Iranian people by nature are very warm, friendly, respectful and formal. Most people mainly speak Persian and it helps to learn a few basic words and phrases in Farsi to get by. In case you are lost, seeking directions or making purchases at stores this will help you get your message across. Young people and shopkeepers in big cities and tourist centers do speak English a little but those instances are few and far between.
Iranian people are friendly and helpful and will extend a helping hand to even strangers so don't be shy to approach someone and ask for help. Iranians love having people over and a visit to Iran almost always means your friends will invite you over for a meal or high tea. If you have a meeting with an Iranian, expect people to arrive a little late as they tend to be very laid back.
The most important concept you need to learn about socializing in Iran is “taarof”. Taarof is a Persian form of civility, a range of social behaviours. In Iran, Children learn the etiquette from the very early age via their parents and relatives. It is a type of unwritten way of treating others that everybody takes it on his own from the society. As a form of polite negotiation in the discussions, both sides usually understand this socially implied rules. It also derives from the fact that Iranians care so much to the image they present to others and the world.
Taarof 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 (3 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 taarof ("taarof nakonid"), but that raises new difficulties, since the request itself might be a devious type of taarof.
Here are a few examples of common taarof, when you must think twice (or better 3 times) before you accept:
- if a stranger invites you to share a meal even though he/she didn't expect you
- if a taxi driver or a cashier at the grocery's refuses to take money from you, saying “Ghabeli nadare” (It has no worth = It's not a big deal)
- if someone invites you to their place or to stay overnight, offers you a ride, etc. but you clearly see it's not convenient for them due to lack of time or money
- if someone insists on paying your bill at the restaurant of grocery store
- if your acquaintance/host says “It's yours now” after hearing you admire smth that belongs to them
However, usually Iranians are sincere about inviting you to their place for a meal or cup of coffee, as they are very curious about foreign cultures and like guests.
Traditionally Iranians shake hands and kiss on cheeks 3 times on meeting. It's called “dide boosi” and is followed by typical questions about your health and family. However, beware that normally men and women are not supposed to touch each other unless they're relatives. That's why it's better to wait for the other party to offer their hand, in case they're of opposite sex. Unlike in the west men hug, kiss and hold hands in public, but it's only display of friendship, so don't be surprised if they do this to you.