Speaking of listening to things, a recent This American Life podcast discusses the Persian custom of Tarof (or Taarof), which is described as “never saying what you want,” and “offering things to people you may or may not want to give them.” I first learned of Tarof by name last year during exam week. A student visited my office the afternoon before the real estate final to discuss the material. She had good questions and we talked for a while, but she had reviewed only about half the assigned reading and intended to review the remainder that night for the 9 AM exam the following day. I told her I could come to my office early, before the exam, if she wanted to ask questions about the rest of the material. “No, that’s fine. I don’t want to trouble you.” “It’s no trouble to be here at 8. I need to arrive early anyway.” “No, really, I don’t want you to come in early just to meet with me.” “I wouldn’t be coming in early just to meet with you. I’d be coming in because I have things to do whether we meet or not.” “No, no, I won’t need to ask questions.” “Are you sure?” “Yes, really.”
Driving the following morning in I received a text the student sent shortly before 8: Prof. Randall, where r u? I’m at yr office. (She got my cell # from another student.) I replied I’ll be there in 20 minutes. Arriving I found a note from her on my door and tracked her to Starbucks. “I thought you were going to be in your office at 8!” she said. “I came later because you said you didn’t want to meet!” I replied. I answered a few of her questions in the time before the exam, but not all of them. After the exam I saw her in the hall with a friend. I said I was sorry I didn’t arrive sooner, but I took my time because I didn’t expect her. That’s when her Persian friend, the student who supplied my cell number, explained Tarof to me. She couldn’t ask directly that I meet specially with her, or feel that she had obligated me to arrive early at my office. Had I been savvy to the cultural nuances I would have known that her repeated refusals of my offers to meet meant that she wanted to meet at the time and place I suggested. Literal, Western me took the exchange at face value. I felt as I always feel when I am part of a cross-cultural miscommunication. Blinkered by my parochial existence and blind to nuances that are obvious in hindsight. I remember the lesson but I forgot the name, until I heard it again on This American Life. It’s the third segment and starts about 34:32.