A fundamental aspect of Iranian culture is taarof, a system of exchanging politeness and compliments back and forth. Taarof is a fairly extensive and complex system to write about in one sitting, so I've broken it down into different posts. So far, there is one about general taarof, another about the phrase ghabel nadare, and today, I'm presenting Part 3.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to a friend's house. I didn't want to go empty-handed, so I took her some flowers. When I gave them to her, she thanked me and said how beautiful they were and how she loved flowers. Your standard polite thank you. Then I thought about how this would go over in an Iranian household.
Had I given the flowers to an Iranian, I would have heard, "Vay! Chera zahmat keshidi? Khodet goli!" "Oh! Why did you go through so much trouble! You are a flower yourself!" So here is an example of taarof- calling someone a flower. You are so wonderful and beautiful, that you didn't have to get any flowers because you yourself are the most beautiful flower. Just coming to my house is a gift!
There is another example of taarof related to flowers. In Iran, it is rude to show your back to someone. If you absolutely must, you need to recognize that you are doing so and apologize. So when an Iranian sits in the passenger seat of the car, they usually turn around and apologize (sometimes even the driver apologizes) by saying bebakhshid poshtam be shomast, I'm sorry my back is to you. The person in the back seat usually replies with [khahesh mikonam] gol poshto ru nadare, [It's ok!] a flower has no front or back. So instead of just saying "it's ok", the person in the back seat gives a compliment. The person in the front then returns the compliment by saying bolbol poshte gol mishine, a nightingale sits behind a flower. This is yet another time when we use the nightingale to compliment someone. So there you have it: one person is a flower, one person is a nightingale, everyone is happy. That's taarof for you.
I've always been torn on the empty compliments, but at the end of the day, I guess they sound nicer than just saying sorry, thank you or that's ok.