We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.

In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:

A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Iran

In general, Iranians are warm, friendly and generous individuals with a strong interest in foreigners and other cultures. In dealing with Iranians, the following tips relating to customs and etiquette may prove useful: Although its strict Islamic moral code is well known, Iranian laws are not as strict as other countries such as Saudi Arabia. Respecting the dozens of unspoken rules and regulations of Iranian life can be a daunting prospect for travellers, but don’t be intimidated. As a foreigner you will be given leeway and it doesn’t take long to acclimatise yourself. The culture, like most others in the Middle East and Central Asia, has a strong tradition of hospitality.

Guests are often treated extremely well. On the other hand, there is some insularity; any foreigner may be regarded with suspicion. Iranian nationality Iranians are not Arabs and their primary language is Persian (natively known as ????? Farsi or ????? Parsi). Referring to them as “Arabs” will without a doubt irritate them. Iranians are very proud of their history, nationality and country and are highly sensitive to it. Iran has over 4,000 years of written history and organised civilisation. It was conquered 3 times: by the Greeks, Arabs and Mongols. “Persia” is a name of Greek origin attributed to Iran. “Persian” cannot be equated with “Iranian,” as Iran has several ethnic groups, including Persian, Azeri, Kurd, Arab, Baluchi and Mazandarani.

After the Arab conquest, public and official use of Persian was banned for about two centuries, and its alphabet was changed to an Arabic-based one. Indeed the word “Farsi” itself is an Arabic articulation of the word “Parsi”, the original word meaning “Persian”. The ban was intended to eliminate the Persian language and culture, however it was unsuccessful. Today, the Persian language has many loan words taken from the Arabic language. The Arabic language has also adopted many words from Persian. There are several widely-spoken Iranian languages, Kurdish, Persian, and Balochi are all Western Iranian languages, while Pashto is an Eastern Iranian language.

Persian is the official language of 3 nations – Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan – and is spoken within 13 nations of the region and in general by the Iranian diaspora elsewhere. Over the 19th and 20th centuries Iran was frequently subjected to unfavorable political interference by the Russian Empire and its successor, the USSR. The British and then the USA also sought to influence and control the politics, resources and destiny of Iran. In 1980, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, supported by most of the global community, attacked and invaded Iran, causing the country to suffer a bloody 8-year war that drastically undermined its infrastructure and consumed its resources. Given the above, the Iranian people feel that history has frequently not been on their side and that the global community owes them respect and sensitivity.

The Persian Gulf The Iranian authorities as well as the general public are extremely sensitive about this internationally recognised name. They insist that it be used for the large body of water lying to the south of Iran. It is considered to be highly inappropriate to use the expression “the Gulf” and especially “the Arabian Gulf” when referring to the Persian Gulf. If you do so you may possibly cause deep offense and may encounter some strongly opposing reaction, both official and unofficial. Dress Perhaps the most visible mark of Iran’s Islamic leanings is the conservative dress expected of its citizens. Although normal Western-style clothing is acceptable in private homes, when in public women are required to cover everything but their face, hands and feet.

The most common uniform consists of a head scarf (roo-sari, ?????) to conceal the head and neck, a formless, knee-length coat known as a maanto (?????) and a long dress or pair of pants. In holy sites, you will be expected to dress even more modestly in a ch?dor, a full-length swathe of black cloth designed to cloak everything but your face from view. As a foreigner, a female traveller is officially expected to cover her hair and body excluding hands and feet. Usually more tolerance tends to be shown towards foreigners over the detail of the dress code than is the case for Iranian women. However, this does not include leaving one’s hair fully uncovered under any circumstance.

“Acceptable” outfits may include a long, loose dress or shirt worn over loose skirt or pants and a scarf in the summer, and a full-length woolen coat and scarf in the winter (calf-length is acceptable if worn over pants). All colours and modest designs are acceptable. Even when undertaking sporting activity in public (such as tennis or jogging), the dress code described above must be maintained. Men are also required to abide by the following dress code: Short-sleeved shirts and t-shirts are acceptable for daily wear. Shorts and three-quarter length pants are only acceptable on the beach. Dress attire for men is similar to that in Europe.

Neckties are better to be avoided if visiting one of the more conservative government bodies. Regarded by the authorities as a sign of Imperialism and a reminder of the pro-western kingdom era, wearing neckties by the authorities and office workers of state-run companies is forbidden. It is quite acceptable in the areas outside though it denotes indifference toward or opposition against state regulations and values. Jogging in tracksuits (but not shorts) is acceptable for men. Conduct Greet people of the same sex with a handshake, three kisses or both, but avoid physical contact with people of the opposite sex in public. Wait for them to introduce themselves instead; or just introduce yourself normally. (Bowing with a hand over your heart has been outdated since the 70s and is rarely done.)

In private, only shake hands with a member of the opposite sex when he/ she holds out his/her hand first. Be careful of initiating political discussions. The relative political freedom of ex-President Mohammad Khatami’s era is fading quickly and vocal opposition can be more trouble than it’s worth, even if your Iranian companions get engaged in it. It’s best not to discuss topics such as the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict or the role of Islam in society regardless of what opinion you hold. Tarof Tarof (Persian: ????? ) is a genuine Persian form of civility emphasising both self-deference and social rank. The term encompasses a range of social behaviours, from a man displaying etiquette by opening the door for another person, to a group of colleagues standing on ceremony in front of a door that can permit the entry of only one at time, earnestly imploring the most senior to break the deadlock.

Iran Culture photo

Photo by Alieh

The prevalence of tarof often gives rise to different styles of negotiation than one would see in a European or North American culture. For example, a worker negotiating a salary might begin with a eulogy of the employer, followed by a lengthy bargaining session consisting entirely of indirect, polite language — both parties are expected to understand the implied topic of discussion. It is quite common for an Iranian worker (even one employed in an Iranian neighbourhood within Europe) to work unpaid for a week or two before the issue of wages is finally broached. Likewise, a shopkeeper may initially refuse to quote a price for an item, suggesting that it is worthless. Tarof obliges the customer to insist on paying, possibly several times, before a shopkeeper finally quotes a price and real negotiation can begin.

Tarof also governs the rules of hospitality: a host is obliged to offer anything a guest might want, and a guest is equally obliged to refuse it. This ritual may repeat itself several times before the host and guest finally determine whether the host’s offer and the guest’s refusal are real or simply polite. It is possible to ask someone not to tarof (tarof näkonid), but that raises new difficulties, since the request itself might be a devious type of tarof. The best approach to handle Tarof is to be politely direct. Accept or reject as soon as you wish to, and be sure that Iranians will not be offended. Even though Tarof is purely about the art of civility, your engagement in Tarof might enter you into a vicious cycle of hypocrisy that may ruin your entire stay.

The exception to this may be with food; as mentioned above, guests are expected to accept food they are offered at dinner, regardless of whether they intend to eat it. Visiting holy sites The Mashhad shrine of the martyred Imam Reza (the 8th Imam) Although no trip to Iran would be complete without a glimpse at the stunning architecture and sombre environments of its mosques or holy shrines, many travellers are daunted by the prospect of walking into the foreign world of a mosque. Don’t let these fears stop you; Iranians are welcoming and will understand any unintended breach of protocol. Some mosques, and most holy shrines, require women to be wearing a ch?dor before entering the complex. If you don’t have one, there are sometimes kiosks by the door that lend or hire ch?dors.

It is better for men to wear long-sleeved shirts inside a mosque or shrine, though this is not mandatory. Shoes are not worn within prayer areas of a mosque or shrine. Busier mosques have free shoe repositories where you trade your shoes for a token. Also try to avoid mosques on the holy day of Friday as they will be much busier and don’t photograph a mosque while prayers are taking place. Holy shrines, like those in Mashad and Qom, are usually off limits to non-Muslims, although the surrounding complexes are fine. Always ask first before you enter a room you are unsure of. Obscene gestures The thumbs up gesture is extremely rude in Iran, roughly equivalent to raising the middle finger in Western countries. Hitchhiking is rare in Iran, and the country has a good public transportation system.

If you do hitchhike, do not use a thumbs up signal. Also, be aware that drivers will generally expect to be paid and, unless you are an expert haggler, hitchhiking will often be more expensive than taking a bus. Religion Ramadan dates 28 Jun–27 Jul 2014 (1435 AH) 18 Jun–16 Jul 2015 (1436 AH) 6 Jun–5 July 2016 (1437 AH) Exact dates depend on local astronomical observations and vary from one country to another. Ramadan ends with the Eid ul-Fitr festival extendign over several days. Contrary to popular belief, public observance of other religions, besides the Baha’i faith, is officially tolerated in Iran. There is a sizable Christian community, most of whom are ethnic Armenians or Assyrians/Chaldean, and a small Jewish community (which is nevertheless, the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel).

In addition to the Abrahamic faiths, there are also significant numbers of Zoroastrians who are basically free to practise their own religion. However, remember that this is still a conservative Muslim country and do not do or say anything which can be perceived as an insult to Islam. Also note that the Islamic dress codes still apply even to non-Muslims. Music Western music and dancing in public is banned . However, the visitors may notice that even shared taxis openly play the music of their choice. Still, customs may confiscate any music tapes or CDs brought in as some western music is considered un-Islamic, degrading towards women and corrupting for the minds of the youth. However, many Iranian youth have widespread access to all kinds of music. Women are not allowed to sing in public (even the traditional music) they may sing indoor for women only.

With this, you had the primer on key facts about Iran, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Iran food and drinks:

Local food you should try in Iran and No miss drinks in Iran.

Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Iran? Please comment below.