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.

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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.”