Discovering Iran: A Traveler's Guide to Cultural Etiquette and Respectful Engagement
What you will read in this article:
In Islam, physical contact between unrelated males and females is not allowed. Hence, the handshake etiquette between two parties of the same sex is similar to other cultures. However, when it comes to shaking hands between a man and a woman, the etiquette is to wait for the lady to extend her hand. Follow this rule or you will see yourself with an extended arm that no one wants to shake. It is very awkward.
Nothing to worry about on this subject, but only be advised that this space is a few inches shorter in Iran. Don’t be surprised if you see people looking over each other’s shoulders while waiting at an ATM. Or they stand closer than usual to you while asking for directions.
Travelers are increasingly bringing their vehicles with them from Europe through Turkey on overland journeys to Iran. However, driving in Iran calls for special skills to cope with the different habits of driving in the country, you may want to drive in places such as Mexico City or to some extent in Rome before driving in Iran.
Iranians are very interested in other people’s cultures, although it doesn’t happen a lot but be prepared for the “Where are you from?” questions which are usually followed by another question asking if you know a famous person from your country. For example, if you are from England you may be asked if you know David Beckham or James Bond or if you’re an American a Hollywood A-lister, a simple No will be appropriate unless, of course, you know these subjects personally.
It is very common in Iran to invite strangers and/or tourists to your house. It has more to do with people’s kindness and curiosity. So if you are invited don’t freak out, use your common sense and your guide’s advice if you want to accept one of these invitations. You don’t want to miss a homemade meal in Iran.
We have this thing called “Ta’arof” in Iran. It is an act of social politeness that sometimes goes wrong. For example, if an Iranian person is offered food or drink it is polite to refuse the offer for the first couple of times and then accept it in order not to sound too forward. So, if you’re a foreigner and are offered food or beverage and don’t genuinely fancy eating or drinking you may be mistaken to be doing “Taarof”, therefore the more you refuse the more your host will insist. To save yourself and your host some time please just accept the offer after the 2nd or 3rd refusal, it just makes life easier for everyone.
This is considered very impolite in Iran, especially at the dinner table. If you want to avoid awkward looks, try to do this in private and/or in a bathroom.
Although Iran is considered a part of the Middle East, you mustn’t confuse Iranians with other Middle Eastern people. Both have different languages, cultures, and histories. So if you want to make friends in Iran, please distinguish between Iran and its neighbors. Just as Canadians don’t want to be mistaken for Americans, Swiss, and Austrians don’t like to be considered German, and needless to say anything about China, Japan, and Korea. I think you get the idea.
As a male in business, you will be expected to dress smartly and conservatively. A suit is standard, although wearing a tie is not necessary. Business hours are Saturday to Thursday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Lunch is usually an hour at around 1 p.m. No business is done on Fridays. At the beginning of any meeting, engage in small talk and ask about people’s health, family, and work. Wait for your counterpart to initiate the transition in conversation to business matters.
It is OK in Iran to ask about one’s salary and marital status. You may be asked why you haven’t married yet. We leave the answer to your creativity.
Again using your common sense, we recommend that you visit a typical Iranian home. In addition to a delicious meal, you will also be able to observe the private lives of Iranians. You will be amazed at how different people’s lives are in private than in public. We don’t mean Iranians live a double life, all we want you to see/experience is more relaxed hospitality. Give it a go and thank us for encouraging you via email.
- Iran, its language, culture, and history
- Discussing family in a general, non-intrusive way
- Food, especially the variety of local cuisine
- Sports, especially Football (Soccer) is always a good topic
- Professionals will enjoy talking about their education and employment
Sex and roles of the sexes
Personal questions, unless a very close relationship has been established. Also don’t divulge too much personal information about yourself.
A lot of our travelers are already aware of the dress code in Iran, however many are misinformed and will only be aware of the stereotypical myth that all Iranian women are forced to cover head to toe with a black piece of fabric called “Chador”.
This couldn’t be further from truth, Iranian women are very modest in choosing their Hijab or Veil, and you can’t see its equivalent anywhere in the Middle East. A lot of our clients are shocked by the way women dress in Iran once they arrive, they see local women who are typically stylish and take great care of how they look.