What’s Taarof? The Secret To My Leadership Success

Published: Feb 17, 2022  |  

Founder of WatchMojo and author of three books

One of my childhood memories involved my family going to visit some friends and my Persian mother watching in dismay and horror as I proceeded to systematically devour a whole plate of fruit our host had served me. According to Persian culture norms—namely, the concept of Taarof—that was not kosher. Wikipedia described Taarof (pronounced Taw-Roaf) as “Iranian form of civility or art of etiquette that emphasizes both deference and social rank.”

Everything about my demeanor that day was enough to send my mother into shock. Having moved from Iran to Canada at the age of 5, I grew up fully embracing Western cultures, including rejecting some of the tedious aspects of Taarof.

You can take the kid out of Tehran, but you can’t take Tehran out of the kid. Fast forward some 30 years… a couple of my lieutenants were discussing how one of their reports—“Terry”— was surprised to receive their criticism, since Terry felt like he was an all-star. 

As a guilty feeling overtook me, I felt compelled to interject: “I may have something to do with that…”

Incredulous, my two execs turned around, confusingly asking me “why? How come?”

Indeed, at a company-wide dinner, I’d found myself sitting next to Terry and despite not really knowing much about his contributions and performance, I was expressing not just gratitude for joining our organization, but also extending congratulations for his excellent work…it wasn’t so much that I was lying, rather it was typical of my idealistic viewpoint that “anyone can accomplish anything” if they relied on their comparative advantage, committed themselves to it and focused on getting better at it. Leadership, after all, is instilling in everyone the belief that they can accomplish almost anything; management is knowing they can’t get there alone and need help (something one appreciates over time as they grow more realistic and less idealistic).

At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Now, reading an Iranian wife asking her British husband “what accomplishments” an Iranian immigration officer was complimenting him on resonated clearly and loudly with me. Guilty!

As WatchMojo celebrates its 15-year anniversary, I’m proud of the fact that we have so many of the early employees with us to this day. The same original 5 co-founders (one of whom is my wife), almost ten employees with over ten years of tenure, etc. Admittedly, I’ve started to dissect my management style and mode of communication that created the kind of culture that explains our “organizational stickiness” for the most part. 

Invariably, I found my way to Taarof. At first, my natural instinct was to think I had shunned the practice, but as part of the purpose of my soul-searching exercise was my recognition that “what got me here may not get me there,” my jaw dropped to the floor when I read this passage from the 2006 NY Times article:

“In Iran, you praise people but you don’t mean it.”

What? Was I…a phony? (and not in the Michael Jordan kind of way). After all, this doesn’t mean that the compliments are not sincere;  but acknowledge that I compliment people way too much, way too prematurely…and it doesn’t necessarily help long term (why? more on that below). 

According to my hamshari (fellow country-person) Sarah Parvini’s LATimes article: anthropologists trace the origins of taarof to an Arabic word meaning “acquaintance” or “knowledge.” 

Indeed, Taarof is more than simply opening doors, giving up your chair, or sharing your meal with others. It’s customary elsewhere for people to seek gaining the upper hand, Parvini describes the decorum as a form of self-deprecating “self-lowering” to “get the lower hand.” Taarof’s goal, ultimately, is to be respectful: a combination of civility, deference, etiquette, empathy, sacrifice, even martyrdom to the extent that one strives to eliminate others’ pain and discomfort, even if it means somewhat masochist behavior.

Management is the creation of rules and systems, leadership is knowing when to make exceptions. That kind of servant leadership which aims to serve others strives to create a bottom-up, egalitarian society where ideally employees feel a sense of fairness and justice. Admittedly, it’s a philosophy inspired by the Zoroastrianism motto of “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds”.

As a side note, people from Iran who refer to themselves as Persian are generally indicating a discontent with the current regime and political leadership. While cats are Persian, the people of Iran are generally referred to as Iranians, regardless of where they live, though in theory I use Iranian for someone who is a resident of Iran, versus a Persian who’s Iranian in origin but lives abroad. Notably, Iranians/Persians are Indo-Europeans, as opposed to Arabs who are Semitic. The language is Farsi. Whether an Iranian is Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Bahai or Zoroastrian, Taarof is universal amongst Persians, regardless of where they live.

While that exchange with Terry was a bit more of a benign externality of my mannerism and created a bit of a conundrum for management, overall, I wouldn’t change my overall approach to leading as it has served me and the company very well. For one, on the offensive front, it helped me lead a relatively speaking under-funded and scrappy startup to compete with, and on many levels, surpass the competition. On the defensive front (a strong foundation), it may have been the only way things would have worked. After all, as a very driven and competitive person, Taarof serves as the restrained yin to the uber competitive yang to counter-balance things. Life’s all about balance: greed vs fear, risk vs return, good vs evil. Were it not for that dovish approach, you have overbearing entrepreneurs who overstep decorum and burn out their team.

Fortune magazine recognized GE’s Jack Welch as the Manager of the Century. He was well-known and widely quoted for saying that unless you’re #1 or #2 in your market, you may as well get out. But more noteworthy was his emphasis on People & Competition, which go hand-in-hand in winning. 

But even on a day-to-day operational basis, there’s a lack of courtesy in Western norms that I always found unsavory and never adopted. For example, I will never tell an executive “get me this report by tomorrow.” Instead, I would be more likely to make the request by saying: “Hey, hope all is well. I am working on project X, I need to present by [date]. I’d love your POV before I do so. Can you take a look and lmk when you can get me your thoughts? Thanks.” 

Some may find that a bit passive aggressive. I would disagree. I’m empowering a colleague, instilling a sense of accountability. But that’s taarof, for better or worse. The recipient may see that as a favor and not a demand, and that may create some confusion, but net-net, over time, that tone engenders a better rapport between a boss and his subordinate, if it’s sincere.

Ultimately, management fads come and go, but if you don’t have a corrosive management style and manage through empathy and genuinely care about others on every single play/day, then you then don’t need extraordinary window dressing programs where you pretend to care (because you burned people out in the first place). As much as I hate to admit it, the roots of that viewpoint is without a doubt Taarof. This doesn’t mean that sometimes members of your team can’t benefit from a good kick in the butt, but there’s a way to relay that without demeaning the individual or making it about them (focus on the process and assumptions that led to the underwhelming outcome, and what we’d all do differently with the benefit of hindsight and experience).

Iranians are known for their politeness and hospitality. Taarof is ultimately rooted in those traits. In practice, as this BBC article recaps, this goes above and beyond refusing when they want to accept, say what is not meant, express what is not felt, invite when it is not intended,” but more notably to this entrepreneur and executive: “replace bad news with false hope.” Guilty once more.

I’ve oftentimes said that “entrepreneurs are masochists while executives are sadists” because of my own disposition. But reading “replace bad news with false hope,” I couldn’t help but think of the many times when someone I like and respect said or asked for something which I disagreed with or didn’t want to approve. Despite my penchant for a good debate, I may not get confrontational in person, because most people can’t truly take critical feedback. That’s why I may follow up with a very diplomatic response that’s thought-out and supported by facts and figures, but wrapped in compliments and a roadmap for how to obtain a positive response in the future.

As I grew older, I saw the pros of such an approach but also came to appreciate its limitations, namely, that in-person communications may be more effective (even though most people don’t really listen, meaning that written communications can serve as a good backup to reference). Over time, I wondered, am I really direct or blunt? Am I truthful or transparent? A communication style rooted in Taarof comes with cons: namely Ambiguity and misunderstanding are the offspring of Taarof, which in term might cause complexity when interacting with Iranians. In a business context, there are an extensive amount of indirect words and phrases.”

To say I’m passionate and fiery is an understatement, I compete and like to win, be it in business or in sports. But I’ve never really directly criticized let alone attacked someone personally. I get upset at outcomes and results, and then quickly want to learn from those setbacks to bounce back. But nothing is personal. Experienced colleagues recognize and appreciate that nuance, inexperienced ones don’t. Taarof also forces the leader to empathize with those who are more fragile and may break down if you don’t strike the right tone.

I’ve found it more effective to try to guide people, give anecdotes and point to examples of how I or more successful people approached a similar situation the person is facing. I attribute that to the Built to Last-inspired mantra of “building clocks, instead of telling people the time.” As that BBC article would conclude: “the truth is that taarof is not meant to appear to be taarof. The less obvious it is, the more successful.”

Iranian artist Fereshteh Najafi adds: “Taarof represents the kind essence of Iranian people. In Persian culture, it can be impolite to express ourselves in very a direct and objective way.” Meanwhile, Masud Valipour, owner of Ketabsara bookstore in Westwood, relates to the LA Times’ Parvini: “The heart of ta’arof is good. Sometimes people take advantage of it. It’s just like anything else.” 

When I look back at my career, as a Canadian who competed at a high level in the American corporate arena over two decades, it’s as if I have been able to blend the hawkish go-getting American business culture with the dovish Taarof management style, while combining the dealmaking pedigree Iranians have under the friendly veneer of Canadians’ demeanour.

Ultimately, the takeaway once again being that balance trumps any extreme.

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