How much do you know about Turkey’s unspoken rules? Is smiling at a stranger considered rude? Should a bag go on a table or a floor? Why are Turks always late and why do they like kissing so much? Our first article on Turkey’s finer social customs generated a lot of debate. We’ve compiled a few more points about etiquette in Turkey. Have a read and see if you agree on these social customs.
As already mentioned in the first article, Turks are a hospitable and understanding bunch, so don’t worry about causing any offence. Most Turks you encounter will just want you to have a good time in their country and will happy you’re taking an interest in their culture.
1. Not smiling doesn’t mean rudeness
Turks smile much less than Westerners. This doesn’t mean they’re unfriendly or unwelcoming (quite the opposite, as anyone who’s been to Turkey can attest). It’s just a cultural difference. It’s best to avoid smiling at strangers, especially in rural places where they’re not used to smiling foreigners. At best, they’ll realise you’re a foreigner and greet you, at worst, they’ll consider you a bit simple or think you’re making fun of them. Smiling is generally reserved for people close to you.
2. Don’t put your handbag on the floor
Whether in a crowded restaurant or in Turkey apartments, not only is putting your handbag on the floor considered unhygienic, it’s also bad luck as it will cause all your money to leak away to the ground, or you will end up spending your hard-earned cash on useless or frivolous objects.
3. Treat bread with respect
In many cultures bread represents prosperity - the ability to feed yourself and one’s family. This is also true in Turkey, where some Turks can’t bear to throw away leftover bread and instead leave it hanging on gates, or in places where others may find it. This isn’t superstition - it’s a practical means of passing on food to those who can’t afford it. In the same way, you must never step on bread and if you drop it or see some on the ground, it’s customary to pick it up and say “Bismillah” (In the name of God) as you do so.
4. Warm greetings are the order of the day
Many Turks see handshakes as a little uptight - although it depends where you are (big city/seaside resort/countryside) and how well you know the person. Instead, many Turks choose to do the Turkish half-hug: holding your friend’s hand and drawing them in and patting your back with the other hand, while kissing each cheek. Rather than kiss each other, men tend to greet each other by gently touching the sides of their head together.
5. Most Turks don’t really believe in the evil eye
The blue-and-white nazar is everywhere. From the offices of large corporations to Kalkan villas for sale you’ll see the round eye on walls, doorways, cars and even pinned to babies. But don’t be fooled, this doesn’t mean Turkey is still in the dark ages: very few Turks believe the old superstitions, it’s just a tradition that’s carried on - almost a habit.
6. Cold is the source of all ills
Just about every illness in Turkey is attributed to cold drafts. You’ll notice that any breeze will be looked upon with suspicion (just try opening the window on a bus and see what happens) and many Turks won’t use air conditioning in their Istanbul apartments, even during the hottest days of the year. Cold floors are to be avoided - women, especially, should wear slippers to avoid all manner of ills. Some people even avoid ice cream or cold yogurt might make them sick.
7. Keep your voice down on public transport
It’s not very common for Turks to even speak on public transport - let alone laugh, joke or shout. Loud behaviour on the bus will attract attention - usually disapproving - and you might be told off. You have been warned.
8. Lemon cologne is everywhere
Before a meal, after a meal, to welcome guests or to revive someone who’s feeling a bit faint: lemon cologne is absolutely everywhere. In homes, restaurants, businesses and in bags all over the country, lemon cologne is waiting to revive, refresh and disinfect. The ubiquitous cologne is sometimes used to clean with - whether it’s a bathroom or someone’s face. And when sickness enters a house, it can be used to disinfect doorknobs, light switches and other places germy hands come in contact with.
9. Offer others a snack or drink before you get your own
This is just good manners, and comes automatically to most of us no matter where we’re from. If you fix yourself a snack or a drink, you should offer some to your Turkish friend before you indulge yourself. While the offer won’t always be accepted, it’s considered rude to not ask.
10. Never refuse a cup of tea
When someone asks you if you’d like a cup of tea, they’re not simply thinking of your need for refreshment. The drinking of tea is a social interaction and refusing is considered anti-social. Sitting down together and raising a tulip-shaped glass creates a bond - sometimes fleeting, sometimes lasting - that you take with you on your journey. Turks and tea go together. In shops and homes, on ferries and in lively tea gardens, young and old drink tea together. It’s little wonder that Turks are among the world’s most enthusiastic consumers of tea, drinking around 1000 cups a year.
11. Turks love to touch
Outsiders are often always surprised when they encounter Turkey’s tactile culture for the first time. You might see women holding hands with women, and men holding hands with men. However, there are subtle rules: all touching is below the waist. Touching someone’s leg, for example, would be very inappropriate as it’s considered a sexual gesture. You will very rarely see members of the opposite sex touching unless they are very close friends, or a couple.
12. What’s the hurry?
Turks are generous with their time. That might sound euphemistic to someone outside the Turkish culture, but foreigners need to realise that time is a cultural construct, and the definition of time depends on the context of the situation. If it’s a social occasion, arriving late would not be considered rude. Consequently, if you’re planning an event, don’t expect everyone - or even anyone - to be on time. However, buses and trains generally run on time, and in business situations, punctuality is important. Waiting for that important delivery or cable installation, on the other hand is a different story.
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