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June 24, 2012, Sunday

Things to consider about honesty

For expats living in another culture, doing any kind of practical business in the local language can stretch you. It always helps to have some understanding of the language and culture.

Some expats have personal translators. This is fine if your company provides this service for you and it is someone you can trust or you can afford to pay as a translator. In Turkish, like anywhere else, written contracts are common when doing business. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. Be sure to read and understand what you are signing and that all parties involved sign as required. I can’t stress how important it is to have a Turkish accountant and Turkish lawyer that you trust and from whom you can receive sound advice.

In different situations I have been in I have found that in Turkish culture the importance placed on face-saving means that the Turkish concept of honesty may sometimes differ from your own. Let me just share a very simple illustration: A person may tell a white lie about their boss to protect their honor; i.e., “Burak Bey is busy on the telephone,” when in fact he is late for work due to traffic. Don’t make it clear you realize this, as this would be an affront both to Burak Bey’s honor and that of the person who is telling you the line.

You will find in doing business that this principle works both ways. Turks will be unlikely to let you know if they don’t believe that you are able to commit to the timetable you have promised to, or if they suspect your claims are exaggerated, etc., for fear of offending your honor. It is important to take the time to ask them if they have any questions, or doubts about the proposals, and to make sure they realize you will not be offended by hearing their true thoughts.

Another way Turks save face is to not admit they do not know something. Americans often think nothing of saying “I do not know,” but in Turkish culture this is often deemed to be a weakness. So Turks are likely to give a general answer rather than saying they do not know and will do their best to find out for you. This is particularly true in a setting where others are also present, as your Turkish partner will fear loss of face before those assembled. If you sense this is happening, it is better to save your question for someone more senior, or to ask it in a less threatening environment such as via letter or email where they have a chance to research it before having to reply immediately.

Turks tend to truly hate to disappoint anyone. In response to a question concerning the whereabouts of a promised product or report, you are likely to get the reply, “It is nearly ready,” even if the work has only just started and there is absolutely no chance of you getting it when you want it. Of course, this can happen anywhere. A friend of mine was telling me how a while back an American young man did the same thing to her. He had been given a research project to do and report back on his findings. When he presented the research two weeks after the deadline, it was obvious he had thrown it together.

Turks, especially, do not like to give disappointing news for fear of upsetting the other side. Just be aware that when you walk out of a meeting with the other side saying, “Leave us a sample and we will test it to see if it works well and then place an order in a few weeks,” it may mean just that, or it could mean, “This is too expensive/wrong color/no good, but we don’t want to ruin your day by telling you this,” and the awaited order will never materialize.

The other day while sitting on the tram I couldn’t help but hear a Turkish person on the phone saying, “I am on the ferryboat and will be there in 10 minutes.” It was obvious they did not want to disappoint the person who was waiting and tell them they were running half an hour late. If you have ever had any repairmen do any work for you, you will know the line they say about being on the way and implying they are near (“Yoldayım”).

The following is a quote which reveals an insight into human nature and culture. It is translated into English from Pashto and was written by a prominent 17th-century Pashtun poet named Khushal Khan Khattak: “My flesh makes truth untruth; and untruth truth. I am always compelled to obey its bidding.”

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