Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Language of Honking

I’ve learned a new language since I’ve been in Iran. It’s the everyday language of car honking. I rarely ever honk my horn in the U.S., and when I do, it’s usually because some idiot with a diplomatic license plate cut me off or someone isn’t paying attention when that everlasting red light finally turns green. And even after waiting a good 3 seconds thinking “He’ll go any second now”, I feel kind of bad- like it’s rude or something (unless, of course, I’m honking at the fool in the diplomat car.)

I’ve always been aware of the fact that honking is just a natural part of driving in Iran. But it’s only since I’ve been here longer that I’ve noticed it’s a language in its own right, with each honk having a specific meaning. As I was making my daily 30-minute walk down one of the main avenues, I tuned into the sound of honks. On this particular day, I counted 76, and that’s probably a conservative figure considering that it was 7:30 am on a Thursday (the start of the weekend), and therefore relatively quiet as most stores were still closed.
Honks vary depending on the personal style of the driver: one long one, one short one, two short ones, a long one followed by two short ones, etc. One of my uncles prefers two short ones. It's always been and will be his trademark style.

The two honks I usually hear on my commute are the following:

Beep-beep (from a taxi) = Do you need a ride?
Beep-beep (as I’m crossing the street) = Move it or lose it, sister.

When I’m in the car with someone, the honks I hear are the following:

Beep-beep (while you are at a red light) = The light on the other side just turned red, and ours is about to turn green. Get ready.
Beep-beep (as soon as the light turns green) = You waited an entire 0.5 seconds to go. What the hell is your problem? Put the pedal to the metal!
Beep-beep (as the car is passing) = You are driving like my grandmother. I’m passing you, so don’t make any sudden moves.
Beep-beep (as the car is tailgating you) = Out of my way, grandma!
Beep-beep (as someone else is crossing the street) = Watch it. I’m coming full speed, so stay where you are.
Beep-beep (when another car is pulling into your lane- even if it's nowhere near you) = Just making sure you see me.
Beep-beep (when you need to get someone's attention) = Excuse me!
Beep-beep (when you see someone you know) = Salaam!!
Beep-beep (after you talk to said person you know and are driving away) = Bye!
Beep-beep (when you ask someone for directions or something) = Thank you!
Beep-beep (when someone thanks you with a honk) = You’re welcome!

Then there is the steady beep-beep beep-beep-beep from one or more cars which means that they are celebrating a wedding. (This is usually accompanied by clapping and whistling.) Yesterday, there was horrible traffic around the circle. It had come to a complete standstill. Frustrated drivers started honking, as if that would make the traffic move. Then I heard someone start "the wedding honk" for no reason. As long as we're stuck, we might as well make it entertaining.

And finally, there is probably the universally known honk that has the same meaning no matter what corner of the world you are in:

Beep-beep (as the guy is leering at you) = Hey there, mamacita! (Please read that in your best Johnny Bravo voice.)

A couple of days ago, as I was waiting to cross the street, I noticed an unusually high number (or was it??) of honks. There was a lady in front of me who turned around and said, "What is with these drivers? Their hands are constantly on the horn. What are they honking at?!" I just laughed, but thought to myself, "How does she not realize they are taxis asking 'Do you need a ride?'" Here was an Iranian who clearly wasn't yet attuned to the language of honking.

And just this afternoon, I heard:

Car: Beep-beep
Man on the street: Salām az mās! Hello [from me]!

It was just too perfect- an Iranian on the complete opposite side of the spectrum, so familiar with this language that he spat out salām like a knee-jerk reaction.

So, dear friends of My Persian Corner, you are now aware of a language that evidently some Iranians do not even speak. If you are visiting Iran, pay attention to this language, and see if you can match each honk with its correct meaning!



  1. So happy to log in today and see not 1, but 3 new posts! This was so accurate, it hurt. I feel like you could write a whole other article on the language of car signals ("cops nearby, maybe slow down to just 20km over the speed limit").
    Hope to see more soon!

    1. You are absolutely right! That's also a language in its own right. Thanks for reading and for your comment! I'm definitely trying to blog more and regularly :)

  2. I cycled through parts of Iran in 2014 as part of a Silk Road bike tour. We were about 30 cyclists, male/female from around the globe but stretched out over 10s of kilometers on any given day, dressed in anything from spandex and helmets to the women covered from ankles to head. We were certainly noticed!

    Honking was something I noticed but not in the context mentioned in the article above, about communicating in traffic. What I noticed was the honks from big highway trucks in particular but also from cars, pickups and motorcycles. They invariably were smiling and often waving at us, communicating not "get out of my way" or some such, but "WELCOME TO MY COUNTRY". What a wonderful rush it gave us every time we heard it. Now back in Canada, whenever asked about my time in Iran, I tell this story - every time.

    1. Absolutely. Tourists are always the exception to the rule here ;) Glad to hear it was a good experience and hope you come back!


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