Depending on the content, compliments are often expressions of both deference and cordiality. The initiator of the compliment pays face (ehterâm) to the recipient by acknowledging the recipient as superior and himself as inferior, and in so doing, enhancing his own shakhsiat. If the compliment is about an object or an item of clothing, a ta’ârof offer of the object in response to the compliment is often made, as in this sequence:
A: This is a nice pen.
B: It’s not worthy of you (Qâbeli nâdare, meaning: You can have it.).
A: Thank you very much. (Always meaning, “No, thank you.”).
Even though a speaker humbles himself and elevates the interlocutor, he hardly expects the latter to agree with the force of the compliment because of the humility principle. The expected response would be a “mirroring” of the speaker’s behavior: the interlocutor will humble himself and elevate the speaker. A possible response to a compliment is Ekhtiar dârid, mâro sharmande mikonid (You are free to say anything you like, but what you say embarrasses me). Some Iranians will characterize a speaker as immodest or arrogant if he responds with an expression of thanks as acceptance of a compliment. Here’s an example of how to respond appropriately:
A: That is a nice pen.
B: It looks nice in your eyes. (i.e., “You are so good, you see everything as being nice.” (Meaning: “Nice of you to say so.”)
A: You are very kind.
Keeping the politeness principles in mind, the offer itself of a compliment expresses cordiality, although it may be phrased in terms of deference. The socially acceptable response is a thanking expression—which, however, does not mean acceptance as in English—or an expression that deflects the compliment back to the originator (deference).
If you compliment someone on their abilities, achievements, or their children, always use mâshâ’âllâh (literally, “what God wants”) as a talisman against the evil eye.