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Between the Lines: Listening with a Tarof Ear

With a background in anthropology and a family of immigrants, I like to think that I’m pretty good at understanding people. For folks who grew up with tarof we’re going to say things differently than say, plain white people from the Bay Area. But I’ve realized that even though I should be listening with different ears depending on who’s talking, sometimes I get lazy and mix them up.


Let’s go through an example with my make-believe friends Shirin and Emily. Emily/Shirin is going to do a load of laundry. I’m visiting from out of town, staying at her house.

Emily says: Do you have clothes you want to wash?

Emily means: If you have clothes to wash, go ahead and put them in the washer.


Shirin says: Do you have clothes you want to wash?

Shirin means: Do you mind if I wash my clothes first?


Emily says: My socks are upstairs.

Emily means: Please don’t start the wash ’til I get my socks and add them to the wash.


Shirin says: My socks are upstairs.

Shirin means: Would you mind going upstairs, getting my socks and putting them in the wash?

Now imagine that I’m doing laundry with Emily but I’m interpreting the words as if I were with Shirin. Let’s listen in:

Emily: Do you have clothes you want to wash?

Me: Oh, go ahead, no problem.

Emily: Well, I don’t have a full load.

Me: Oh, do you have other clothes you need to wash?

Emily: No. I mean, do you want to add your clothes to mine?

Me: Oh, oh. OK, um, sure. Let me add some.

[As I’m loading my clothes…]

Emily: My socks are upstairs.

Me: Sure, where upstairs?

Emily: Huh?

Me: How can I get them if I don’t know where they are.

Emily: I’ll get them of course, just wait for me to add them to the load.

So, this actually happened the other day. Fucked up, right? That’s what happens when I use my tarof ear to listen to a non-tarof conversation. It is tedious for all involved and happens more often than one would think. I did at least respond non-tarof. Otherwise I wouldn’t have added my laundry to her load. I would have said, no I don’t have clothes to wash. Confused yet?

For more tarof tales, read this post, or listen to this great story from This American Life.

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