[email protected]

February 19, 2013, Tuesday

Social graces and awkward moments

Have you experienced a situation when you are not sure how you are supposed to respond or act? This can happen anywhere and certainly when you are traveling abroad.

An expat in Turkey sent me a note asking the following:

Dear Charlotte: I have been in Turkey seven months. I am American. During my time here I have met a few Turks who have said to me “Let's have tea together sometime.” A few have suggested we have lunch together instead, but nothing ever comes of it. What does this mean? Are these genuine invites? How should I handle this when it is said to me? From: Connie F. (İstanbul)

Dear Connie F.: In American culture when you suggest having lunch together it can be a way of saying it'd be great to get together, and you mean it. You usually don't offer this suggestion if you do not mean it. You have to follow up in a few days and get the lunch date on your calendar. In Turkey, it is more common for an offer to be made but not necessarily meant. It can be a nice way to show intention of hospitality, but if not really meant the person will not take the suggestion further. Turks usually extend impromptu invitations, especially if your visit somehow coincides with their meal time. They will expect you to stay and join them in their meal.

Another social grace which can be confusing is the greeting -- to kiss or not to kiss. It can become tricky when you meet another expat who has lived in Turkey for a longer time or when you meet a Turk. Social kissing on both cheeks is common between two men and between two women and sometimes between a man and a woman. It all depends on the relationship. When unsure, it is best to take your cue from the other person. There is a trend among more secular, educated, middle class, urban individuals to not kiss unless it is a personal friend. A handshake would be more common or, in some cases, just a slight nod.

When Turks visit the US they wonder about when it is appropriate to hug. It is clear to hug or not to hug when the person is a relative or close friend. A gentle hug is enough. If you are being introduced for the first time, hold off on the hug unless the other person indicates it is acceptable. If a hug is not appropriate, you may extend your hand and say: “Merhaba. Memnun oldum!” (Hello! I am glad to meet you). For women, if you are meeting a business colleague or client with whom there is genuine friendship, then it is OK to greet with a light and quick hug.

Being on time is important in Western culture. In most professional settings in Turkey you are expected to be on time unless you are the boss, who is expected to arrive at the last minute or be late. In traditional Turkish culture it is thought that the later you are the more important you are. This mindset is changing. Foreign visitors in the West have unintentionally shown disrespect for the people waiting. If you are a Turk in the US and are going to be late, you need to inform the people waiting as soon as you can and explain why you are late. This is much easier to do in this day and age as nearly everyone has a cellphone and access to the Internet.

It wasn't so long ago that public transport in Turkey was not as frequent or reliable as it is now. It was usual to have to wait for someone for up to 30-40 minutes because you knew if they missed the first bus, or ferry they could do nothing but wait for the next. It was also not as common back then to jump in a taxi.

In this global community that we live in, manners and etiquette are not the same as they used to be. It has been said about the region where I grew up, the southern United States, that there is no better way to learn hospitality and social graces than to adopt the attitude of good ole “Southern hospitality.”

Western visitors to Turkey often comment that Turkey shines as a model when it comes to grace, charm and guest care. Social poise and presentation is still important in Turkish culture. Like where I was raised, grandmother's china cups and silver elements are reverenced. The table is covered with a tablecloth and not a plastic one and good china is used instead of paper plates. But somehow -- even in Turkey -- this is gradually changing, too.

“The hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any.” -- Fred Astaire

Previous articles of the columnist