Posted by Jay Livingston
Two couples at dinner. The check comes.
“We’ll get it,” says one man.
“OK, thanks,” says the other.
Of course, that’s not what happens. The other person is supposed to protest, to make the same offer to pick up the whole tab. Then comes the negotiation.
I’m not concerned here with how these things get resolved or the basis of the moves and countermoves. My point is just that we’re not supposed to take that first offer at face value. It might be sincere, or it might not. That’s what’s to be discovered in the subsequent negotiation.
When it comes to this generosity gambit, Iranian culture is way ahead of us. In Farsi, it’s known as tarof. I first heard about it on a 2011 episode of “This American Life.” An Iranian-American woman, Nazanin Rafsanjani, explains.
|It’s basically this social custom of never saying what you want and offering things to people that you may or may not really want to give them. . . An uncomfortable thing that would often happen to me growing up is that I’d have all these American friends coming over to our house, and it always makes me slightly uncomfortable when someone’s at my parents’ house and they compliment my parents on something. |
Because the custom is, if you go to my parents’ house and you say, like, “That’s a beautiful painting on the wall,” they’ll offer it to you. They’ll just be like, “Take it. It’s yours. It’s not good here anyway. It would look better in your house. Take it. It’s not worth anything to us. It’s much more important that you have it.”
Which brings me to the “Modern Love” column in the Styles section of the New York Times Sundays ago. It’s by Sharon Harrigan, presumably not Iranian. She begins:
|The nicest thing I own is the first thing you see when you walk into my house: a red handmade rug bought in Tehran, haggled over in Farsi and delivered, in person, to the Brooklyn apartment of the man who would become my husband.|
Back then, James told me the woman who gave him the rug, a woman he had recently dated, was by then “just a friend.”
I’ll skip the friends-become-lovers-become-married story (you can read it here) and jump cut to the next appearance of the rug, later in the narrative but earlier in chronology, when the author first sees it.
|Weeks later, he buzzed me up to his apartment. The door opened to reveal the most beautiful rug I had ever seen, so finely woven it was more like a tapestry. The kind of precious object that could be ruined by a few stray Cheerios crumbs.|
“It’s a gift from a friend,” he said. “She bought it when she visited her family in Iran.”
“She’s trying to get you back,” I said.
“What? She’s just being kind. Don’t you love it?”
It’s possible that she’s right – that the old girlfriend is trying to get him back. It’s possible that he’s right – that the old girfriend was just being kind. But – and I’m just guessing here, and I could be very mistaken – it’s also possible that the Iranian girlfriend, the one who haggled over the rug in Farsi, was tarof-ing her ex. And he, not knowing any better, accepted the offer.
In the “This American Life” episode, the American producer does ask Nazanin Rafsanjani what happens if someone does just accept the offer. Rafsanjani answers: “I don't know. I mean, that just never happens.” But she means that it never happens between Iranians. They know how the game is played. But if the other person is a tarof-ignorant American, maybe an Iranian woman winds up losing her beautiful rug.*
* In the episode, which you should really listen to (here) or read the transcript of (here), Rafsanjani describes how tarof happens even in retail sales. The storekeeper offers the merchandise for free. “Take it” etc. The customer of course refuses and insists to know how much it costs. At some point in this negotiation, the storekeeper names a price. Now the sides switch, for the storekeeper, who had been saying that the goods were nearly worthless and that the customer should take them, asks a price which is invariably far more than the goods are worth, and the customer must haggle the price down.