CULTURE SHOCK: A Guide to Customs and Etiquette in Iran

Whether you are planning to visit or move to a foreign country, it is important to know everything you can about the destination. To aid you in your research, Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company of Portland, Oregon, has developed a series of books under the appropriate umbrella of Culture Shock! I can strongly recommend books from this collection, whether or not you are traveling, or just curious about the culture and customs of people in other parts of the world.


Although the country has been out of bounds for American travelers for many years, Iran is a fascinating destination. With the recent earthquake in Iran, and the acceptance of aid from the US, it is likely that this country will be open for American tourism in the near future, and it is helpful to know what to do and not do when visiting and/or working in this locale.

Culture Shock! A Guide to Customs and Etiquette in Iran is authored by Dr. Maria O’Shea, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs. She is a member of the faculty at the University of London, teaching political and Middle Eastern geography. Having spent considerable time in Iran, Dr. O’Shea shares the uniqueness of the country from an insightful and well as candid point of view.

Dr. O’Shea gently leads us into the complexity of the country and its culture by reminding the reader of the West’s fantasy with Persia (as it was originally known), complete with flying carpets, long haired cats, oil wealth and luxury. There was a time that Iran was open to foreign educators and researchers, as well as tourists, and they were made to feel welcomed. However, in 1979 the atmosphere changed, and Iran became identified with “fanaticism, hatred for the West and terrorism”.

In an attempt to dispel preconceived notions, and give us a look behind the axis of evil placard provided by President Bush, O’Shea has tried to open the country for a balanced review telling those who are bold enough to travel to the country how to find its beauty and avoid its hardships.
It is important to acknowledge that Iran is an Islamic Republic, and follows all of the dictates of the religion that affect the daily life of Iranian men and women as well as visitors. Almost 99 percent of the Iranian population is Muslim, and 90 percent are Shi’ite Muslims.

According to O’Shea, a Muslim is anyone who accepts the two basic premises which form the Shahada, or the first pillar of Islam: 1). There is no God but Allah, and 2) Mohammed was his last and final prophet. The other five pillars are: salat – offering prayers five times a day; sawm – fasting during Ramadan; zakat� – giving alms to the needs; and haj – the pilgrimage to Mecca, to be undertaken at least once during a Muslim’s lifetime.

Dr. O’Shea takes us through the politics of the country, touches on current leadership, and reviews other religious groups found in the Islamic Republic, including Christians (200,000), Jews (20 – 25,000), Zoroastrians (100,000) and Baha’is (300,000).

In her discussion of local taboos, O’Shea warns the visitor not to touch a religious leader, and avoid discussion of issues that could be construed as being anti-Islamic or anti- Shit’ite. Other topics to keep away from include the superiority of the West, women’s rights, homosexuality and sexual freedom. Criminal punishment is metered out to foreigners who insult religious leaders and figures, as well as for adultery (stoning), theft (limb amputation), and lashing (minor offences). Iranian prisons are not models of reform, and the Iranian focus is on deterrence and punishment.

The Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran) voluntarily enforces Islamic law, using their police powers to stop pedestrians, checking on clothing, making sure that couples walking together are married and entering people’s homes to determine if they are following Islamic standards.

It is best to avoid any encounter with Iranian authorities, and O’Shea suggests that all women follow local dress codes by wearing manteaus and scarves, mid-length jackets, and below-the-knee skirts that meet their socks, although some women do wear pants with no socks, even sandals and socks. Clothing is taken very seriously, and scruffy, comfortable and casual clothing should be avoided. It is acceptable for foreign men to wear ties and suits, but ties are officially unacceptable as symbols of Western values. Shorts are never allowed, short-sleeves on shirts are potentially troublesome, but rolled up long sleeves are suitable. Hair should be short and tidy; moustaches and beards are tolerated.

Getting a visa to Iran can be a challenge for Americans, and impossible for Israelis, or anyone with Israel stamped on their passport. Thai visas are unpopular due to the association with sex tourism and Iraqi and other Arab country visas require lengthy explanations.

O’Shea recommends learning the local language, which is Farsi, although there may be times when knowledge of the language is counter-indicated. Iranian government officials hold the belief that foreigners learn Farsi only if they have espionage on their agenda; speaking Farsi may give the officials the impression that the foreigner is an intelligence agent working for a foreign government of organization. Knowledge of other languages such as Hebrew, Russian or Kurdish may also put the visitor in harms way and should be used only with close friends that can be trusted.

For details on how to be polite, avoid the evil eye, greeting Iranians at work or leisure, the role of flattery and melodramatics, as well as the use of profanity and rudeness, O’Shea has a “to do” list that is easy to memorize. She also helps the reader enter the close knit family circle of Iranians, presenting and accepting socially suitable gifts, foods to eat (and how to eat them), the concept of time and punctuality (always be on time), when to take off your shoes, how to use the toilet, and the protocols of smoking.

Relaxing in Iran is primarily home-based, and may include card games, backgammon and chess, watching television, and videos, or listening to the radio. Not all music is created equal, and some sounds are approved, while others are not. Sports are often segregated by sex, with tennis clubs and golf courses offering separate women’s sessions. Women can only attend women’s sports, and men are present at men’s sports, except for certain football matches where segregated seating is available for women.

O’Shea helps us to find a place to live, how to shop for furniture and food, as well as hire local domestics for housekeeping and cooking. She provides advice on how to obtain medical assistance, facilitates the challenges presented by the use of public transportation, with recommendations for private transport. When it is time to get down to business, we are clued into how to work with foreign investment and privatization, free trade zones, money transfers, taxes, custom duties, wages and employment conditions, and working hours. For children, and students, O’Shea reviews Iranian educational opportunities.

While Culture Shock! Iran is very comprehensive, it is impossible to cover all the nuances of life and living in Iran, so O’Shea kindly provides pages of references for further reading. To step outside your own country and venture to Iran without first reading this book could be a very big mistake.

By Elinor Garely

Comments are closed.