Americans are pragmatists, Iranians are poets

Cultural Insights — By on August 7, 2006 at 9:53 am

If you want an example of how challenging it can sometimes be to communicate across cultures, I came across an excellent article that details some of the differences between the U.S. and Iranian styles of speaking.

For example, do ‘yes’ and ‘no’ always mean what we think?

“Speech has a different function than it does in the West,” said Kian Tajbakhsh, a social scientist who lived for many years in England and the United States before returning to Iran a decade ago. …In the West, “yes” generally means yes. In Iran, “yes” can mean yes, but it often means maybe or no. In Iran, Dr. Tajbakhsh said, listeners are expected to understand that words don’t necessarily mean exactly what they mean.

The article notes there is a cultural concept in Iran that describes the practice of saying one thing but meaning another…

There is a social principle in Iran called taarof, a concept that describes the practice of insincerity – of inviting people to dinner when you don’t really want their company, for example. Iranians understand such practices as manners and are not offended by them.

Here is a good overview of how the two cultures look at language differently:

Americans are pragmatists and word choice is often based on the shortest route from here to there. Iranians are poets and tend to use language as though it were paint, to be spread out, blended, swirled. Words can be presented as pieces in a puzzle, pieces that may or may not fit together neatly.

Iran is far from the only culture in the world that communicates indirectly or by nonverbal means.  It’s common throughout the Arab world, and to varying degrees in Latin America, Asia and Africa, as well.  But rarely do you see a newspaper article that attempts to explain these differences in any depth, so it’s worth reading if you’re interested in cross-cultural communication.

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