie. they may be used in place of, or in addition to more situation-specific formulas.
      • ممنونم[mamnunam] ‘I am obliged’ – in Afghanistan this means ‘I am pleased’.
      • متشکرم [motashakkeram] ‘I am thankful’ – if I were to guess, this is the most used one.
      • سپاس گزارم[sepās gozāram] ‘I am a thanks-leaver’ – a native Persian word used by the purists.
      • مرسي [mersi] – yes, it’s the French word. Iranians do use it extensively, even though some consider it a bit ‘girly’.
      • تشکر ميکنم [tashakkor mikonam] ‘I am rendering thanks’ – This is probably the most common way of saying ‘thanks’ in Afghanistan
      • رحمت [rahmat] ‘mercy’ – And this is what they thank you with in Tajikistan and other parts of Central Asia.
      • دمت گرم [damet garm] ‘let your breath be warm’ (ie. live long) – another sort of thank you, actually closer to congratulations in spirit (“wow, thanks, you’ve done great’ type of thing)
    7. Thanking for favor/service – when eg. thanking a waiter you can use the formula below instead of, or in addition to the simple thankyous above.
      • دشت شما درد نکند [dast-e shomā dard nakonad] /dast-e shomā dard nakone/ ‘may your hand not ache’ – it can also be used when asking for e.g. passing the salt or similar ‘by-the-table-services’.
      • سر شما درد نکند [sar-e shomā dard nakonad] /sar-e shomā dard nakone/ ‘may your head not ache’ – routine answer to the above expression.
    8.  Thanking for bigger and not-professional favor or kindness.
      • خیلی محبّت کردید [xeyli mohabbat kardid] ‘you’ve made a great kindness (lit. ‘love’)’ – “you’ve been most kind”
      • خیلی لطف کردید [xeyli lotf kardid] ‘you’ve made a great kindness’
      • شرمنده [sharmande] ’embarrassed’ ie. I am embarrassed by your kindness which I don’t deserve – used (usually together with other thankyous) when thanking for a favor.
      • باعث شرمندگی [bā’es-e sharmandegi] ‘a cause of embarrassment’ ie. your kindness is a cause for my embarrassment – the usage is as of the word above
      • خدا عوضتون بده[xodā avazetun bede] ‘let God repay you (for your kindness)’
    9. Thanking when being complimented. Useful especially for ladies.  If someone exclaims, for instance “Oh, what a lovely shawl you’re wearing!” it’s a good thing to answer:
      • چشمتان قشنگ می بیند [cheshmetān qashang mibinad] – lit. it’s your eyes that see pretty
    10. Exclamations of support, satisfaction, approval – these are all used to praise or to express satisfaction.
      • به به [bah-bah] ‘wow! great!’
      • آفرین [āfarin] ‘bravo; well done’
      • دمت گرم [damet garm] ‘let your breath be warm’
      • بارک الله[bārekallāh] ‘bravo’ lit. God bless it”‘
      • احسنت [ahsant] ‘bravo’
    11. The you’re welcome and please – yes, the two in one. Another of ‘fit-all’ polite words.
      • خواهش ميکنم [xāhesh mikonam] ‘I make a request/wish’ – this is the usual answer to ‘thank you’ AND also a way to ask someone to do something ie. to make requests.
    12. Other colloquial ways of answering the thank yous.
      • وظیفم بود [vazifam bud] ‘it was my duty’
      • کاري نکرديم[kāri nakardim] ‘we didn’t do a thing’
      • حرفشم نزن [harfesham nazan] ‘don’t even talk about it’
    13. Agreement, acceptance of a suggestion (or order!)
      • چشم [chashm] lit. ‘eye’ = ‘ok; yes sir; I’ll do it; consider it done’ – once it was accompanied by the gesture of putting hands on one’s eyelids to show that you’ll ‘look to it’ and not forget to fulfill the request or order
      • چشمتان بی بلا [cheshmetān bi balā] ‘no calamity on your eye’ – a customary reply to the above

 

  1. An universal greeting. It’s used on plenty of occassions. As a (part of a) greeting or a thankyou for instance.
    • خسته نباشيد [xaste nabāshid] /xaste nabāshin/ ‘may you not be tired’ – used especially when greeting someone ‘on his duty’ ie. working or otherwise ‘doing his job’.
    • سلامت باشيد [salāmat bāshid] /salāmat bāshin/ ‘may you be in health’ – used as a reply to the above good-wishing
  2. Another almost universal greeting. Used as a thank you or a goodbye.
    • قربان شما [qorbān-e shomā] or  قربانتان [qorbānetān] /qorbānetun/ ‘your sacrifice’ ie. you’re so precious to me that I wish to make sacrifice for you – the more formal greeting
    • قربان تو [qorbān-e to] or قربانت [qorbānat] /qorbānet/ – the same meaning as above but less formal
    • The above may be used with the word فدا [fadā] in place of قربان [qorbān] (the two are synonyms, قربان [qorbān] being more frequent).
    • قربونت برم [qorbunet beram] ‘let me go to your sacrifice’ – another colloquial version
  3. What to say when someone sneezes?
    • عافیت باشد [āfiyat bāshad] ‘let there be health’ – the same expression is used to greet someone who has just had a bath – in both cases it is believed that it helps to ward off the evil spirit from entering the body
  4. Asking for forgiveness.
    • ببخشيد [bebaxshid] /bebaxshin/ ‘pardon !; excuse!; forgive!’ – this is a verb in polite imperative form; the usual way of saying ‘I’m sorry’ in Persian
    • مغذرت ميخواهم [ma’azarat mixāham] /ma’zerat mixām/ ‘I want/request an excuse’ – more formal than the one above
    • پوزش ميخواهم [puzesh mixāham] /puzesh mixām/ ‘I want/request forgiveness’ – a native Persian expression.
  5. آWhat to answer to ‘I’m sorry”?
    • عیب ندارد [eyb nadārad] ‘there’s no fault / problem’
    • اشکال ندارد [eshkāl nadārad] ‘there’s no difficulty / inconvenience’
    • مهمّ نیست [mohemm nist] ‘it’s not important’ – gdy przewinienie było wyrazem zaniedbania
  6. It’s considered impolite to turn your back toward someone. When it is unavoidable (like in a car) you can try to excuse yourself:
    • ببخشید که پشتم به شما‌ست [bebaxshid ke poshtam be shomāst] ‘I’m sorry that my back is towards you’
    • گل رو و پشت ندارد [gol ru-o posht nadārad] ‘the rose (=you) doesn’t have neither the front nor the back’ – the customary answer
  7. Speaking about yourself – the most important and basic rule of Persian etiquette is to speak as highly as possible about one’s interlocutors and as humbly as possible about oneself. The others are always ‘respected’ ‘dear’ ‘revered’, whereas the person speaking often calls himself as follows:
    • بنده [bande] – literally ‘slave’. The word is used in polite speech instead of the usual 1st person pronoun من [man]. Thus one says in Persian e.g. “A slave see” instead of “I see”.
    • این جانب [in jāneb] ‘this side’ – used eg. in formal letters
    • چاکر [chāker] ‘servant’ – an epistolar form
    • حقیر [haqir] ‘unworthy one’ – as above
    • کمینه [kamine] ‘the littlest one’ – used by women
    • داعی شما [dā’i-je shomā] ‘one who prays for you’ – another courtesy form
    • ما [mā] ‘we’ – it is (was) used as pluralis maiestatis, and much more commonly, as a polite form, sort of diminishing one’s individual importance
    • فقیر و فقرا [faqir-o foqrā] ‘the poor couple’ – a bit outdated, used by married couples esp. in invitations
  8. احوال پرسي [ahvāl porsi] – or asking about one’s health and well-being. There can’t be a Persian conversation without it.
    • The inquiry about the well-being of an interlocutor usually involves one (and often more than one) of the following expressions
      حال شما چطور است [hāl-e shomā chetour ast] /hāl-e shomā chetore/ ‘what way is your state’ ie. “how are you” is very common
      چطورید [chetourid] /chetorin/ ‘what way are you’ is somewhat simpler;
      خوب هستید [xub hastid] /xub hastin/ ‘are you well’ is something of a question but only little attention is paid to the following answer.
    • Answering the inquiry usually involves:
      A. thanking B. saying that you’re well C. inquirying back. A typical example of a full answer would be:
      مرسی خوبم خیلی ممنون شما چطورید[mersi, xubam, xeyli mamnun. shomā chetourid] ‘thank you, I’m good, very grateful. how are you’
    • If, God forbid (= خدا نکند [xodā nakonad]), something’s wrong, you can say: مرسی بد نیستم [mersi, bad nistam] ‘thanks, not bad’
    • Next stage is inquiring about the family: خانم چطور است بچهها چطورند [xānom chetour ast, bachehā chetourand] /xānom chetore, bachehā chetoran/ – ‘what way is the lady, what way are the children’ ie. how is your wife and children
    • خوبند سلام میرسانند [xuband, salām miresānand] /xuban, salām miresunan/ ‘they’re good, they deliver peace’ ie. they are well and they send you their greetings – a customary answer. Note that the greetings are always sent, even if the family members had no idea you were going to meet your interlocutor.
    • As the greetings are always sent they’re always reciprocated: لطفاً به ایشان سلام برسانید [lotfan be ishān salām beresānid] ‘kindly deliver them peace’ ie. please greet them for me
    • If your interlocutor is a proud parent of a newborn baby, you can ask: کوچولو چطور است [kuchulu chetour ast] /kuchulu chetore/ ‘what way is the little one’ ie. how is the baby. And then you can be answered:
    • دستبوس شماست [dastbus-e shomāst] ‘he/she is your hand-kisser’ – as Persian newborn babies can’t talk (and therefore can’t send greetings) this expression is used to express the baby’s respect and warm feelings. Yes, you have to be mad to think someone actually understands this literally.
    • Asking about the news is also a part of ‘ahvāl porsi’ چه خبر [che xabar] ‘what news’ is a much used question. Note that it is also used, often repeatedly, whenever you run out of the conversation topics.
    • سلامت [salāmati] ‘healthily’ is an usual answer, after which the question can be repeated (be prepared to hear lots of  دیگر چه خبر [digar che xabar] ‘then, what’s the other news’)
  9. Inquiry about the trip – one of the typical conversational situations with a set of customary questions and routine answers.
    • If someone has just returned from traveling it’s good manners to ask him/her سفر چطور گذشت [safar chetour gozasht] ‘how did the travel pass’.
    • If the trip was a pleasant one, the expected answer is جاي شما خالي بود [jā-ye shomā xāli bud] ‘your place was empty’, ie. I wish you were there with me and I could share with you a good time I was having.
    • To this one should answer saying دوستان به جاي ما [dustān be jā-ye mā] ‘friends in our place’ ie. I am not worthy to be counted as your friend, I wish you’d be there with friends, not unworthy ones like me.
    • If the trip wasn’t fine an answer to the query might be جاي دشمن شما خالي بود [jā-ye doshman-e shomā xāli bud] ‘your enemy’s place was empty’ ie. it was so bad that I wish your enemy was there so that he would suffer. To this, quite fortunately, there is no customary answer
  10. Buying things – another of the everyday and تعارف [ta’ārof] – imbued situations.
    • After you’ve asked for the price of item/service (remember that haggling is a custom, and only some prices are pre-set) the vendor usually says: قابلي ندارد [qābeli nadārad] /qābeli nadāre/ ‘it isn’t worthy’ or, in fuller form: قابل شما را ندارد [qābel-e shomā rā nadaarad] /qābel-e shomā ro nadāre/ ‘it isn’t worthy of you’ ie. take it free of charge.
      Don’t be misled by this words though. You are expected to insist on paying. Either by simple:
    •  خواهش ميکنم [xāhesh mikonam] ‘I make a request/wish’ – ie. I request that I could pay anyway.
      Or, better yet, you can say to the vendor:
    • صاحبش قابل دارد [sāhebash qābel dārad] /sāhebesh qābel dāre/ ‘its owner is worthy’ – ie. I want to pay not for the sake of item/service itself but for the sake of you
    • By the way, if someone at first doesn’t want to hear about accepting money from you, that doesn’t mean he won’t try to scandalously rip you off later on. Be prepared and remember that foreign face brings all prices up a lot!
  11. Invitation. Some common expressions used when inviting someone for a visit are:
    • مهمان ما باشید  [mehmān-e mā bāshid] /me(h)munemun bāshin/ ‘be our guest’ – quite literal. Can be used on the guest’s arrival as well.
    • قدمتان روی چشم [qadam-etān ru-ye cheshm] /qadametun ru(-ye) cheshm/ ‘your footsteps on the eye’ ie. you are most welcome – used also on the guest’s arrival
    • چشم به راهیم  [cheshm be rāhim] ‘we are eye on the road’ ie. we eagerly wait for your coming.
    • قدم رنجه فرموده به خانه ی ما تشریف بیاورید  [qadam ranje farmude be xāne-ye mā tashrif biāvarid] /… be khunemun tashrif biārin/ ‘do fatigue your feet and bring the honor (of your presence) to our house’ – more elaborate and formal invitation formula.
    • میترسم مزاحم شما باشم [mitarsam mozāhem-e shomā bāsham] ‘I fear I would be your trouble-bringer’ ie. I don’t want to make you incomfortable with my coming – an expected answer to an invitation. Person being invited expresses his fear that his presence would be troublesome for the (would-be, so far) hosts. Of course this is followed by the hosts repeating invitation and solemnly assuring that ‘it’ll be a pleasure, not trouble’. Which brings us to…
  12. Entering somebody’s office you can say
    • ببخشید که مزاحم شدم [bebaxshid ke mozāhem shodam] ‘excuse that I trouble you’; to which you’ll hear:
    • مزاحم نشدید مراحم شدید [mozāhem nashodid, morāhem shodid] ‘you didn’t trouble but enoble’ (sorry for the pun)
  13. Denying the ta’arof – often it is important to stress that you are nice to someone not out of politeness but true sympathy, that you really like them and you do mean what you are saying and offering. Of course, denying the ta’arof can be a part of ta’arof itself. Anyway:
    • اهل تعارف نیستیم [ahl-e ta’ārof nistim] ‘we are not people of ta’ārof’ = we mean what we’re saying/offering
    • تعارف نکن [ta’ārof nakon] ‘don’t do ta’arof’ = don’t try to be polite; accept what we’re offering you
  14. (Next-to-)lastly, an important cultural note. Don’t fall in the pit of taking all these too literally. Yes, the Persians are incredibly nice and polite. At least in comparision with us, the Poles. Yes, it’s a great feeling to be treated with all that politeness and courtesy… But ! But don’t expect it’s anything more than a figure of speech – it might be, but just as well it might be not. Be aware that exchanges soaked with ta’aarof and smiles are often less than half-hearted. Elegant wording is not always matched by warm feelings and sincere intentions. The former is a must in Persian society, the latter… simply aren’t. It ain’t no hypocrisy, no – it’s simply how this language and this society work.
  15. A half random thought. The primary meaning of “ta’ārof” is “treat; offering; sharing” as in “sharing your food with others; treating others”. The fact that ta’ārof exists allowed even the poor people to avoid humiliation of not being able to treat their guests properly. They could offer them anything knowing that their initial offer will be met with polite refusal and all they have to do is not insist that much on it. Face-saving, really.
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