[STARTING UP IN TURKEY] Unspoken social norms in Turkey

[STARTING UP IN TURKEY] Unspoken social norms in Turkey

October 22, 2008, Wednesday/ 18:13:00
"Ugh! Fall is already here and I've come down with a cold," Britta, a German, thinks to herself while riding a bus in İstanbul traffic.
"Achoo!" After sneezing, she gives her nose a hearty blow, but is soon astonished to see that everyone is watching her. This is most likely so because nose blowing in public is seen as truly impolite in Turkey.

Have you ever been in such a situation? You think you did everything "right" only to see everyone's reactions prove the exact opposite. Many expatriates, no doubt, are quite familiar with these kinds of misunderstandings.

And so this week Today's Zaman sets out to provide you with some insight into Turkish etiquette and customs. Revealing such unspoken dos and don'ts is surely an essential part of discovering the country and culture in which you have decided to live.

For a short overview of social norms in Turkey, try the eDiplomat, a global online forum for diplomats. This forum will prepare you with a short introduction to the cultural etiquette of many countries, including Turkey, and provide you with hints on how to prepare for a number of situations, including meetings and greetings, body language, corporate culture, dining, dress codes and gift giving. (

The eDiplomat was written for the American businessman in particular, so also take a look at the popular expat forum MyMerhaba ( to get a broader understanding of the topic. Information you'll find in the section "traditions and customs," provided by Zeyda Üstün, is based to a large extent on interviews with family elders, who possess a comprehensive understanding of the country's traditions and cultural practices.

"When meeting people in Turkey, respect and courtesy are absolute musts," writes the British expat forum Kwintessential, Well then, let's sift through an ordinary family visit to see what it's all about.

Home visits

First off, if you're invited to visit someone's home, it is always a good idea to bring a small gift. But don't stress yourself too much. Don't bring a gift that is too lavish; opt for just a little something. Chocolate, candy or flowers will probably do best, but don't be surprised if your gift is not opened upon receipt.

Additionally, never forget to take your shoes off when entering a Turk's home. Don't worry about cold feet -- or the shame of holey socks -- as you will most likely be offered a pair of home slippers, specifically reserved for eventual guests.

The next question that comes up is on how to meet and greet. You'll quickly notice that Turks usually address each other using their first names. This, however, does not mean that there is no politer way to go about it. After the first name, add the title "Bey" to a man's name and the title "Hanım" to that of a woman. For example, Mehmet Demir is to be addressed as Mehmet Bey and Fatma Aydoğan as Fatma Hanım. Furthermore, when speaking in Turkish, always use the polite (plural) form when speaking to someone older than you. In some families, this remains the case even after several years of close friendship or even kinship.

Let's not omit the most important piece of the whole greeting ceremony: the hand kiss. MyMerhaba explains all the related details: "Kissing the hands of older family members is an obligatory ceremony -- especially on religious holidays. Generally, among Turks, kissing the hand of an elder and touching it to your forehead is a sign of respect shown to elders. Those in esteemed or reputable positions in society, and the elderly, enjoy having their hands kissed. And if you are married to a Turk and visiting his or her family members, you are expected to follow your husband or wife in kissing hands," the forum writes.

If the hand kiss doesn't take place, the cheek's kiss will: one kiss on the right cheek and one on the left. Although in some cases cheek kissing -- as well as handshakes -- may not be out of the question, take special care when shaking the hand of a member of the opposite sex. Some may see this as a serious affront!

Once all this is done, we must sit and dine. Turks are very generous and can be rather insistent when offering food, warns MyMerhaba. The forum recommends the following: "It is best to just accept what is offered to you, with a smile, even though you may be full. If you don't accept, you will undoubtedly hear comments like 'Didn't you like it?' or 'Was it bad?' and even risk offending your host." However, if this is your second, third or fourth helping, at some point you are bound to be genuinely full and are not obliged to "clean your plate."

Dinner conversations are generally pretty light. Conversation in Turkey quite commonly comprises many pleasantries being exchanged between people, so keep any mention of a problem for a more appropriate time. Never forget to compliment the cooks for the meal served.

Paying and tipping

If you are eating at a restaurant, keep in mind that stinginess is considered reprehensible. So when the bill comes, definitely insist on paying. You will usually not be allowed to pay anyway, but you are obliged to put up a fight. If you invite someone to dinner, you are expected to pay. In short, the system where everyone pays for himself -- the so-called "Dutch treat" or "German treat" -- is absolutely out in Turkey.

Don't underestimate tipping while in Turkey. The MyMerhaba forum says in most hotels and restaurants, service is not included in the bill. It recommends leaving a tip of around 10 percent for most services and 15 percent at finer dining establishments. MyMerhaba does not recommend tipping taxi drivers.

Last but not least, we provide you with some more quick tips on the dos and don'ts in Turkey, in the hope that they may prevent you from falling into some uncomfortable situations.

As briefly mentioned at the beginning, it is never really polite to blow your nose in public. It is considered to be very rude. If you need to pick your teeth, cover your mouth or go to another room. Being clean and presentable is important -- especially at work or when visiting someone's home. In some families, the younger members do not smoke or cross their legs when together with the older members of the family. When sitting with Turks, it is considered rude to expose the sole of your foot so that it points in the direction of others. Also, do avoid pointing in general, which is regarded as a sign of rudeness.

Finally, don't get yourself in a tizzy. Every country has its own customs and Turkey is no different. However, Turkish society is pretty easy going and in general European standards of politeness will do fine here. As the British forum sums it up: "All in all, Turkish people are familiar with the customs of Western visitors and are forgiving of blunders; however, it impresses them if you are aware of the customs of Turkey."