I am sitting in the lobby of one the biggest hotels in Houston, Texas, the owner of which is an Iranian-American. I have filled out employment papers and now I am waiting for a face-to-face interview. I am thinking: an Iranian boss is sure to hire other Iranians. My illusion is shattered, however, the moment I enter Mr. R.D.’s office. “I am not very eager to work with Iranians,” he tells me in English.
The hotel’s employees are not allowed to speak to each other in Persian. “None of my top managers is Iranian,” he continues, “because I don’t like the Iranian style of management. We can talk about a job if you have worked with American managers.”
R.D. believes that there are two types of Iranian managers: those who think management is about being a taskmaster and treat the employees too harshly, and those who become lazy the moment they become managers and sit on their behinds.
“Unfortunately,” he says, referring to his 20 years’ worth of experience, “whenever I have trusted Iranians, everything has gone wrong. I have promised myself to only hire Iranians for less senior jobs and give the high-level jobs to Americans.”
R.D. is not the only employer who is less than keen to work with Iranians. Through interviewing other Iranian employers, I discover that many of them share the same view, albeit for different reasons. One example is Farhad, who owns a sandwich shop in Los Angeles. “Iranians are not as agile as Mexicans,” he explains. “The work of a Mexican in the restaurant is equal to the work of two Iranians. Mexicans are stronger because they have been raised to do farm work from childhood, so it does not pay to replace Mexican workers with Iranians.”
Now I understand why the food in Iranian-American restaurants does not taste genuine. This is what one must expect when a Mexican cook prepares an Iranian dish!
A Two-Way Street
This reluctance to work with other Iranian immigrants is, of course, a two-way street. In my experience, Iranian job seekers in the US prefer to work for American employers. “Iranian employers always offer the lowest salary,” says a man called Farid. “They work you to death and their management style is ugly.”
“Iranians have their own rules that make it very difficult to work with them,” says Sara, who recently arrived to the US and is still working towards improving her English. She works at an Iranian restaurant but is looking for a job at a restaurant that is not managed by an Iranian. “In all American restaurants, the tip is for the waiter, but here, the restaurant owner does not pass on the tips to us. He says ‘I told you from the start that your pay would be $8 per hour. I did not say anything about tips.’ Even if somebody tips us in cash, we have to drop it into a jar next to the cash register.”
A Comparison of Immigrant Communities
This mistrust becomes more pronounced when you compare the Iranian experience with that of other immigrants. In Indian beauty salons you do not see many Mexican, Anglo-American or Iranian hairdressers. In most Chinese shops, you see employees of Chinese or East Asian descent. In Mexican restaurants, most employees speak Spanish. In Iranian shops or restaurants, however, often the people running the business are of Chinese, Mexican or Indian descent. They are not people originating from Iran.
Poor relations among Iranian immigrants do not only affect work environments. According to Dr. Bizhan Bandari, a dermatologist and a professor at the University of California Los Angeles, even in academic environments, the trust normally seen between immigrants is absent from the Iranian community. Any doctor entering the U.S. to work “must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) to be able to practice medicine in America,” he says. “Every year the highest grades go to Indians.” He says this is not because they are more intelligent or more knowledgeable than other groups entering the country, but “because of their solidarity”. They support one another in their attempts to work in the U.S., and have created a database of useful and important questions that they share among one another. “Iranians hide everything from each other,” he says, and the lack of trust among Iranian students is stands out. “For example, they don’t tell each other that they are taking tests, conceal their grades and don’t reveal their study programs.”
A History of Secrecy?
“I am sorry to say that subterfuge has become part of our culture. Distrust becomes the norm when subterfuge becomes pervasive in a society,” observes Dr. Asghar Mohajeri, sociologist and college professor. It “leads to a habit of secrecy” and secrecy leads to lies. People are one thing but pretend to be another, he adds. The result is hypocrisy – and, in his opinion, there is a deep-rooted tradition of hypocrisy in Iranian culture. He turns to the great poet Hafez for proof:
“Preachers, shining so brightly on stage/In private, other deeds they engage.”
“Lies, hypocrisy, secrecy and subterfuge are the enemies of trust,” he adds. “Take away the trust and solidarity has no chance. Immigrants are more cynical because they were fed up with those things and left. They are searching for a utopia and naturally want to keep their distance from their compatriots.”
Telling lies has become a part of Iranian society, says university professor and sociologist Amanollah Gharaii Moghaddam. And it’s increasing at “an alarming rate, especially over the past century” and has taken root across the social divide and in all classes. “Imagine the problems that arise when two members of one family don’t trust each other,” Moghaddam adds. Then extend it to the society at large. The robustness of that society will become “seriously jeopardized”, and corruption threatens to “contaminate all social, economic and political institutions”.
“Of course, Iranian authorities make the problem worse,” he adds. “When they make promises that they don’t keep, public trust is weakened and mistrust spreads. A society and its individual cannot be separated. Mistrust among people, even among spouses, has its roots in society.”
“In Iranian society, the gap between words and actions is too wide, so individuals keep their distance from each other and prefer foreigners.” Iranian expatriates, he concludes, “have grown up in a society devoid of trust”, so it is “only logical” that they would prefer to spend their time with people who are not Iranian.