14 Observations on Iranian culture and society (part 1)

Siosepol Bridge, Isfahan, Iran (16) - header - woman in chador

We have recently spent a month in Iran, couchsurfing, hitchhiking and interacting with the locals as much as possible. It would be a huge overstatement, however, to say we are experts on Iranian culture and society. These are just our subjective observations and we would be very curious to hear what you think.

Iranian culture and society

– 1 –

The first thing that every visitor to Iran immediately learns about the local culture is the importance of hospitality. Treating guests with utter respect and helping them at every step is what all Iranians are weaned on. It’s not only the fact that whenever you enter a Persian household you are given a plate and a set of cutlery and are offered fruit, dates, biscuits and tea. It’s not even that you cannot walk the streets without being approached every 15 minutes by people greeting you and telling you “welcome to Iran” and expressing to you how happy they are that somebody decided to visit their country. It’s also that most Iranians, even strangers, will be happy to offer their service to you in any way, be it helpful advice, a lift, using their phone number or inviting you to lunch. You may protest all you want that you will pay for lunch or you will buy them some tea. If you are a guest, you are a guest and to most Iranians it would be a sign of bad manners to let you pay for yourself.

For this reason Iran is one of the easiest and safest countries to visit. Your status of a “guest” will help you in every situation and will give you extra privileges  (e.g. If you are a girl you might be able to do things regular Iranian women cannot do, like enter “men only” places etc.). We were never intimidated in Iran as we knew that whatever happens Iranians would never let us get harmed.

Iranian culture and society

-2-

Another point related to the above is the fact that Iranian people love foreigners and having foreign friends is prestigious for them. After being helped by a random Iranian person (even if it’s such a minor thing like showing you the way), expect that they will want to exchange contact details with you. You will be asked your name and your phone number, and you can be sure they will want to befriend you on Facebook. Many a time there will be a photo taken which will then be shown to their friends and family to prove your “friendship”. While hitchhiking we have been shown by our drivers so many photos they had taken with random foreigners telling us they were their long-term friends, even though they often didn’t speak a word of English.

Meeting local women in Esfahan - Iranian culture and society

-3-

As I have mentioned, Iranians love having foreign friends and often you will be shown off to their regular friends or even passers-by as a ‘trophy friend’. That applies to all nationalities, especially Westerners (Europeans, Americans, Australians) and especially so for British people.

Many Iranians hold this strange view that Britain rules the world. In their opinion it is not the USA, Germany or China that are the real world powers, but small Britain who can manipulate other countries like puppets. We’ve had many disputes with our Iranian friends about it, but their belief remains unshaken.

-4-

Being asked for your personal contact details is not considered bad manners in Iran. While in Western culture we often feel over-protective towards our personal details, in Iran it’s perfectly OK to ask somebody how much they earn and how much their rent costs. If you plan to interact with many Iranians during your stay there, be prepared to answer many personal questions and give out your contact and personal details.

English class in Esfahan, Iran - Iranian culture and society

We took part in an English class in Esfahan where we were asked lots of personal questions

-5-

There is one more reason Iranian people might ask for your telephone number or Facebook name. It’s called ‘bakhshesh‘. It’s the idea of being repaid for your good service to somebody. While most Iranian people would help you absolutely selflessly and not expect anything in return (as you are a guest after all), some of them might have this idea at the back of their minds that if one day they go to the West they would be able to expect the same from you. But don’t get me wrong, the imperative of being hospitable is much stronger in Iran than bakhshesh so have no fear!

-6-

Having met many Iranians during our stay there (as you would if you hitchhike and couchsurf for a month), we have noticed that most young Iranians don’t have much life experience. Both their religion and the law prohibit them living with their partners before getting married. For this reason most young Iranians in their late twenties and early thirties still live with their parents and it’s a very sheltered life. If you are a single girl in your late twenties chances are that you will have a bed time and wouldn’t be able to leave the house after 8-9 p.m. (it’s a bit more liberal for men). Living with your parents also means that most young Iranians cannot cook (why learn if you mum cooks you tasty food every day?).

To our utter surprise we have learnt that most of them are also scared of life and they don’t long for independence. They are comfortable in their parents’ nests and they see no need to leave it. Some of them even openly admitted being scared to stay alone when they parents left them for a couple of days on their own.

That’s also linked with the fact that most young Iranians, being so sheltered from life by their parents, experience many things later than a standard European, American or Australian. We have spoken to people in their late twenties who told us they had just experienced their first love or got drunk for the first time. They just seem to grow up later than we do and it’s not uncommon to see in Iran, girls in their late twenties giggling or men in their early thirties leering at the opposite sex in the way European teenagers would do.

Ania and Maryam in a traditional Iranian tea house - Iranian culture and society

Ania and Maryam in a traditional Iranian tea house

-7-

Having mentioned alcohol, you probably think it’s normal for them not to experience getting drunk until they are quite old. You are partly right, as drinking alcohol is completely prohibited in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I say ‘partly’ because people drink alcohol anyway and they love it! In Turkey where most people are Muslim but alcohol is legal, we rarely got drunk, but after entering Iran it happened to us with almost every host.

It’s worth mentioning that alcohol in Iran is very expensive so having access to it (especially the imported stuff, not the home-made brew) is an indicator of your social status. We had a chance to visit the houses of some very wealthy Iranians and apart from an expensive car, a huge flat-screen TV, they also had a personal bar at home.

Read the second part of this article

bottle of wine in Shiraz - Iranian culture and society

written by: Ania

Have you been to Iran? Do you have Iranian friends? Are you Iranian yourself? What do you think of this article? Do you agree/disagree? What things have you noticed about Iranian people?


 

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24 comments

  • couldnt agree more however I didnt see any alcohol when I was there! truly!

    • That’s really surprising as everywhere we went we were flooded with alcohol! We must have those types of faces, I suppose.

    • Dude you got the wrong crowd. Nowadays you can offer the best of everything to your guests and if you don’t offer some sort of alcoholic beverage (even during family gatherings) then you have pretty much failed as a host :-) perhaps you got invited to some ultra religious homes or something.

  • W Indonezji loklani częstując bimbrem mówili mi, że po zachodzie słońca moża, bo nikt, a szczególnie ten na górze nie widzi;) pzdr

  • Hello Ania!
    Thanks alot for being interested in Iran and sharing your information!
    I’m an Iranian student and am quite not in agreement with most of your statements. because you know, there is a wide variety of subcultures within Iranians.
    First of all know that most of Iranian students have traveled abroad since like 10 years ago. so the rest who you’ve been talking to are more of the middle class, kind of traditional people. those student are more modern and adventurous and independent. the texture of the culture differs from city to city. for example regarding number 4 about asking you a lot of question, it is one of a characteristic of Isfahanian culture! they are so curious about other people, not just foreigners life. number 3 is quite controversial too. it lies behind the politics behind that was governing Iran within revolution, behind and after.
    Anyway, I hope you had a wonderful time, and inspiring moments there,
    bests,

    • Hello Mina! Thanks for taking the time to read and reply to the post. I agree with you that most Iranians living abroad are quite different to the people we met within the country. That’s probably partly because they have been exposed to foreign influences and partly because they had been different in the first place and that’s why they decided to emigrate.
      As for the personal questions, you are right again that this situation when we were asked lots of questions happened to us in Isfahan. But not only there. When we hitchhiked in other parts of the country people asked lots of questions too, but maybe not as personal ones as they did in Isfahan.
      And yes, you are right again that number 3 is deeply connected with the political situations before the revolution and it’s not surprising why some people might still hold this opinion. It was just very surprising for us to hear that, as the rest of the world don’t really think that British people are that powerful :)

      • Haha :) yeah! anyway, generally your are write. and it was interesting to see them from outside!
        sorry for my messy writing… just was in rush to send and couldn’t edit it after that ;) hope to see you soon,
        with love

  • Iranians are one of the nicest people you can ever meet on your travels! Happy to read this positive post about them!

  • I am trying to figure out what this bakhshesh you are talking about is!? Never heard of the word in this context. The actual meaning of the word is giving without expecting anything in return so it applies to the former part where people didn’t expect reciprocation.

    • Sometimes we believed that the reason people were constantly asking for our Facebook/Contact details was the hope that one day if they did make it to Europe then we would be able to help them when they arrived. Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing but is quite an alien concept to us. In Europe, you would never hope such a thing for such a remote future possiblity. Of course we may be wrong in our interpretation but while discussing the oddity of this with Iranians, many shared the belief that they were doing it for this reason.

      • I think they asked for your contact info just to show off to their friends that they have British friends, that’s why… I think that is considered cool and open minded.
        On a different note, thanks for sharing this. As an Iranian Canadian, I can see how western people think of that country and the people in there and it’s very unfortunate that the government of Iran is not putting much effort to fix that… They are actually the root cause of it haha

        • You’re probably right about the prestige of knowing a foreigner and we agree that it’s sad that too many people have an incorrect view about Iran. We hope that one day things will open up and the world and Iran will get to know each other better.

  • I’m Iranian and I agree with all you said. It might be a bit embarrassing, but nonetheless very true. I think you’ve been honest and inbiased in your observations, and that’s what makes it useful.
    Just one thing: number 5, Bakhshesh, was so strange to me. It is the first time that I hear about this concept, and also the first time that I hear this word in such a context.

    • Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment, Mojtaba. There is nothing to be embarrassed about, all cultures have their different oddities and foibles and it is only when you see them from an outsiders perspective do they seem a little odd sometimes :) As for Baksheesh, it does seem a little strange that you (and other people here on the comments) have never heard of it. When we were in Iran we spoke to local people about it and they identified it. Perhaps it is just not as common as we have made out!

  • Thanks for sharing your views. However, I disagree on 5 and over the reason of exchanging contact details, specially I have never heard or experienced something as BAKHSHESH as you explained. First, its very common to add someone to your facebook as your friend that you hardly know, its a part of social networking culture among Iranians. Generally speaking, In contrast to western cultures, Iranians are more outgoing and its pretty normal to talk / greet with someone who you barely know and met maybe once some years ago and ask about his/her Family. It doesn’t necessarily Means you expect something from them but still knowing more people is cool. That can be the reason why people starts to feel close enough to ask for contact details so soon. Second, nowadays Iranians have learned that they have totally different hospitality culture with other nations, especially with Europeans and North Americans, so they wont expect the same level of hospitality from their foreigner friends. At the end of day, Bakhshesh Means giving without expecting to get something out of it :)

    • Hey Piam, Thanks a lot for getting involved in the debate. It seems that we have had a black & white response to our point about Bakhshesh. Some, like yourself, have never heard of the concept (or disagree with our interpretation) while other Iranians have agreed that it is something identifiable in the culture. I guess, this debate will run and run :) As to your point about adding people as friends on Facebook that you hardly know. I would ask what do you think is the reason for this? For us in Europe, it is strange as inviting people to see your personal details is seen as invasive. Surely, you do not have any intention of ever contacting all the people you befriend online? Perhaps we are just cynical Europeans :)

      • I cant see any cooment which approves the point 5 here. But Let’s wont be so black and white as you mentioned, as I live and work in Europe and have lots of friends in my contact list who are European and live in Europe and I may have met once, but they added me as friend and i approved. It happens i Europe too. I personally believe nowadays, people take social media lot easier and are more willing to share their private life with strangers. Look at apps like Instagram which is basically sharing your private daily life.
        My main point here is about BAKHSHESH (as you explained), those who asked you to be friend on Facebook or exchange contact details, wont necessarily look to get something out of it. Specially regarding BAKHSHESH; I am from Tehran, my father is Bakhtiary and coming from central part of the country, my mother is Azeri and comes from Khorasan province,. I have studied in Karaj province and worked in different parts of the country like Shiraz or Isfahan, but never heard that concept. Normally you do BAKHSESH when you help poor people, so it has totally different meaning.
        Cheers.

  • This is a great article that reflects your positive opinions. Mostly are perfectly corrects just if we add some natural varieties to any culture.
    I’m going to ask you for a favor please share your article on a page I have for traveling, hearing different stories are important to our followers.
    https://www.facebook.com/around2persia

  • Hello,
    As an Iranian I feel you just described the traditional part of Iran only.
    A
    Well, an example would be this page:
    MyStealtyFreedom on Facebook
    :)

    • Hi Bita, Thanks a lot for commenting. Couldn’t you argue however that if this freedom is “stealthy” by that very definition it must mean it has to be secret from the norms/laws of the society? I don’t think in our text that we argue that all people are traditional conservatives, quite the opposite in fact, but it feels foolish to ignore the bearing social rules and pressures that are quite clearly in evidence.

  • Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts about your travel experiences.
    I’m an Iranian and while I generally agree with some of the “generalizations” you’ve made about Iranian culture and people, I find some of your observations a bit wrong and misleading (which is alright, considering the fact that you just spent one month in the country).
    First of all as many other Iranians have commented here, you’ve used the word “bakhshesh” in the wrong context. Yes, we do have this word and every Persian speaker knows its meaning which is “giving” or “generosity” or sometimes “forgiving”. But for sure it doesn’t mean “the idea of being repaid for your good service to somebody.”
    The second point is about item 6. As soon as I read that part, I tried to think of my own life experience as an Iranian woman as well as about all my other Iranian male/female friends and acquaintances. It is true that in general Iranians live with their parents till they get married, but it doesn’t stop them from going to the university, having a job and earning their own income (sometimes even starting their own business), traveling with friends or alone, having a social life, helping around the house, etc. which I very much see as instances of “life experience”. It might be that my observation is also limited to a small circle of educated, middle and upper class Iranian citizens. Therefore, I also showed your blog post to my husband (who is from the West too) to see what he thinks of it as a non-Iranian…because, after all, I might be biased, right? ;)
    He also said that based on his travels to Iran and what he knows of his Iranian friends, he doesn’t agree much with item 6.
    I would say the life experience of an Iranian young person is different from that of a westerner. To be blunt when you write “most young Iranians don’t have much life experience” in bold type it’s easy to prove you wrong with a few examples ;)
    I still have a couple of more points to mention about the rest of your observations (8-14). I’ll post that comment separately on the other page. Hopefully it won’t be this long ;)

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