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April 20, 2012, Friday

Saving face in the workplace

In many of the conversations I have had with Westerners in Turkey who are in a romantic relationship with a Turk, the topic of family ties usually comes up.

As I mentioned in my column titled “Exurbs and family ties,” this week, foreigners may find it difficult to understand the emphasis on these family values. In the West, your first loyalty is to your spouse or partner, but that is not always the case in a Muslim culture. Harmony in relationships is more important than being open and direct. Many relationships between Western women and Turkish men have ended because the boyfriend or husband will not stand up to his relatives as she believes he should. In extreme cases, the foreign woman has said her piece to his relatives and this has resulted in making things worse.

As I mentioned earlier, if directness causes one’s partner to lose face and make him feel that no value is being given to his feelings, he may never be able to forget or forgive. A boyfriend or husband who thinks he has been insulted may hold a grudge for a lifetime. I cannot emphasize enough that, in Turkish culture, it is important to preserve dignity and save face. I have learned this through being involved with Turks in workplace relationships.

I promised in my previous piece to share an example. The most common problem that people probably write to me about is relatives who ask for some money. In Turkey, a large financial request will usually be mediated by a third party. This all has to do with saving face and pride.

Western visitors who are used to being more direct must learn to not give straight refusals and a frank “no.” In the West, a young adult struggling to make ends meet would usually go directly to parents or their aunt or uncle to discuss their problem and ask for a loan or whatever the special need might be. The person asking, if refused, would not feel they have lost face but would have to deal with disappointment if the answer was “no.” In Turkey, however, such direct replies cause the person who has made the request to lose face. When asked for a favor by a Turk, it is best to give an answer that takes the embarrassment from both the one asking and the one answering.

Perhaps you have noticed that when something bad happens, a Turk usually puts the blame on an outside cause. This is evident in Turkish sentence construction. Here are a few simple illustrations: When you ask the grocer for, let’s say, some flour, he will not reply “I do not have any flour.” He will reply, “Flour is not in stock” (un kalmadı). Another example is when someone uses the toilet and pulls the chain or knob so hard that it breaks. You will be told, “The toilet is broken” (tuvalet bozuk). Perhaps you go to use the vacuum cleaner and find that it does not work. You will be told that the vacuum cleaner is not working (elektrik süpürgesi çalışmıyor). I believe you see the pattern… The common sentence structure is in third person.

When refusing a request, it can be done in a manner that avoids personal offense. Westerners find the use of a third party in making a request manipulative. Because Westerners value frankness and directness, they often interpret the polite and indirect answers as dishonest. These two points -- saving face and pride -- lead to cultural clashes between Turks and Westerners.

Turks generally appear very confident. If you are a foreign employer in Turkey you will have observed this. You will need to learn if your employee knows how to do what you are about to ask them to do. You should avoid asking if they know how to do something because if they don’t, they will say that they do in order to avoid admitting that they don’t and disappointing you. I have found it best not to ask but just go ahead and give instructions and explain how to do it if you have any doubt that the person may not know. This approach seems to work. It is common for saving face and avoiding admitting a weakness or mistake. Shifting blame is expected. Self disclosure happens only with close friends.

Just remember that the social unit that most strongly requires a person’s loyalty is the family. It is the fundamental structure of life. It gives many benefits but requires certain obligations.

Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey” 2005. Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: [email protected]

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