Well, in short its form of politeness you will find in Persian, Turkish and Afghan cultures. It is most associated though with Iran and Iranian culture, past and present.
Understanding ta’rof is without doubt one of those fundamental things you need to understand about Iranian culture.
As a foreigner it can be hard to get your head around it. So let’s start simple. In many countries, it is polite to hold the door open for someone. Similarly, it is expected to say thank you to someone in their car for letting you cross the road. There are many examples of where people are expected to behave in a certain way. It’s manners, it’s politeness, it’s consideration, it’s all those things and culture wrapped into one.
You could consider these to be a type of ta’rof. However, they all don’t translate into ta’rof in Iran. For example, holding the door might not be considered polite, but what is important is who enters a doorway first. If you let someone cross the road in your car, if you even get a look you should be happy, forget a thank you.
Let’s look at the door example. This is a really beginners’ introduction to how ta’rof works. So, whoever enters a doorway first is essentially given a subtle kind of status. But the person who makes the other go through the door first also gains status by having made the other person do so, i.e. by being graceful and showing deference to the other person [even if it is fake]. Get it? Sometimes you can watch people standing at a doorway for minutes, praising one another and eulogizing as to why they should enter the door first. Bear in mind this would only happen between friends, family or associates; strangers would very quickly work out who is higher in the pecking order, politely offer once or twice then get on with it. For the foreigner it’s ridiculous but to the Iranian it’s a dance of honor.
Now let’s go up a notch and look at ta’rof in a familiar public setting – the taxi. It is not uncommon for taxi drivers to have a chat with you and if you all get on they will at the end of the ride say there is no charge. Many a foreign visitor has mistaken this for Iranian hospitality and tried to leave the taxi without paying, and even worse, have got into arguments accusing the taxi driver of lying. All he/she did was make ta’rof. When a taxi driver says there is nothing to pay they don’t mean it. What he/she is actually saying is, “I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. I like you. Thanks.” By stating there is no charge they are trying to act like a host – you need to remember the nomadic heritage here where guests are always welcomed and looked after. If you understand the code that is ta’rof, you will of course understand all of this and then press him/her on how much you owe until it is paid and everyone is happy. Not paying is not an option. Even if the driver declines the money 1, 2, 3 or even 4 times – keep demanding – if you don’t you could lose face. Some people call this type of ta’rof “fake ta’rof” as both parties know it’s a game.
Food is a huge part of Iranian culture so let’s next examine an example of ta’rof every person who has ever stepped foot in Iran, Iranian national or not, has experienced daily. Ta’rof and food! If you go to any meal, are invited to any house for food, then you will be expected to eat seconds and thirds. You must eat to please the host! But you can’t just go ahead and dig into the food once you are done with your first round – you have to pretend you are full, the food was excellent and that it would be impossible to fit anything else in. Your host will then demand you do not do ta’rof (“ta’rof nakon”) – you say 'no' 2 or 3 times and then you pretend you have caved in to their insistence and pile on the food. If you do it any other way, you can come across as either starving or simply a bit uncouth.
Ta'rof is also genuine. It’s all about hiding the obvious to not make a personal transaction impersonal, cold, selfish or inhospitable. This is where the person genuinely puts themselves out for you. For example, they may share their food with you even though they don’t have enough; someone might give you something you like saying they have plenty more, but in reality only have that one; or you may be bought something as a gift even if they can’t afford it. This is all ta’rof.
The thing about ta’rof is that you can apply it to almost any situation in which there is human interaction, domestic, social, business, wherever, whenever. This possibly is what scares foreigners learning about the cultural concept. At first it is if course bizarre, but it soon becomes second nature once you’ve spent time with the people.
It is key to remember that ta’rof was formed over 100s if not 1000s of years. As a foreigner it is going to be impossible to understand it without living and seeing it. It takes time to learn the code and until you do, you can always stick with the phrase “ta’rof nadaram” – I don’t do ta’rof.
“…..I was a guest in Iran, and in Iran a guest is accorded the highest status, the sweetest piece of fruit, the most comfortable place to sit. It's part of a complex system of ritual politeness—taarof—that governs the subtext of life here. Hospitality, courting, family affairs, political negotiations; taarof is the unwritten code for how people should treat each other. The word has an Arabic root, arafa, meaning to know or acquire knowledge of. But the idea of taarof—to abase oneself while exalting the other person—is Persian in origin, said William O. Beeman, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Minnesota. He described it as "fighting for the lower hand," but in an exquisitely elegant way, making it possible, in a hierarchical society like Iran's, "for people to paradoxically deal with each other as equals."
Wherever I went, people fussed over me and made sure that all my needs were met. But they can get so caught up trying to please, or seeming to, and declining offers, or seeming to, that true intentions are hidden. There's a lot of mind reading and light-hearted, meaningless dialogue while the two parties go back and forth with entreaties and refusals until the truth reveals itself.