Saturday, August 19, 2006

A Lesson for Americans about Iranians - The Fine Art of Hiding What You Mean to Say

Michael Slackman, The New York Times:
IT is certainly unfair to accuse all Iranians of being liars. The label is judgmental and reeks of stereotype. The more appropriate way to phrase the Iranian view toward honesty, the way many Iranians themselves describe it, is to say that being direct and telling the truth are not prized principles in Iran.

Often, just the opposite is true. People are expected to give false praise and insincere promise. They are expected to tell you what you want to hear to avoid conflict, or to offer hope when there is none.

There is a social principle in Iran called taarof, (or Formalities - H.H.) a concept that describes the practice of insincerity — of inviting people to dinner when you don't really want their company, for example. Iranians understand such practices as manners and are not offended by them.

But taarof is just one aspect of a whole framework for communication that can put Iranian words in a completely different context from the one Americans are familiar with.

"You have to guess if people are sincere, you are never sure," said Nasser Hadian, a political science professor at the University of Tehran. "Symbolism and vagueness are inherent in our language." READ MORE

This way of communicating is suddenly essential for Americans to understand. Increasingly, it appears that the road to peace, and war, runs through Tehran. And so hearing what Iranians are really saying, not what Americans think they are saying, has become a priority. Iran has outsized influence with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. It has profound influence with the newly empowered Shiites of Iraq. And it is locked in its own fight with the United Nations Security Council over its ambition to develop nuclear technology.

And yet, understanding each other — forget about agreeing — is complicated from the start.

"Speech has a different function than it does in the West," said Kian Tajbakhsh, a social scientist who lived for many years in England and the United States before returning to Iran a decade ago. "In the West, 80 percent of language is denotative. In Iran 80 percent is connotative."

Translation: In the West, "yes" generally means yes.

In Iran, "yes" can mean yes, but it often means maybe or no. In Iran, Dr. Tajbakhsh said, listeners are expected to understand that words don't necessarily mean exactly what they mean.

"This creates a rich, poetic linguistic culture," he said. "It creates a multidimensional culture where people are adept at picking up on nuances. On the other hand, it makes for bad political discourse. In political discourse people don't know what to trust."

It is not a crude ethnic joke or slur to talk about taarof, but a cultural reality that Iranians say stems from centuries under foreign occupation. Whether it was the Arabs, the Mongols or the French and the British, foreign hegemony taught Iranians the value of hiding their true face. The principle is also enshrined in the majority religion here, Shiite Islam, which in other lands is a minority religion, often at odds with the majority. There is a concept known as takiya in which Shiites are permitted, even encouraged, to hide their belief or faith to protect their life, honor or property.

"When you tell lies, it can save your life," said Muhammad Sanati, a social psychologist who lived for years in England before returning to Iran in 1982. "Then you can see the problem of language in this country."

Diplomacy everywhere is the art of not showing your hand, and if Iranians have shown skill at forcing negotiations over negotiations, or winning by stalling, it would be an overstatement to say that it can be explained solely by a culture of taarof. But Western diplomats based in Iran say that Iran's cultural foundation gives it a leg up when dealing with the more studied negotiating skills of the Americans.

Perhaps more important, such diplomats and Iranians themselves said, Americans need to understand Iran's approach to interpersonal communications in order to understand the complexities Iranians face in dealing with each other. Analyst after analyst said that after centuries of cloaking their true feelings, Iranians are often unsure whom they can trust when dealing with each other, let alone foreigners.

One Western diplomat, who insisted on anonymity because that is standard diplomatic protocol, said it was possible that when Iran said it could not respond before the end of August to the West's offer on its nuclear program, that it was not only a diplomatic maneuver, but may also have been a nod to the reality of internal Iranian politics. Major decisions on the nuclear issue involve consensus at the highest levels of the political elite. But consensus can be hard to achieve when interpersonal communications, at least initially, are defined by taarof, mistrust and different political agendas, the diplomat said.

At the same time, understanding the cultural/moral foundation of a community can also help Americans understand whether or not an agreement was actually reached, even when the Iranians seem to say that a deal is done. "You can translate words, but can you translate feelings?" asked Saeed Leylaz, a political analyst and former government official in Tehran. "British diplomats are more successful with us. They understand our ways and our culture."

Indeed, Americans and Iranians speak two different languages. Americans are pragmatists and word choice is often based on the shortest route from here to there. Iranians are poets and tend to use language as though it were paint, to be spread out, blended, swirled. Words can be presented as pieces in a puzzle, pieces that may or may not fit together neatly.

"In Iran, you praise people but you don't mean it," Dr. Sanati said. "You invite people for all sorts of things, and you don't mean it. You promise things, and you don't mean it. People who live here understand that."

Today, Iranians are expecting the United States to take the time to understand its culture. It has seen America fail the test of cultural translation in Iraq.

"It is up to America to understand us, because it is stronger," said Mr. Leylaz, the political analyst. There are differences of opinion about how much taarof, or indirection, or as some people call it, expediency, actually affects public discourse. People in Iran assume that when a politician offers something he knows he can't deliver, it is taarof. They don't call it a lie.

But what about when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sends a letter to President Bush. Is it sincere, or taarof? The letter has been interpreted by some Iranians as the president trying to follow the path of the Prophet Muhammad, who sent letters to his enemies, or of copying Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who sent a letter in 1989 to Mikhail Gorbachev. Some have called it naïve, or just bad politics. Certainly its import is unclear, but to all of these people, it seemed intended as a serious overture. Washington, in contrast, dismissed the letter as irrelevant because it did not address any of the substantial issues on the table. It wanted Tehran to be more direct.

Dr. Hadian, who was a childhood friend of the president, suggested a different approach: "If you talk to Ahmadinejad you have to consider taarof."

"Taarof is a sign of respect, even if we don't mean it."

Muhammad Atrianfar, publisher of the reform-minded daily newspaper Shargh, said Iranians find Americans easy to deal with because they are straightforward. That, he implied, could give Iranians an advantage in any negotiations. But for Americans to understand Iranians, he said, they must recognize that with Iranians, "the mind thinks something, the heart feels something else, the tongue says something else, and manners do something else.

"It doesn't mean people are lying," he said. "They are just dealing with you with a different character."
A must read.