Taarof and Daniel Alfredsson

Daniel Alfredsson, practicing his "leader" face.

Daniel Alfredsson, practicing his “leader” face.

Postgame scrums are supposed to be boring. No one admits this, of course, because admitting the inanity of the custom would undermine the justification for its persistence, and without its persistence a great many column inches would have to be filled by something else, and no one is quite sure what that would be. So it goes on, game in game out, every extraordinary performance followed up with the same ordinary questions and the same ordinary answers. Players felt good or squeezed their sticks, pucks were got in deep or should have been, small things were done right or need to be worked on: such is the account of every game, as spoken in Scrumese.

After game four between the Senators and Penguins, which Ottawa lost disastrously to put themselves down 3-1, a reporter asked Daniel Alfredsson whether he thought his team would be able to come back to win the series. He asked the question, as all reporters in scrums do, already knowing the answer. In hockey, the correct answer to “Are you, team who is in a bad situation, going to get yourself out of this bad situation and move on to glorious victory?” is “We know we’re good enough to beat them, we just have to take it one night at a time, focus on doing the little things right, and play our game.” It’s a perfectly proper hockey sentiment: confident without being hubristic, with exactly the right sheen of blue-collar lunch-bucket determination. There is absolutely no way to go wrong with that answer. Which is why it was so shocking that Alfredsson chose to pass it up- it was sitting right there, right in front of him, a perfect little piece of traditional home-cooked hockey cliche that everyone would happily eat up- in favor of an entirely unexpected response: “Probably not.”

Alfredsson went on to say more, standard and appropriate things about playing hard and never giving up, context that (as he later complained) was largely ignored, for that “probably not” proved very difficult for people to swallow. It stuck in our throats and stayed there, an exotic morsel that even his supporters couldn’t quite believe they’d been served. Some were offended, some weren’t, but few let the comment pass unnoticed as the great majority of post-game cliches do. These two words alone spawned thousands more, as dozens of commentators and hundreds of fans defended, debated, or condemned Alfredsson’s choice to speak them. They were that controversial.

Unlike most controversial assertions, though, Alfredsson’s “probably not” was not only true, but common knowledge. Literally every single person who heard that statement not only already knew it, but also already agreed with it. If you were God and you decided to spend your time counting all the thoughts thought by people who watched that game, “The Sens probably aren’t going to come back from this” would have been far and away the most popular. Recovering from a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series is extremely improbable; everyone knows this. Even people who know nothing about hockey know this. I could ask a ten-year-old Indonesian girl who’s never seen ice outside of a drink if she thinks anyone down 3-1 in any best-of-seven competition is going to win, and she would say “probably not”. It’s not even a hockey thing; it’s just a life thing. It’s a math thing.

We wanted Alfredsson to lie to us. More accurately, we expected him to lie to us, and when he didn’t, some of us were actually pissed off that he didn’t lie to us. People actually wrote outraged blog posts and comments excoriating the man for not telling a blatant, transparent, obvious lie.

Which isn’t surprising. Most of hockey speech is lies.

Or more accurately, most hockey speech is taarof.

***

There is no exact translation of taarof in English. It means something like “manners” maybe, but the North American conception of manners is nothing on the scale of taarof. Taarof is an ornate system of etiquette, prevalent in Iran, which consists of a great library of phrases that decorate social encounters. Most of them consist of offers of extravagant generosity and according self-abasement. For example, you might go into a shop and ask the price of something, and the shopkeeper will say: it’s worthless, it’s unworthy of you, nothing I have is worthy of you, take it. Or you might be talking to someone on the bus and they will invite you to their home, and you will say: really?, and they will say: yes, of course, I will be your servant, I will be your sacrifice, you can walk upon my eyes. These kinds of phrases are taarof.

Taarof is not, strictly speaking, true. If you go around Iran just taking things from shops without paying or trampling on people’s faces, you will be arrested just like anywhere else in the world. The system demands that you do not take such comments seriously, but rather engage in a repeated back-and-forth of offers and refusals until you establish how much the person offering is really able to give.

Westerners, especially Americans, hate taarof. HATE IT. “I’m walking around Esfahan trying to get a snack and suddenly I have to get into this weird circular conversation about sacrifices and eyes and your low self-esteem or whatever just so I can buy some kebabs? GAAAAAAH.” Westerners hate taarof so much that it gets used as a metaphor for all the evils of Iranian culture, for any country with such a tradition of insincerity and deception must be inherently untrustworthy. No wonder we can’t have diplomacy with YOU BUNCH OF LYING LIARS WHO TELL LIES. (This is an exaggerated characterization of the argument, but not as exaggerated as it seems- check the links.)

But North America has its own versions of taarof, situations in which people are expected to repeat stock formulae that are not true, and that are known by all parties to be untrue, in order to maintain the proper social graces. It’s not very well-developed in our hospitality, us being a bunch of Ayn Rand-loving capitalists who generally feel no particular obligation to sacrifice anything for others. No, we don’t engage in very much taarof when we’re selling goods or inviting people into our homes. But we do a shit ton of it in sports.

The ritualized interactions of the post-game scrum or mid-game interview are beautifully analogous to taarof. Both questions and answers are drawn from a long-established repertoire of cliches, platitudes, and aphorisms, which are only slightly modified to account for the specifics of the situation (win, loss, big win, bad loss). No matter how many times the interaction is repeated, it is quite rare for either side to express any frustration with the ritual or to seek to change it, and in fact both parties are far more likely to be offended than pleased with any introduction of novelty. Players- Duncan Keith is a recent example- become belligerent when confronted with questions that don’t feel appropriately deferential. Reporters- think of the “Yakupov didn’t come out” kerfuffle, or the recurring “Tortorella won’t play ball” complaints- become righteously indignant when denied their trite, simplistic, insincere responses. This custom of soft queries and gentle lies isn’t just tolerated incidentally; it’s a beloved part of hockey culture.

Taarof, either in its Iranian hospitality form or its hockey scrum form, is not necessarily bad. It’s true that it introduces ambiguities- in both cases, the questioner is often left wondering what the responder “really thinks”- but it is not the custom itself that makes those ambiguities unpleasant or wrong, but the foreignness. For people within the culture, taarof is a system of etiquette that sacrifices literal truth to higher virtues. The offering of hospitality, the impulse towards generosity, valuing people over objects- these are the core values of taarof in Iran, and are not remotely bad things. Ideally, you express the kindness of offering and the other person practices the kindness of not imposing, and eventually, starting from that standpoint of charity, you work towards an actual arrangement. What Americans interpret as honesty, from this perspective, seems like a crass literalism that sacrifices a sense of kindness for the sake of one’s own immediate desires, the way small children go around screaming I WANT THIS or I DON’T LIKE THAT before they’re old enough to understand empathy.

Hockey taarof plays a similar role. When a player resorts to its cliches, he’s doing so because the sport has decided that sometimes other values trump honesty. For example, the intense mental discipline necessary to play elite hockey likely requires the use of traditional mantras to stave off stress and anxiety. The repetitious cliches that hockey players use are an effective way of deflecting difficult questions (“Why do you think you’re not scoring?”) away without having to actually consider them. There’s a lot of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that overanalyzing one’s own performance can trigger choking; keeping the brain full of bland, encouraging stock phrases is one way to keep reasonable self-doubts from snowballing into a full-scale meltdown.

Beyond this functional purpose, hockey cliches tend to reflect certain kinds of hockey values, like hard work, egalitarianism, optimism, etc., that are not consistently reflected in the cold reality of the game. All players should work hard, but really some have to work a lot harder than others. All roles should be important, but really some roles are pretty dispensable. You might be able to come back from a 3-1 deficit, but really… probably not. By speaking the cliché rather than the truth, players are cementing agreed-upon ideals that are often challenged by the facts on the ice, but which they nevertheless feel are important for the game to go on. Taarof phrases, in hockey, are the tenets of the faith.

The problem of taarof-style speech is not so much it’s dishonesty as its repetitiveness. Stock phrases eventually become dead phrases. They’re said so often that no one even thinks of the meaning anymore, and even statements of deeply-held values turn into blank words coming out of a blank face. This is why it is problematic to believe that taarof can be part of leadership. We imagine ways of leading that are steeped in cliché, but we all know from experience that real leadership must resist all the things that cliche-speech is: boring, insincere, repetitive, formulaic. Leadership works by grabbing attention and challenging expectations, and it is at its most effective when it is particular to the specific people and circumstances.

The easiest possible thing for Alfredsson to do would have been to go out there and say “They’re a good team, but we know we can beat them, we just gotta take it one game at a time, play our game, focus on the little things, etc etc.” He would not have been praised as a great leader for this- in fact, no one beyond the Ottawa beat writers would have even bothered quoting it- because the phrases are so rote that not even the people who wish he’d said them would actually have enjoyed hearing them.

The expected phrases would have saved him some grief, but they wouldn’t have done jack shit for his team. An NHL player, even a young one, has already played a great many seasons of hockey, most of those at whatever the highest-stakes level was for his age group and nationality. They’ve heard dozens of speeches out of the mouths of many different coaches, seen many different men adorned with Cs standing up in the room and trying to say motivating things. I suspect that the vast majority of what they’ve heard is hockey-taarof- the same cliches spouted over and over again, spoken not because they’re true or even believed, but because they’re socially appropriate.

So Daniel Alfredsson, 40 years old, veteran of seventeen NHL seasons and 121 playoff games, twelve years captain, and the closest thing his team has to a face for its franchise, took a chance. He scrapped taarof and told the truth. This wasn’t frustration, or carelessness, or indifference- believe me, Daniel Alfredsson knows all the stock phrases by heart and can easily pull them out in any circumstance. It was leadership. It was the gesture of a man who has taken stock of his teammates and his situation and decided that honesty would be more productive than bravado. In his post on the subject, Bourne ennumerated many of the ways that what Alfredsson said might have helped his team more than any faux-Messier guarantee bullshit ever could.

There are as many different ways to lead as there are groups of people in the world, and Alfredsson’s choice reflected one of them. In this leadership mode, the choice to sacrifice taarof for honesty is itself part of the statement: it’s about the refusal to lie, to put on a show, to boast and brag and swagger. It’s about invoking the sort of determination that comes from realism and humility. Sometimes, when you’re staring at a long trek up a steep mountain, you don’t want some dick screaming in your ear “YEAH COME ON BOYS WE’RE GONNA FUCK THIS MOUNTAIN UP ITS BIG ROCKY ASS HOO-AAH LET’S GO”, or chanting “the-longest-journey-begins-with-a-single-step-the-longest-journey-begins-with-a-single-step-the…” over and over and over again like the victim of a hypnopaedia experiment gone wrong. You just want someone to stand beside you, take a long quiet look, and say, “That’s a big fucking mountain. This is gonna be hard. Let’s go.”

Comments (17)

  1. I googled searched this after reading it on the Score app just so I could comment. Amazing article, very good read!

  2. Another brilliant post! Keep ‘em coming.

  3. Kismit that your musings comes along with the firing of Torts, who should have really been the subject of this analysis. There’s even a natural flow to the two words together as they sort of wallow off the tongue, “taarof Tortorella”

  4. A very fine read, thank you. I have not heard the term ‘taarof.’ In my family, my grandma would use a conceptually related term, ‘in jo sti ru,’ which is a form of polite lying and self-denial known to (but not unique to) the Japanese.

    Examples would include a requirement of a host to offer the very last treat on a plate to the guest; and a requirement of a guest to refuse to ever take the very last treat on that plate. (It is ultimately thrown away, from politeness, even if one or the other is famished.)

    There is also the famous way of saying “no,” which consists of saying “yes,” only with a subtly doubtful inflection that the listener is expected to understand is actually a refusal.

    • It’s definitely not a phenomenon unique to Iran, although it does seem like it’s characteristic of some societies much more than others. If you know (which you may not), do Westerners tend to get as frustrated with the Japanese version? Or are they more forgiving because, you know, Japan isn’t part of the “Axis of Evil”?

      • I could not say, Ellen. My wife rolls her eyes when I am being “too Japanese’ – on the other hand, it was not a marriage dealbreaker so I would call that being very forgiving.

        Also, a tendency to minimize the negative would not seem to be the most obnoxious tendency. Modesty in all its forms is meant to be a sort of social lubricant – to faciliate amity. Not for nothing is the word “brutal” in the phrase “brutally honest”!

  5. I read your post and understand what you are saying, but I cannot get past the fact that the captain of the team effectively said the series was lost. I don’t think it defines him in any way, or negates everything he’s done in his career, but it was not good leadership. What you fail to answer in your post is what purpose was served by him saying “probably not” that could not have been better served by what you call taarof? Did it increase the team’s chances of winning? They all knew it would be tough, almost impossible. Did they need their captain to tell them that, or that they would probably fail? If you believe that some leadership goal was served by this ‘honesty’, you are basically denying the concept of leadership in this situation. Unless you can convince me that what he said increased the chances of the Senators coming back, then your post, however elaborately argued, is unpersuasive.

    • I didn’t get into this subject too deeply because I thought Bourne did a good job explaining this in his own post on the subject, which I linked in the penultimate paragraph.

      What I think is this: Alfredsson saying the taarof-things would not have affected anything either way, because those phrases are specifically designed to roll blandly by. So if he wanted to do anything to increase his team’s chances of winning, he had to go outside those bounds. He could have done that the way he did or he could have done it with the opposite, the blustery Messier thing. Neither of those are guaranteed to “work”, of course- bluster can easily ring hollow, honesty can be met with complacency. It’s doubtful we (not being in the room, not knowing how the other personalities on the team were experiencing the situation) could ever know which of these options, if either, would have increased the chances of winning, and the truth is probably that nothing he said would significantly affect the outcome anyway. But I don’t think it’s correct to assume that a more positive statement is necessarily going to contribute to a more positive outcome.

      Sometimes, in the face of an overwhelming situation, denials that it is overwhelming do not decrease stress but increase it. As Bourne said, players aren’t blind to reality. So, we may hypothesize that in the case of a team with a lot of young players, the pressure of being expected, particularly by their elders, to come back from such a deficit against such gifted opponents could easily be terrifying rather than inspiring. Being told that the veterans get how tough it is and don’t expect them to deliver a wildly unrealistic outcome could be liberating, giving them implicit permission to see this series not as an end in itself but as a part of their growth. Maybe it results in less tension, less stick-squeezing, and a better chance of winning. Or maybe it’s an investment in their long-term psychological peace, a bad situation against which future playoff series, which they will face older, wiser, and better, seem less intimidating in comparison.

      I don’t know that either of these are true, but the point is that it’s easy enough to come up with plausible narratives in which Alfredsson’s words are distinctly beneficial for the Senators. Whether those narratives are true or yours are… only Eric Karlsson knows for sure.

      • I hadn’t read Bourne’s piece, sorry about that. I just did. I have to say I’m still stuck on the “probably not”. Take the last sentence of your piece. Why didn’t you write: “That’s a big fucking mountain that we’re probably not going to make it over. This is gonna be hard. Let’s go.”? Because that crosses the line between realism and defeatism. I still don’t see how saying you’re probably going to fail is inspiring. And I think the distinction you draw between “probably not” and the “blustery Messier thing” is a false one. I’m not arguing that he should have guaranteed victory, or even said it was possible. I think there can be leadership in realism. I just don’t think there is any in defeatism. And, given what happened in the next game, do you think Alfredsson would say the same thing again if he had it to do over?

        • This is an interesting discussion (great article, by the way). I just disagree with the notion that being realistic about the long odds is *necessarily* “defeatist.” Even if a team knows they basically have no chance, there’s still something to be said for going out there and putting it all out on the line. They may not win, but at least they’ll go down with pride. And maybe they’ll find a way to win after all. You never know. I’m kind of reminded of the final sequence of one of my favorite movies, The Last Samurai.

          *Spoilers* Spoilers* Spoilers* Spoilers*
          At the end, Katsumoto knew that he and his supporters almost certainly couldn’t win. They were badly outnumbered and were facing a severe technological disadvantage. He seemed resigned to his fate until Algren convinces him that if he was going to die, he might as well die fighting valiantly in battle. That way, he retains his honor, and perhaps the Emperor would finally take his objections to heart. Algren then recounted the Battle of Thermopylae, which was a useful analogue to their situation. Just before the battle, Katsumoto asks Algren what happened to the soldiers at Thermopalye, and Algren tells him that they all died fighting. This makes Katsumoto happy because he knew that those soldiers died valiantly, and he would likely do the same.

          In the context of this discussion. Alfreddson was likely trying to motivate his team by acknowledging the reality of the situation. They would try their best to win the game, of course (just as I’m sure Katsumoto would have liked to have actually won the battle, as impossible as that scenario seemed). But if they went down, they’d go down with honor. Of course, that’s not exactly what happened, given that they got beat down 6-2, and Neil dishonored himself by spearing Morrow below the belt. But Alfredsson can hardly be blamed for that. He did his best. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough. No shame in that.

    • Disingenuous leadership is not leadership, it is lying. As one of America’s millions of workers who deal with b.s. corporate happy double talk every single day I want one thing from my leader, honesty. I don’t want to hear how we’re going to give it one more college try when unless lottery like odds of luck come our way, it ain’t gonna happen in any universe.

      Your example of “It’s a big mountain that we probably won’t get over, but it’s going to take a lot of work” doesn’t inspire me. It doesn’t lead me or the team to anything. It tells me that the leader still don’t understand the problem. It was a big mountain before the series started. Down 3-1 and having had our lunch handed to us the last game? It’s rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

  6. I really like this piece. Were you a philosophy major or what? I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to read these sorts of analyses about my favorite sport. The Score and any hockey fans that read it are lucky to have you.

  7. What I love about your writing is that I’m never sure where it’s going while I’m reading it, but when i get to the end, my first thought is, “of course.”

    I find it fascinating to watch player/coach interviews, whether pre-game, mid-game, or post-game, in the locker room, podium, or on the ice, and to hear the same tired questions followed by the same scripted answers EVERY TIME, and have everyone nodding and smiling as if something of substance has been said. As uncomfortable as Torts or Darryl Sutter pressers can be, I do enjoy the brave outliers, the hints of an actual person under the well-trained ciphers. When Sidney Crosby said he didn’t like anyone on the Flyers last season, I loved it, not least because it was so out of character. Or so out of the character he’s been habituated to show the world.

    There was no way Ottawa was coming back to win that series, no matter what Alfie or anyone else said or didn’t say. To question the “leadership” or stones of someone of his stature is just silly.

  8. Love this piece, and the extended culture analogy used.

  9. (Apparently, a simple “yes” proves inadequate in satisfying posting-criteria, on this site; hence this affected preamble. However…)

    Yes.

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