Expats moving to Iran can expect to experience certain elements of culture shock. Religion plays an important role in everyday life in Iran, and expats will need to be sensitive to these cultural norms and adjust their lifestyle accordingly.
Those who take the time to learn about the local culture and engage with Iranians in a meaningful way will find their experience to be more rewarding.
Language barrier in Iran
Persian, or Farsi, is the official language of Iran. When in business and diplomatic circles, most people speak English well, but it is wise for expats doing business in Iran to arrange an interpreter.
Expats who learn basic phrases in the local language will find that their efforts will be appreciated and that they are more likely to be welcomed into Iranian society.
Religion in Iran
Islam is practised by the vast majority of the Iranian population, and permeates all aspects of political, economic and legal life in Iran. This is something expats will have to adapt to in their daily lives.
Expats in Iran will soon become familiar with the sound of the Islamic call to prayer – Muslims are expected to pray five times a day: at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and evening. In Iran, everything comes to a standstill on Friday, which is a holy day for Muslims. Almost all businesses will be closed on a Friday, and many companies also close on Thursday. This means the weekend in Iran falls on a Thursday and Friday.
During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk and many businesses operate on a reduced schedule. Expats aren’t expected to fast, but they must not eat, drink, smoke or chew gum in public.
Family in Iran
Family is central to social structures in Iran. The concept of family is more private in Iranian culture, and locals take special care to protect their female family members from outside influences.
Iranians take their family responsibilities very seriously. Most only have one or two children, but extended families remain large. It’s common for elderly relatives to be taken care of by the wider family circle at home.
Nepotism is quite apparent in business circles in Iran. That said, it is regarded positively in the sense that employers can be sure that they are hiring someone trustworthy.
Privacy in Iran
Iranians tend to see themselves as having two distinct identities – zaher (public) and batin (private). When they are in public, they conform to accepted modes of behaviour and may refrain from showing their personality. That said, among family and close friends, they will be more open and are more likely to share personal information, offer advice and provide support in general.
Manners in Iran
Expats in Iran will soon get accustomed to the concept of taarof. This is a system of politeness that includes both verbal and non-verbal modes of communication. Iranians are reluctant to accept compliments, as humility is a highly valued attribute.
In adherence to taarof, expats should at least show some reluctance to accept gifts or invitations until the insistence becomes greater.
Dress in Iran
The Iranian attitude to dress code is more casual than one might expect, but there are specific rules that need to be followed. Most important is the khimar (headscarf) for women, which should be worn at all times and must cover the neck and head. A little bit of hair showing isn’t a problem, and many local women wear their khimars perched far back. That said, when visiting a mosque or shrine, it must go up to the forehead.
Local women tend to wear loose, modest clothing and expats should follow suit. Bare forearms are fine, but shoulders should be covered.
Are you an expat living in Iran?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Iran. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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