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October 08, 2004

An Outline of a Dysfunctional Society
Arash Jalali  [info|posts]

facial-exp.jpg During the past few weeks I have had several isolated encounters with different people, both in the cyberspace and in the real world, which have collectively brought me to reflect on the question of "what has gone wrong in Iran". This post is the first part of a quasi-scientific exposition of the factors that I suspect have played, and are still playing a role in making our society dysfunctional.

I call it quasi-scientific not merely because I am not a social scientist, but also because many of the claims I have made are backed by nothing but my personal observations, yet I cannot call it totally non-scientific, because the substance is not only far away from being a fiction but it also tries to observe the established forms of a scientific argumentation, which among other things, tries to avoid letting any personal issues interfere with making observations and inferences. Let me confess right in the outset that despite the care I have taken in my wordings, it is quite possible that I might have, at times, made fallacious generalizations or even projections. I can only hope that those who take time to read my post also take the time to bring my attention to such fallacies.

My article is based on certain assumptions, and is confined to certain domains, which I think must be made explicit. I have restricted most of my observations to Iran's urban, if not metropolitan, society, or/and the people coming from such a society albeit currently living in another society. When referring to the stages of the life of a typical individual in Iran, I have confined myself to people raised in the middle-class families. I am neither concerned with the elite, nor with the underprivileged marginalized masses.

Part I - Lack of Collective Etiquette
You have probably heard this so many times, as I have too: "Iranians are very kind and hospitable." Maybe so, but I have made another observation: "Iranians are rude," and by "rude" I do not simply mean "impolite". According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word rude, among other things, means:

... Lacking the graces and refinement of civilized life; uncouth - ... Lacking education or knowledge

As individuals, many Iranians try to be, and in fact are, courteous. Yet, I suspect this is just a personal (re)action based on a personal interpretation of what constitutes good manners. When I was a child, my parents told me what they thought is the polite way to behave, although they themselves sometimes failed to follow it. My point, however, is that there was and still is no solid system of education that tries to establish some basics of the social etiquette into children's minds just like the way they are taught to spell words. Here, I am referring to very elementary things such as "table manners". There is a school near our place and I sometimes am unfortunate enough to hear the crude voice of a man in a loudspeaker ordering the children to chant slogans: prayers like "Salavaat"1, or scream "Allah-o-Akbar"2, "Jaanam Fadaayeh Rahbar"3, etc. This man, and his colleagues, fail to teach these children how to behave at a dinner table, when and how to shake hands, how to refuse an invitation, how to invite someone to a party, how and when to hold the door for a lady, how to sit in a bus or a taxi, etc. Instead, with their typically disgusting outfits, repugnant body odor, and their often aggressive language they present themselves as the living example of the predominant, and the typical way of behaving in the adult world. Some children take that as an example and follow it; others might follow their parents, relatives and some during the course of time even devise their own system of values.

It is often said that "Iranians are very intelligent". I tend to agree with this remark in the sense that Encyclopedia Britannica broadly defines the word "intelligence":

[The] ability to adapt effectively to the environment, either by making a change in oneself or by changing the environment or finding a new one

What better example of adaptation than our society's adaptation to an assortment of individual behaviors. However, one might think that this ability to adapt has led to the formation of an open-minded, liberal, and tolerant society. Quite to the contrary, it has, at least from where I see it, led to nothing but a grotesque apathy in some, frenzied aggression in others, self-righteousness in many, and a sense of being under a constant psychological torture in almost everyone. Perhaps this could also, partly, explain why some, if not most, Iranians think of other fellow Iranians as "idiots".

During the past couple of decades, the rulers in Iran, deliberately or otherwise, have made every effort to denounce, defame, and ridicule all practices and signs of civilized social and individual manners. The image of a well-shaven man wearing a suit, a necktie, and cologne was replaced by a man with a nasty unattended beard, shirt fallen over his pants, unwashed greasy hair, and an awfully-smelling body odor that beats every skunk on the planet. Never as a child nor as a teenager, was I taught at school how to behave at a dining table, how to introduce myself to someone at a party, how to sit in a bus or taxi, to hold the door for a lady as much as I was given courses on religious cleansing of the body after ejaculation, and what should be done to a beast with which one has engaged in an act of sodomy. The closest I ever got to a rule of etiquette in those courses was that I should enter the toilet with my left(?) foot, lick my fingers after eating food, and afterwards shove my middle finger into my throat, and "preferably" let some gas gush out of my stomach!

I am not trying to imply that our social dysfunctions are the sole results of not wearing ties. However, it is my strong conviction that the first rule of making a thriving modern society is to teach it how to have peace with itself. Social manners and etiquette, in my view, are not luxuries of an aristocratic life. They are the first lessons of self discipline, respect for others, and teamwork. A society without manners is a society constantly at war with itself; its members incapacitated by the insidious psychological pressure of having to bear with, as opposed to living with their fellow citizens.


[1] A prayer-like sentence in Arabic asking the almighty to "bless the Prophet and his family."

[2] An Arabic phrase meaning "God is great."

[3] A prayer-like Persian phrase meaning "may my life be sacrificed for the leader"; usually voluntarily chanted by the supporters of the hard-line supreme cleric of Iran.

Ron at October 9, 2004 04:52 PM [permalink]:

Although you denied that "not wearing ties" is the root of this dysfunction, you seem to be prescribing that your co-patriots behave like Englishmen or Europeans. This begs the question, is there a more local form of social behaviour and system of values that you believe was lost, or are you proposing some kind of cultural mimicry?

Pundit at October 9, 2004 09:48 PM [permalink]:

A few points:

You're mad. (Make sure to look up the different meanings of the word "mad" in your American Heritage Dictionary!) As long as you're angry at people, society, yourself, or whatever, your chances of thinking rationally are slim. You should first of all calm down. It's not easy.

You're right. In the sense that the reason things have gone awry in Iranian society lies not in the CIA coup 50 years ago or the revolution some 25 years ago or the fact that Iranian plateau has little water and too much oil, but in the very way Iranians have, generation after generation, learned about how to interact with each other.

You're also wrong. It is not just etiquette and manners that count. Manners are region-dependent and local, but the quest for equality, for being treated justly, for giving and receiving respect, for equal opportunity, for tolerating the others and being tolerated is, or must be, universal.

Arash Jalali at October 10, 2004 07:16 AM [permalink]:

Yes, I suspect there used to be a "local" system which was rather disfigured (as opposed to being improved) by Reza Shaah and later by his son's hurried style of westernization, and No, I don't think anyone with the least bit of sanity could propose to re-instate this old system in its entirety into today's Iranian urban culture.

For instance, there was a time, say 80 years ago, that the code of etiquette mandated a woman in Iran to put her forefinger into her mouth while speaking in the presence of any stranger man, because at the time, it was invariably considered indecent for a woman to be heard clearly by stanger men. Although I totally respect this as an established rule of 80 years ago, I don't think anyone today would suggest a lady university professor should hide behind a wall, and give a lecture on Markov chains while having her forefinger in her mouth all the time. And I don't think anybody would think of her as an indecent woman for not doing so.

I don't deny the fact that I myself have a preferred choice of manners which might more or less be close to what can be called a European-like etiquette. However, I by no means intended to prescribe any specific code of social behavior in my posting, but I do think that some system must be devised by those who are supposed to be experts in the field and that it should be explicitly taught to children as a standard code of behavior. This I think would help Iran to have a more peaceful society in the next 20 or 30 years. My point in the article was that as much as diversity of opinions is considered to be desirable generally, diversity of views on what consitutes good manners takes a much needed harmony and peace away from a society.

Dear Pundit,
Thanks for your punditry. Here is my response to you:

1- You are right. I am rather provoked by the social status quo in Iran, that is why I cared to write about it. I concede that anger, or at least too much of it, would stop one from rational thinking. Going back to my own past couple of postings on FToI, I too sensed an elevation in my tone and temper, for which I am not particulary proud of. I can characterize it more as disappointment and frustration rather than resentment towards people, or myself. But my question is, regardless of my tone, what exactly is it that you find irrational about my post? Am I deluded? Am I projecting? Am I exaggerating? Do I see things you do not see in today's Iranian society, if you happen to live in Iran right now?

2- You are wrong and right. You are wrong in infering that I think it is "just etiquette and manners that count." I never said such a thing. I said it is a first, and not THE ONLY, lesson in self discipline, respect for others, and teamwork. You are right, in that justice, mutual respect, tolerance are universal goals, the attainment of which, I believe, starts (but certainly does not end) with a society having a common view about very simple and trivial things such as social manners and etiquette.

Ghazal at October 11, 2004 11:39 PM [permalink]:

Hmm…, not the etiquette and manners again!
When I came to US, I was very relieved to know that Americans don’t really care about etiquette as much as I was raised in Iran to pay attention to it! I was told that Europeans think Americans are arrogant as they don’t pay attention to these social codes, but I like them for that. Here are some of my thoughts about it:
First, when I was in Iran I was once yelled at by my high school teacher, for not standing up for him as he was entering the classroom and it still makes me so angry when I remember it. In US not only it is ridiculous to do such a thing but also students eat, drink or even sleep in the classroom and I don’t see why they shouldn’t, as long as they are not disturbing others.
Second, as convenient as it was to have men carry my bags or open the doors for me just because I am a woman, I hated it because I knew what the price for getting this convenience was! I much prefer opening a door to a room for myself than advocating a concept that opens the door to a world that women either have to hide behind the wails or behind the makeup!
And third, my parents were always teaching me what to do at the table, how to talk to people, when to laugh, not to chew gums, how to respect my elders, etc. The result over the years has become just a torture for me, most people don’t observe these codes and it is so irritating if you are obsessed with the idea that something is impolite and others keep doing it! I think life is much sweeter for people who are relaxed about these things and I personally try my best to get used to being relaxed about them and just enjoy the life. So my husband doesn’t shave everyday or he doesn’t wear a suite in weddings or I don’t serve the food in china or I drink from the bottle, so what?

In the end I have to confess, although I don’t believe people have to follow specific lines to show their respect to others but I do think that respect for other individuals is very important so I still prefer to do my best not to offend them as long as they do the same for me.

On a personal note, I completely agree with you about the body odor, there definitely needs to be some education about that.

Arash Jalali at October 12, 2004 05:03 AM [permalink]:


I think you have missed the point of my post.

I have not been to the U.S. and I have spent a very brief period of time in Europe, so I cannot claim to have witnessed, first hand, every single social tradition of either of them, but I found the Europeans (or at least the ones I was in contact with) in peace with one another. You might say that the American people( or at least those roughly 200,000 people living in Providence, or the portion you have been in contact with) are at peace with one another in the sense that I discussed in my post. If so, then I think you should look a little deeper into that community you are now living in. If you say people do not rise for their teachers in America and everyone including the teachers are okay with it, then this by itself means they DO HAVE a certain code of manners which is broadly accepted by all the members of the community. Contrast it with your situation in your high school class. In a small class of some 30 students, you and maybe some of your peers thought and still think it is okay not to rise for the teacher, while the teacher and probably some other students think it is rude. My point is that standing or not standing, this is not some difference of opinion that one can leave to people's personal preference. Does it really matter if you spell philosophy in English like that or like this: "phylosofie" ? I suppose not, but does this mean it should be left to people's judgment to make a personal choice? I don't think so. I believe a similar argument applies to manners.

My post is not the result of me trying to prescribe any specific code of manners, though I have my own personal preferences just like you and your husband do have your own. It was about a mechanism that I think should be in place that first of all is acceptable to (although not currently practiced by) today's urban IRANIAN society, and in line with their needs (hence my example of the female professor); and second, helps bring the kind of basic harmony every society needs, and starts promoting that system to people from early childhood. Please do not get me wrong. I am neither a populist not a fascist. I too think that diversity of views is desirable, but on matters which are worth differing on. A society which has not yet decided on trivial matters such as whether holding the door for a lady is polite, a sign of having lost one's national identity and "Westernization", or a sign of viewing women as an object of non-platonic pleasure, IS I believe utterly dysfunctional!

Ghazal at October 12, 2004 07:28 PM [permalink]:

Ok I might have missed your point.
Let’s see, my impression was that you were implying:
First, Iranians lack a collective set of manners. (that I agree)

Second, Iranians government has denounced social and individual manners. (I think not, I just think they have denounced any set of manners that reminded them of western values and instead they have tried their best to replace them with different manners that they believed have originated from some religious source.)
Third, We need to settle on one particular set of manners which can be taught to children and everybody can make their peace with it.

I agree that especially on a cultural level it would be attractive if we could all have similar set of manners, but I think putting too much emphasis on etiquette specifically those which don’t serve any practical purposes, will just like stepping in bathroom with left foot or right foot, be another bump on the road for moving the society forward. I think even in Europe people are moving towards a more casual society comparing to 20 or 30 years ago.
If you are implying that living casual is in fact introducing new standards for etiquette which are more in line with the modern life then to settle the argument we probably need to define some sort of quantity that measures etiquette vs. time and then claim whether it is decreasing or not. In my class example, my claim is that everybody agrees on that they are free to do whatever they want to do in the classroom as long as they are not distracting the course of the class and if you translate that as a collective set of manners then we don’t have any disagreement. In my personal example my point is that as long as it doesn’t make any difference in the purpose of our actions why should we really bother? So to be honest if it really didn’t matter if we wrote ``phylosofie’’ or ``philosophy’’, I am not convinced we shouldn’t use them both. I can think of few reasons off the top of my head that it does really matter if we have a convention for spelling or not and I’ll be really happy if you can convince me about the manners as well.

The Pagan at October 13, 2004 04:05 AM [permalink]:

Arash has a very good point, even if he has touched many nerves by stating it a bit harshly. Nevertheless, I believe he would have been more convincing if he had focused on a subset of the so-called social etiquette as oppose to asserting a strong and general axiom that could not possibly be backed by enough evidence in such a short article.

To Ghazal,

Americans DO follow a lot of social rules (or whatever is the right phrase for it) that, as Arash pointed out, makes communication/group work easy and hassle-free for one as a member of this society. I think you have not completely understood the comprehensiveness of the meaning of "etiquette".

Arash could have mentioned better examples avoiding the confusion that is caused; the issue of PUNCTUALITY immediately comes to my mind.

However, I couldn't agree more with the "Europeans" (as you say) about a certain "arrogance" in American culture, but not in the sense that you mentioned it. They are arrogant not because they have a certain way of living in the US; they are arrogant because they think they can keep behaving like that and contradicting the codes of behavior of other cultures when they go to other places as well. Anyway, this can potentially be a long/irrelevant discussion that I don't want to start at the moment.

Ghazal at October 13, 2004 06:17 PM [permalink]:

Well, we can always twist the terminology to include or exclude something.
I would never claim that Americans don’t have social rules but I think their set of acceptable social behaviors is much more flexible and less restrictive as others and also they are much more tolerable of other types of social behaviors, so if it means that they have made a convention among themselves as the “American etiquette” that they will live more casual and enjoy their life rather than care too much about ties and forks then I am for it too. In a way I think my point is, we have too much restriction on people’s social lives lets not add to it but I am for making peace with other people’s way of eating, dressing, etc.
(Off course my generalization for Americans is just a self observation and also in relative comparison to my other observations so I admit it isn’t exact and as Arash puts it, it can be only limited to the type of people I have had interaction with.)

heydar baba at October 14, 2004 12:40 AM [permalink]:
Arash, I have to put in my two cents and I will try to be breif but I havent always been successful at that. One main thing I see in your essay is your desire for the governemnt to teach certain manners to Iranians such as table manners, to open a door for women and ...My question is what is the role of the parents in this society? Don't you think it is the parents' responsibility to teach certain things to their kids? Do I really want my government officials to teach me how to eat at a restaurant and how to introduce myself to the others and ...?What is the role of parents in all this? Next thing is about the etiquette itself. What is considered an etiquette in one part of the world or even one part of a country might be considered s-e-x-ism or simply a nuisance in another part of the world. What is considered an etiquette in one part of the world might be considered a wiered behavior in somewhere else. I will give you an example of my own expereince. I have lived in different parts of America and that allows me to say that even in America itself these etiquette vary from place to place. You come to somewhere like Boston area(not Cambridge, that is different) you will see men and women openly using the F-words in public and in each others' presence and it is not really considered disrespect or offending; it simply is a way of life. You go somewhere like New Mexico or Arizona and this type of behavior won't be accepted as smoothly as in Massachusetts. Opening a door for a woman is not gauranteed to make you a person with manners it could also be interpreted as s-e-x-ism. It has happened to me in Massachusetts when I opened a door for a woman and she looked me in the eyes and opened the other door and went in. ( That has made me very apprehensive about opening a door for a woman. I have to do a little bit of profiling Even in different cultures the same manner would be interpreted differently and I mean totally differently. You can easily tell a woman from Puerto Rico or Dominican Republic whom you just met or ran into in a supermarket that you think she has the hottest legs in the world. She would be very very pleased with that and yet try that on a white woman, more often than not you will be accused of s-e-x-ual harrasment. Dominican men and women can easily sit down at a table and no subject is off limit. Men and women can and do talk in graphic details about their s-e-x-ual genitals with absoloutly no limit, yet in the next table with white folks you wont see this. If a behavior is considered not offensive among a people why should it be changed in order to make it universal? As for the kind of clothes we wear and our attires why should we beleive that wearing a tie is the civil way? Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan didn't wear a tie even when he visited the united states, not only he didnt wear a tie and western cloth but he wore traditional Afghan attire with an Afghan hat and Afhgan shaal and he recieved many compliments in the American media about his attire. As for the body smell I have to disagree with you big times. In iran I think people are more aware of their body smell than many parts of the world. But it is said that French people are the dirtiest and I am almost going to agree with that. I invited a French freind of mine for a dinner. He is a very sophisticated men (always wears a tie at he is a PhD scientist and when he took off his overcoat ,sitting accross the table from him,I ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
heydar baba at October 14, 2004 01:02 AM [permalink]:

I agree with you that America has a more casual dressing than other parts of the world. This, to me is very liberating as I am the Mr.Casual. The desire for this casualness in America as liberating it is , has also made them not the most sophisticated people on earth when it comes to dressing..lets face it you can accuse many Americans of being ZHENDEPOOSH...I personally am not a zhendepoosh but I catch myself doing it once in a while. Sometimes I have to do it just to make sure that no body is shoving their manners in my
Another thing about America is the foul language that is also part of the life here. Dick Cheny, the vice president, recently told one senator in public :go F- yourself. This did't casue any social uproar. Imagin an Iranian official using the same language in public.People would rip his head off assuming that the vice squad hadn't already beat them to it...

Arash Jalali at October 14, 2004 04:49 AM [permalink]:

Dear Pagan,
Thank you for the very befitting example of punctuality. I plead guilty as charged for failing to mention less confusing examples. I guess it might in fact serve as a good example to partly answer Ghazal's question about why there needs to be a consensus among the members of the same community on social manners. Interestingly enough, punctuality has slighty different meanings in different cultures. I have been told the Dutch interpretation is that you should be a few minutes early, the German I suspect take it to mean that one should be right on time.

Arash Jalali at October 14, 2004 04:55 AM [permalink]:

Dear Heydar Baba,
Did I say the whole world should have exactly the same idea about what constitutes good manners? I would call that world a utopia. Kindly read the assumption section of my post where I have stated the confines of my argument. It is "the Iranian urban, if not metropolitan, society". That includes Tehran with more than 10 million residents along with three or four other major cities.

Also, once again, my post was not about prescribing any specific code of manners, and I did not mean we should wholely mimic the manners of some western country, and in the event that such blind mimicry proves to be inevitable, I surely would not like to see America taken as the role model. If the people in Boston, or the ones in the subculture that you have been more exposed to, would like to use abusive words in their everyday language which the people in Arizona find unacceptable, then I suppose the people of Arizona should think of their compatriots in Boston as ill-mannered. Whether it is in fact the case or not, I leave that to people like you, who have seen it all, to judge. You mentioned the contrast between people of two races, i.e. white Anglo-saxons vs. Puerto Ricans or Dominicans, living in the same community with different rules of etiquette. This indeed might or might not be the source of a societal dysfunction in the United States as a whole. Could this be one of the sources of racial tension and hatred there? Maybe so, or maybe not. I am currently and solely intersted in Iran.

As to why I said social etiquette should be taught at schools, it is because unlike many countries, in Iran the system of primary and secondary education and in fact the official textbooks are controlled and issued by the ministry of education. I think it should be taught at schools and whether we like it or not the school system is in the hands of the government.

The parents have and still are playing that role. Parents who themselves have been subjected to and raised with different interpretations of what constitutes good social manners; if in fact they were ever explicitly taught such things. I don't know how long it has been since you last saw Iran closely, Heydar. I can tell you it is not a pretty picture when it comes to social order and harmony. The urban and metropolitan society, despite all the hurdles, is moving towards what can be called modernization. Many manifestations of modern and even post-modern style of living are now part of the urban Iranian citizen's life. It has been like this for the past few decades. The pace has at times been slow due to events like the eight-year long war, and fast like what we had during the late 1960's, early 70's and now in the early years of the 21st century. Yet, the social culture is not moving forward as fast as the physical modernization. In fact, I think the society as a whole, is not moving anywhere when it comes to cultural issues like manners and etiquette. Maybe I am a dark skeptic, but what I see in people's behavior towards one another (myself included) is very much like the way people drive(I recommend reading Ramin Kamal's piece on that). I think this chaos can be fixed or at least alleviated by proper education and I think it should start from school children and done by schools and not by parents. Not these parents anyway!

AmericanWoman at October 14, 2004 07:20 AM [permalink]:

this reminds me of a book that came out about 10 years ago, "Everything I know, I learned in Kindergarten"
I suppose nationalized public education has always had a big effect on socialization. Still, it is funny to think of Americans as role models for manners/dress, since I have never before heard a kind word on the subject! Check out the etiquette section of any bookstore, there are so many books on the subject because the huddled masses yearning to be free start looking for a clue by the second or third generation. Maybe someone should contact Judith Martin, who used to work for the State Dept., and who now writes under the nom de plume "Miss Manners" and see about getting one of her several books translated into Farsi. I'd put her up against the mullah's any day.

Shotorbun at October 14, 2004 09:15 AM [permalink]:

Ghazal how can you claim to know the differences between the etiquette and flexibility of lifestyle of people in America and Europe when you have gone directly from meydoon Vanak to providence without even stopping for a fortnight in a European country? It was so typical Iranian: "I have not been to America but hichkoja vatane adam nemishe" is exactly the same kind of claim.

heydar baba at October 14, 2004 03:25 PM [permalink]:

Dear AmericanWoman,
I wish your Miss.Manners would contact Paul Wolfowitz, undersecretary of defense or Wofowitz was introduced to her, either would do the trick.In the movie 9/11 it shows Wolfowitz taking out his plastic comb and wetting it heavily with his tongue and combing his hair and again he pulls out his tongue and wets the already used comb and all the while he has this big smile on his face. Maybe Miss.Manner would have spanked him couple of times for the Mullahs I have to say that they care a great deal about their cleanliness. They also use either perfume or Rosewater and now that they have money and power I am sure you wont catch them doing what Wolfowitz was doing in public.

heydar baba at October 14, 2004 03:27 PM [permalink]:

I agree with you on some things that I wish government did either in schools or even better on the TV programs which would be more effective. I am not sure if they have or are doing any part of what I am about to suggest even though I get to watch all Iranian TV stations live including the ones that you in Tehran can not watch and I am talking about the cities other than Tehran, the local stations, I still am not sure if there is a public campaign to emphasize certain social behavior. Driving is one for sure. When I visited Iran, all the way from airport to my family's house all I did was yelled, screamed and closed my eyes. I was literally petrified of all the things that I saw. I am surprised the driver of the car I was in didn't kill somebody. But after two weeks I was doing the same thing myself I hate to admit. But when I told this story to some of my Greek and Italian friends, they laughed and said it is exactly the same if not worse in their countries. I wish government would do some kind of a public campaign on this if they haven't already. But I am not expecting to see it change in my lifetime maybe to see it get better but that is all I can realistically shoot for right now. The same with punctuality. This is probably the worst. I remember that I had promised my uncle to be at his shop at 7 pm. I couldn't find an empty taxi and basically I had to run and walk all the way to his shop. I did get there exactly at 7. But by the time I got there I looked like hell and when I told them my story they all laughed and in fact they still talk about that and laugh at my naivete. Again I don' t know how this has changed now specially among the young generation. Mehdi Bazargan has a book on this subject written long time is called SAZEGARI IRANI. In that book he does talk about the roots of this lack of punctuality among Iranians. He even calls the Iranian nation a MELLATE POFUSE, a comment I detest greatly. But all and all I have to admit that being out of Iran for such a long time I am not sure about the relevance of these suggestions...In Massachusetts their attitude is HOW CAN YOU DRIVE AND BE CIVIL AT THE SAME TIME?.If MIT and Harvard in Massachusetts have failed to do anything about this local culture, why should I hold my hopes high about other nations or cultures?

Arash Jalali at October 14, 2004 03:59 PM [permalink]:

Speaking of MIT and Harvard. I know we have a couple of MIT students and veterans among the authors here at FToI.

This news on a "charm school" at MIT was brought to my notice by my professor a few years ago while I was still a student myself here in Iran. I could not find the original site but here's one that mentions the school:

So having manners does matter in the U.S. after all; apparently even in Cambrdige, MA.

ghazal at October 14, 2004 07:18 PM [permalink]:

First of all, I am pretty happy to be a typical Iranian.

Second, I am simply trying to express a specific opinion and hear the opposite point of view about it and if I find some of my own experience relevant to it so I talk about them. If you had read my comments you would know that I am not even trying to make a definite generalized claim about US which I kept repeating in my comments, I am just referring to some observations. In fact even if I had brought up my experiences in Europe or with European people, still I would never claim that I can compare their cultures and I never did!

Third, If you are really insisting to know more specifics about my personal life as who I know, where I have traveled or I have lived, I am quite open about it but since I don’t think FTOI is the right place for discussing that, I suggest you send me an email and ask about them.
I actually find it a compliment that someone finds me so interesting that he/she tries to show off with information about my personal life as if I am running for an office or something!

heydar baba at October 14, 2004 08:09 PM [permalink]:

thank you for providing that link. I checked it out. I sure laughed a lot because some of the things I saw there are so true and visible in American society. I wish that program they have in MIT would be offered for general public in Massachusetts in particular and USA in general. How successful will it be? No guaranty. I, as an Iranian who has lived here for sometimes, no way in the world am going to start eating my apple pie with a spoon. There is so much joy in eating it with fork and being messy should give you an idea about the extent of possible success of that program among the second and third generation Americans. But that link you posted is soooooo needed among the students and general public.
When the movie Forest Gump came out in America, it became very popular because many, specially men ,even if they didn't admit it, could identify themselves with him , at some level. The intellectual types don't fit into this society very well unless they learn how to dumb themselves down in social gatherings. This was a problem Al Gore had and it hurt him big times. Bush was overheard saying,(without knowing the mic was on):I am surprised I won, I was running against peace, prosperity and incumbency. But Bush's supporters like him exactly for that un-intellectual appearance and his less sophisticated behavior. They say he is just like one of us. Bush can not speak proper English and you would think this would work against him? it just makes him lot more like many of his supporters..and therefore more connection...and therefor more likeable. Bush couldn't even dance with his daughter in his inauguration without messing it up and the dance scene became pretty embarrassing when Bush almost grabbed his daughter's breast..I bet you lot of men in America, including me who don't know how to dance felt pretty relieved to see that they are not the only ones who don't know how to dance...(he still won't get my vote)..

Fereshteh at October 14, 2004 09:23 PM [permalink]:
It took me a while to read all about the article and comments and I think generally everybody has some good points and views and it is unfortunate that there is some level of misunderstanding and intolerance. I think Arash tries to make a point about the role of goverment in children's education for their social manners; Arash, that can be very helpful and I believe that there are some programs in educating kids about that in Iran. I totally agree with you about the bad samples of adults who are running the educational systems but here the role of parents and public education (say TV) can be critical in eradicating those ugly behaviors in kids. Ghazal's point about American culture is also understandable. She is pointing out to certain comforts in the social behaviors in this society. I also believe that just the appearance of the person (with a tie and shaved face)and getting a door for ladies can't show the level of his being a gentelman and a good-mannered individual. I know lots of religious friends who practice their faith and I deeply respect them as honorable people with high social manners who are very CLEAN and know how to BEHAVE WITH WOMEN WITH RESPECT. Heydar's comment about the role of parents in teaching etiqutte to children really makes sense to me. Children should learn social manners, if possible from their parents Heydar, but if not then later from the society. I believe that the role of parents in educating their kids is very important but still I think children can learn how to behave in the society to be more acceptable. If the kid wants to be approvable in some social groups, even if he or she is not taught properly to be sociable, by just looking at others, they can pick up the proper social behaviors (in some cases bad habits as you know!)and act differently. I think somehow in each country there are some of principals and customs that can be comepletely rude in another country or culture. In the US, blowing nose is a very common thing to do in front of people, something that we Iranians find disgusting and rude. If you go and eat in a chinese home, for showing your satisfaction about food, you would belch! In this way you are showing to your hostess that you liked and enjoyed the food!!! Drinking water or other drinks are considered rude, in Iran or in the US but how much it tells about the person who doesn't care for this, I myself wouldn't question that. I stil think that in Iran we need to have a better public education not just about etiquettes but mostly about health education(psychological and physical health). I think in Iran there is a lack of education about more serious things, believe it or not, I've been in very distant and deprived town in Iran where women didn't know how to use a pad!!! Again while I appreciate why Arash brought up this topic and took it a little bit offensive in generalizing Iranians as ill-mannered people ( you did Arash,gently smiling:::). I believe we have serious inssues in our country but we are not that ill-mannered as we are pictured here. I am concerened about our kids in Iran who don't know what puberty and s-e-x-uality mean and then they are going on internet or in schools; trying to get to find out the normal facts in human behavior which parents are not supposed to talk about or feel ashamed to discuss with their kids ;so kids are getting the worst and most wrong information about serious things like that from unreliable sources! Let's not beat up each other and be mo ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
Fereshteh at October 14, 2004 09:28 PM [permalink]:

I apologize for a mistake in the comment , I dropped noisy drinking in the above comment which is considered rude.

Arash Jalali at October 15, 2004 04:59 AM [permalink]:

Dear Fereshteh,
Thank you for your comment, and for summarizing the points made in the discussions we have had so far.

I should like to make a few points:
1- I find lack of collective manners, as opposed to individually devised manners, to be one, and not THE ONLY, factor that might be contributing to making our society dysfunctional in many ways, including by taking away a much needed harmony and peace in the society. I shall be discussing the other factors, one of which you alluded to at the end of your comment, in my future articles.

2- I am not very hopeful that the Islamic regime would do anything solid about this problem, nonetheless I think public education is the only way to go. As a matter of fact, things are starting to go back to where they were during the 1980's in Iran. The municipality of Tehran, which is now controlled by the hardliners, has erected tents as temporary shops in diffrent locations of Tehran, selling what they call "Cultural Products"; that is, pictures of "top-brass" clerics, recorded voice of mourning rituals (NOHEH), books on various religious topics including those I mentioned in my post which some of the readers of my post found offensive and maybe even vulgar.

3- I don't think we should expect people with good manners to be literally "good" people too. You mentioned your fair-minded respectable religious friends. Well, jolly-good for them and you for having such good friends, but I am not talking about friends and loved ones here. I am talking about the whole society, including and especially total strangers in the street, the one sitting right next to you on a taxi, or the person standing next to you on a waiting line, or the salesman in a chainstore, or the clerk at a Bank. I am sure once you get to know all of these people you would like them enough not to mind even if they don't have much of etiquette, but it's not practical. My point is that it would be wonderful if every person on the planet was a saint but I think a more realistic and attainable first step would be to have a society in which people do not have to suffer from the experience of having to bear with their fellow citizens for just a few minutes in a daily social encounter. I would personally rather have a polite, well-dressed, nice smelling albeit dishonest man standing next to me in the subway rather than an honest man with a kindness deep down his soul who is nonetheless superficially rude and repugnant, because I am not interested in becomming friends with them. I just want to be able to live with them for that 15 minutes that I stand with them in the line without spending too much mental energy to bypass one unpleasant social encounter after another before I can call it a day. Believe me, it would help a lot, and it would allow me to afford some positive attitude towards the people who have to bear with me everyday: my colleagues, my students, and even my own family.

ghazal at October 18, 2004 04:55 PM [permalink]:

I think see your point now, I think the specific examples you had mentioned were quite distracting. Because personally I am not offended if someone doesn’t shake hands with me as long as I know he/ she is respecting me as a fellow citizen in his/her own way and we have a mutual understanding of each others preferences. In this specific example since we Iranian obviously have a diverse opinion about religion then a practical way for now is to try to guess peoples preferences from other clues. until the day we can come up with ways which are practical for everybody (a uniform set of codes) which I think is part of what you are suggesting.
I think in general there are certain social behaviors that are beyond any religious or traditional preferences or conventions and are simply matters of common senses; including cleanness, standing in lines, respecting customers and so many other things that I am sure not all but many just know deep down that they have to observe but they are too selfish to do them while they are not embarrassed of doing them either because no one else seem to care.
The problem in this case is not only teaching our children what is the right social manner, but also that it is not an abstract theory that they have to memorize but a nicer practical way of living for all of us and they must observe them! We need to change public attitude towards doing the right thing only when somebody is policing us.
Unfortunately this sort of behavior is very contagious, for example what is the point of standing in line when every body is breaking into the line and it would never get to your turn to buy a ticket? Or how many times would you dare to tell people to do or not to do something and be laughed at for it.

Ali M. at October 23, 2004 01:26 AM [permalink]:

Well, too many generalisations and exaggerations on this page, but not a bad article anyway. The bit on personal appearance, body odour and attire… was carried a trifle too far. People here have begun to take better care of their appearance and hygiene; though high-ranking government officials and other powers-that-be are just the same filthy, smelly beasts as ever.

You shouldn't forget that this is an Islamic country-and Shiite at that. So it's only too natural for Tahaarat, Hayz and Estebra' to take precedence over social manners, don't you think so?

But let's be fair, it's not just on a Tehran street that you see crowds of people (on foot or in cars) behaving like hordes of sheep and cattle. Has anyone been to India or Pakistan, I wonder? Democratic countries- at least in India's case. Iranians are much more hygienic, better-behaved and better groomed in comparison.

Or maybe the common denominator is economic depression leading to social and cultural decline?

heydarbaba at October 23, 2004 07:25 AM [permalink]:

You mentioned about generalizations and yet you ended up doing the same saying that the top level government officials are filthy and smelly. How many top level government official have been in close proximity of to come to that conclusion?...however I probably agree with you that top level government officials could be more vulnerable to arrogance and carelessness in their behavior. I remember when Aba Eban, the ex-Israeli top official for many years, came to Boston, in the back room where he was preparing for his speech and...according to the people who were around him , he repeatedly belched and burped loudly without any consideration to the people around him. I also remember how an Indian prime Minster had explained to Barbara Walter in detail how he drinks his own urine as an I guess a religious or a cultural ritual. When you talk about the herds of people walking on the streets, don't forget to mention the names of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, specially New York, a city that never sleeps nor does it ever bath...:)

Arash Jalali at October 23, 2004 10:54 AM [permalink]:

Dear Ghazal,
From past experience, I think changing the public attitude requires, as you put it, some sort of police-like supervision and enforcement. Simple friendly education won't do it. One good example of police-like supervision and enforcement is the use of seat belts. Most people now fasten their belts. Either out of fear of being given a 10,000 Toman ticket, or because they have realized it is good for their own safety. Some who did not use to buckle up out of embarassment, now do so because it seems perfectly natural. Force will make people do anything, but it does not necessarily bring that much needed societal piece and harmony.

For "changing the public attitude" I think the only slow but sure way is through educating the children.

Dear Ali Mahani,
I think I did concede early in my post that I might have made fallacious generalizations, or even projections, and I did reach out to readers like you to kindly point them out to me in a more concrete way. As regards exaggeration, well, what exactly do you think I have exaggerated about? I was exactly taught those things about the cleansing ritual (GHOSL), the rules of Shari'a regarding sodomy with an animal (VAT-Y), etc. when I was just 15 years old. As regards my other claims, I think I have been careful enough to qualify them with words and phrases like "perhaps", "some, if not most", "might", etc.

Also, I think I did mention somewhere in one of my comments, that I am solely interested in Iran. I think drawing a comparison between Iranians and Pakistanis or Indians is just as logically unwarranted as it is to compare the citizens of Tehran with those of Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am sure you did not mean to imply that since the people of Bombay are not as "hygienic" as a democratic nation should be, then it is alright for Iranians, who live under a clerical Shi'ite rule, to stink all the time, or at least most of the times.

And at last, yes I think you are right about the religious teachings. I think one should expect nothing less (or more?) from a Shi'ite dominated system of education. It is just too difficult for me to understand how they want to reconcile that system with a "physical", though not cultural, modernization. I guess they simply don't want to do it; hence, the chaos that we are in now!

Ali M at October 24, 2004 02:02 AM [permalink]:

Haydarbaba: "How many top level government official have been in close proximity of to come to that conclusion?..."

To mention but a few : M. Pezeshkiyan (Health Minister!!!-you can smell him miles away), Akbar Velayati (a former foreign minister and now the Leader's advisor-heavily addicted to opium), Eshaq Jahangiri (Industry Minister), Shariatmadari (Trade Minister), Mohajerani (former Culture Minister).

A. Jalali-
Oh, come on mate. I don’t remember having any classes on Vaty or Lavaat in high school. There was some material on Ahkaam of hygiene, (including Ghosl) but not that sort of thing really.
And that bit on India… No, I didn’t mean to say it’s alright for Iranians to look dirty and dishevelled. Just think that a foreigner, say, an American reading this article might get the wrong message … and this country’s image (bad enough already) will be tarnished even further.

But then, who cares? Just feel free :-))

Arash Jalali at October 24, 2004 04:10 AM [permalink]:

I think I still have that book they gave us in the first grade at highschool. It was not an official textbook issued by the ministry of education, it was a book with a bluish cover published by then SAZMAAN TABLIGHAAT ESLAAMI( Organization for Islamic Advocation(?)). The course was, as you said, called AHKAAM. I even remember the name of the guy who taugh us these things. He was in fact an employee of the infamous Kayhaan newspaper, nonetheless he was a more or less nice chap and sometimes he himself was embarassed to talk about things like semen, or what JENAABAT is. Some of us had not yet hit puberty. VATT-Y was in fact in that book, and I even remember some wise guy in the class asked the man who was trying to quickly jump over those pages, about what VATT-Y was, and he had to explain what it is and if I am not mistaken that the owner should sell the animal afterwards.

Anyway, it really doesn't matter how much of that garbage we were taught, because nobody really took it seriously, but the time wasted on that could have been spent on more practical topics such as etiquette, etc. I understand your concerns about Iran's image. The thing is, those who have never come to Iran probably have a perception of Iran and Iranians that is mostly if not completely shaped by the image shown by the media, and Hollywood productions such as "Not Without My Daugher", and the looks put on display by like of Hassan Rohani (Iran's chief nuclear negotiator).

AmericanWoman at October 24, 2004 11:47 PM [permalink]:

Well, gentlemen, my eyes are opened!
At least the educational system in Iran makes the effort to provide some kind of s-x education, no matter how funny it is to a bunch of 14-year olds. In the US town where I currently reside, the school boards are adamant that there shall be none whatsoever. "It is the parents role and should take place at home." Did I mention we have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation?
Pretty much everyone wears deodorant, though. Maybe its the "soap" operas.
One more thing: part of my job is to go out to the elementary schools and give a lecture to the 10 and 11 year old students about hygiene and the physiological changes of adolescence. I did feel a little hypocritical the first few times I did this, because I myself did not always live up to the hygiene standards I prescribed. --Sometimes I settled for the appearance of doing so. This led me to reflect on the origins and viability of these standards. My conclusion is that they are based on the affectations of European aristocrats as much as actual science. The only place where I have actually seen these standards of dress and manner emphasized and required as part of daily life is in a military setting, like West Point or Annapolis, or boot camp.
The thing is, as Facist as it may seem, life is really better when surrounded by courtesy, consideration, cleanliness and order.
Case in point: Last Spring I was at a Greek monastery. The monks, surrounded by their beautiful grounds and churches, were all surely admirable and honorable men, dedicating their lives to prayer and service. BUT, so many had greasy dirty looking hair, food spilled down the front of their cassocks, and apparently had utter disdain for deodorant. They were repellent.
There is a saying "What you are speaks so loudly that I can't hear what you say."

Arash Jalali at October 25, 2004 06:39 PM [permalink]:

Dear Heydarbaba,
I am sorry that you found my comment dishonest. Just for the record, the book we were taught was a collection of selected topics from a certain TOZIHOL-MASAA-EL, which given the time when I was in highschool, should be the one by Mr.Khomeini. The topics I mentioned were in fact in that abridged TOZIHOL-MASAA-EL.

I don't quite depise Sharia or TOZIHOL-MASAA-EL, but at the same time I should say I have never, in any of my posts on FToI, tried to hide my discontent with religions in general, and Islam in particular. TOZIHOL-MASAA-EL is simply a thesis, written by some so-called "qualified" cleric, outlining the rules which that particular person thinks is in accordance the wish of the Almighty, based on his alleged research on Quran, quotes from the Prophet and the Imaams (saints), and the de facto standards of Islamic conduct. Yes, I find most of the material in these texts rather ridiculous, perverted, or seriously out of date and out of touch with the necessities of today's life. The goods, the bads, and the uglies, whether or not they start with "NAOOZO-BEL-LAAH" (God forbid).

At any rate, if in fact my comments and posts have mislead you or anyone else through any methods which could be interpreted as exaggeration, "over-dramatization", etc. I hereby apologize. I really didn't want the main point of this post to be highjacked by my own low opinion of the AHKAAM education. Once again, I think there should a solid system of education in place that teaches children the basics of social manners which are compatible with the current needs and charcterisitcs of our society as a traditional society going under modernization. Sharia's 600 A.D. style rules are just as much unfitting and outdated today as Reza Khaan's style of "Hijaab" eradication is vulgar and impractical.