The list was bald, without details or explanations. In this column, I want to fill in the broad outlines of the list with further detail. In a subsequent column, I hope to show why I think these particular “encounter tactics” are important. Let me then turn again to the list I shared last week.
First, however, let me again offer a word of caution. What I am describing is behavior in public places. In private, in a familial context, or in interactions among friends, I have observed (and been party to) much conviviality, graciousness and good humor. In fact, an important division between actions in the private and the public realms bifurcates Turkish life into two areas with very different expectations and norms.
1) People do not smile.
People do not smile in public spaces. As I walk the sidewalks, I meet face after face set in serious mien or stoic solidity. Most faces are expressionless although often enough I meet a scowl. Most often, faces in public spaces give off a determined air, as if the wearer were moving towards a meeting with a disappointed bureaucrat or a determined dentist. On buses, faces show few emotions other than fortitude, endurance, patience or disinterest. On stairways or lobbies, faces discourage dalliance but rather show indifference or studied disengagement. In the markets or shops, faces do not invite interaction.
2) People do not make eye contact.
People do not make eye contact. People moving in or through public spaces avoid making eye contact with others. Erving Goffman, a Canadian sociologist, analyzes interaction in public spaces through what he calls the “civil inattention” ritual. This ritual is a process of first noting then avoiding others whom one meets in passing. Goffman notes that on American sidewalks, people who encounter each other participate in an interaction that begins with each recognizing the presence of the other then, as the two participants near each other and enter what he calls “social space,” each walker glances off and avoids eye contact until each passes the other. Goffman argues that such practices of pretending not to note the other make life in cities possible. In cities, we encounter so many others that inviting interaction would open us to so many interactions that we would come to a standstill, a point made earlier by Georg Simmel in his early analysis of urban life. Thus pretending not to see the other, while avoiding running into them, makes dealing with a large number of passersby tolerable. Turkey differs from the American pattern, a pattern common in European cities and other Middle Eastern cities such as Cairo and Damascus: In Turkey, passersby omit the initial recognition of the other through which Americans enter the inattention ritual.
In the public arena, passersby avoid looking at other passersby. Unlike in Goffman's description of the civil inattention ritual in the United States, people in public areas in Turkey avoid eye contact even at a distance -- there is little initial recognition of the other as she moves into the social zone followed later by eye avoidance. Rather, eyes are downcast as pedestrians negotiate the streets, sidewalks, lobbies, bus and metro platforms and other shared areas. The eye avoidance is most striking in public conveyances. On buses, ferries, trams or the metro, passengers ride for long distances studiously looking out the window, at their hands or with unfocused eyes as they listen to music on earphones or simply stare into vacant space. While pairs of people who know each other may engage in animated conversations or share a set of earphones, there is little visual recognition of the non-familiar other.
3) People do not recognize you in public.
The public sphere in İstanbul is a place of limited interaction. Persons who enter public areas accompanied by another person -- a friend, a family member, a colleague -- may engage in lively interaction with that companion, but there is little initiation of interaction with others one may pass in public areas. An example may make this clearer. For more than three years I have ridden a “service bus” to and from my place of work. Everyone on the bus is also employed by my employer and the same people ride the bus day after day. At the bus stop where I meet the bus, six to eight of my colleagues wait with me each morning. However, while one waits for the bus, peers typically do not greet one another nor do they engage in conversation. As one enters the bus, no one greets the entrant. As one rides the 20 or 30 minutes to and from work, there is very little conversation and passengers avoid interaction.
I have lived in my neighborhood for more than a year and walk the streets daily. As an American, I nod at people I recognize or call out “merhaba” or “salam aleikum.” I notice students from my school walking past me in Avcılar. Those I greet look startled and confused. A theme that underlies these first three patterns is that the public sphere is a place of anonymity and disengagement. A person enters it warily and individually, detached and protective of one's space and person.
4) People do not take turns.
When people in İstanbul engage in activities in the public arena, it is every person for himself or herself. Whether in gaining the attention of a shop clerk, a vendor or a clerk in a bureaucratic organization, each person pushes to the front, insisting on engagement. A person already involved in a transaction is shoved aside by someone else demanding the clerk's attention. The suspension of deference to first-come first-served is even more obvious as people board public transportation. Boarding a sea ferry is a pandemonium of pushing and shoving, jostling and maneuvering, although the same scene unfolds on a smaller scale as the doors to a metro or tram car or bus open. The mad dash continues as borders joust for a seat -- shoving past those persons trying to disembark, crushing both those entering and those leaving into a sometimes almost immobile crowd. One sees similar behavior among drivers of cars, taxis, trucks and buses in intersections or the roadway. Pedestrian crossings bring vehicles and walkers into a dance of precedence and verve.
5) People do not queue.
The tournament of precedence shows itself in a related theme: People in Turkey do not form lines. Rather, requests for service or attention are winner-take-all games. Exceptions to this pattern can be found at ATMs or in establishments like banks and the Emniyet which use a number system. Even in those locales, people without a number often interrupt ongoing interactions in attempts to gain a clerk's attention and often these attempts are successful. I am always taken aback when I am sitting at a bank employee's desk, trying for example to complete an international funds transfer, when someone barges into the scene, catches the clerk's attention, then both go off on some errand, leaving me sitting alone at the desk for 15 or 20 minutes.
6) People bump into you.
For foreigners, the violability of personal space in Turkey comes as a surprise. In public areas in Turkey, one's body is routinely touched by passersby. Walking on the sidewalk, people bump into you. On stairways, on bus platforms, in stores, people bump into others and continue on their way without notice. Two examples may make this clear. Yesterday, I was walking up a wide stairway to the Metrobüs stop in Bakırköy. Simultaneously, I was bumped into in three different places on my body -- my left shoulder, my right ankle and my back. No one seemed to notice. Last week, I was sitting on a bench watching people pass on Marmara Caddesi in Avcılar. I noticed an elderly man carrying grocery bags in each hand. Two young women passed him, one on either side. Each woman ran into him, with such force that he dropped the bags he was carrying. Neither of the young women stopped as he scrambled to recover his groceries.
7) People do not apologize.
Apologies are the lubricant of unintended social infractions and strategies of resolving conflicting claims. They are recognitions of a normative violation and seek to restore mutual recognition and validation of the parties of potentially damaging interactions. Apologies are therefore especially useful signposts to normative expectations -- they mark infringements and signal appropriate interaction patterns and the status of the participants.
As one reflects on the interaction of the two young women and the older man recounted above, one notes particularly the lack of an apology. The interaction, which to me as an observer seemed egregious, was seen by the participants as not out of the ordinary. In none of the six patterns I have previously described do I find participants apologizing. Pushing, shoving, bumping, inattention to passersby, interrupting exchanges -- all are seen as usual and most often not worthy of note by those participating in them.
8) People leap before they look
In public areas, whether on streets or sidewalks, or in aisles in stores, doorways or other avenues, people enter the area without pause. One sees, for example, drivers of automobiles move into intersections, then looking around to see if other drivers yield the right of way. People step into crosswalks, then look around to see if buses or cars are coming. The venturer proceeds, scoping out the possible presence of vehicles or other potential dangers, and then lurches into ongoing traffic. In intersections, drivers claim access and then wait to see if others honor that claim. Pedestrians move into the crosswalk and then pause to see if oncoming traffic yields to them. Shoppers push into an aisle before looking to see if the aisle is clear. A pattern of claim-staking and one-upmanship characterizes these areas of potential ambiguity: who will yield and who will prevail. Each interaction seems ambiguous and contingent; the outcome is uncertain, dependent on nerve and verve.
9) People want to get it before it's gone.
An idea of scarcity is more common that one of plenty. Some things are, of course, scarce. The initial stop of the Metrobüs is in Avcılar and buses leave the Avcılar station continuously but they hardly ever leave with empty seats. There, perhaps, the mad dash to claim a seat makes sense and woe befall those not fleet of foot.
However, it makes less sense when, as I am examining a set of T-shirts on a store rack and, ready to choose the one I want to try on, for someone to nudge me aside and grab the one I was reaching for. I am startled when, while choosing tomatoes at the local market, a hand reaches around me to select before I can pick up the likely tomato. I am puzzled when, after I catch the attention of the waiter in the Simit Sarayı and he approaches my table, that another customer intercepts the waiter to place an order. When my service number at the bank flashes on the screen, I must scurry to make sure I am to the counter before someone claims my place. Surely there are enough T-shirts, tomatoes, waiters and bank tellers to go around. Or maybe I am naive.
My list is incomplete and ignores those encounters that do not catch my attention because they match my expectations of encounters in public spaces. I do not list the warm smiles of the woman who checks out my purchases several times a week at Meyda Market or the exchange of “iyi akşamlar” with the owner of the Denizköskler Kıraathanesi on the bottom floor of my apartment building. Note, however, that those two examples fit my list. I had shopped in the market regularly for several weeks before I was greeted upon entry and I had passed the kıraathane owner twice or more a day for a month before he responded to my wan wave.
In my next column, I will try to show why I think this list is useful when thinking about civil society in İstanbul.