13 unspoken Turkish rules you might not know
Like every country, Turkey has a set of social rules to live by. It’s only after living there for some time that you are able to begin to navigate them. We give you a heads up on some of the social customs you might encounter - and how to handle each situation.
1. Don’t leave early
Leaving before midnight means you don’t consider your hosts to have done a good job. Turkish people enjoy long visits, talking and drinking raki into the night, with children nodding off on the sofa or staying up late as a treat. When visiting a friend in their Kalkan property, for example, make sure you don't make a beeline for the door as soon as the coffee's been drunk, your hosts might well be offended.
2. Sharing is caring
Sharing food is an integral part of Turkish society. If your neighbour’s ill - take them a bowl of soup. If you’re the sick neighbour and want to return the bowl once you’re well - fill it with food and take it back. Even in bustling metropolises this custom is firmly ingrained in the Turkish psyche.
3. When to say when
Between meals, after a meal, first thing in the day and last thing at night: tea is a social lubricant, and you'll notice Turks drink litres and litres of Turkish tea, or cay. You’ll notice that when you’ve finished your tea your host will refill your glass. Instead of politely drinking until your bladder is fit to burst, leave your teaspoon lying across the glass to signal “no more”.
4. Oldest first
Elderly people in Turkey are treated with respect. When you enter a room try to greet the eldest person first. If it’s not clear, just greet the person closest to you and work your way around anti-clockwise. It’s also polite to greet an older person with a slight bend when you greet them. Many Turks are raised to kiss older people’s hands - you won’t be expected to do this.
5. Bring a gift
Make sure you bring something with you when you’re invited to someone’s home. Flowers and chocolates will work (check with the florist which arrangements are best - you don’t want to find yourself taking flowers more traditionally seen at funerals!), or something from your home country. Pastries like baklava are a popular gift, and sweets if there will be children. Be careful about bringing alcohol unless you know for sure that your hosts drink it.
6. Take your shoes off
Remove your shoes outside or just inside the front door. Even if your host (knowing your foreign ways) tells you to keep them on, it might be more polite to just take them off. If in doubt: look to see what your host and other guests are doing in this respect. Your host might offer you a pair of slippers to wear inside, removing any confusion. Whether you're visiting Istanbul apartments or friends in Bodrum villas, the shoes-off rule is universal throughout Turkey.
7. Dinner’s on me
Turkish hospitality dictates that the host picks up the tab. In fact, the idea of sharing a bill is completely alien in Turkish society. If you offer to pay you will be politely declined. The best idea is to thank your host, then issue a reciprocal invitation.
8. Politics are a no-go
Turks are passionate about their country and often have strong views. Insulting Turkey, the flag or founding father Ataturk is very offensive. Along the same lines, be respectful of the Turkish flag - don’t sit on it, or drag it around, or use it as a hanky.
9. Personal space
Coming from a more reserved culture, it might seem strange to you that Turks don’t seem to require as much personal space as you’re used to, and will stand close to you as you talk. Don’t back away - that’s considered rude. Conversely, it’s considered rude to touch someone without permission.
10. Conversation starters
If the conversation starts to flag, ask questions about Turkish history and culture. Turks are proud of their heritage and will usually answer animatedly. Football is very popular and most people support Galatasaray, Besiktas, or Fenerbahce, so ask about their team’s recent fortunes. Turks are generally political experts so steer clear of politics unless you want the conversation to become heated.
11. What’s in a name?
Men are usually addressed by their first name and then “bey”, so Cameron Deggin would be “Cameron Bey”. A woman’s first name is followed by “hanim”. If they have a professional title you should use that instead. In Turkey this doesn’t just apply to Doctor or Professor - but with lawyers (“avukat”), engineers (“muhendis”) or managers (“mudur”). You would use the title followed by “bey” or “hanim”.
12. Water for luck
A damper version of throwing salt over your shoulder, this Turkish custom ensures a smooth journey. When someone embarks on a journey, you should pour water behind them or their vehicle, saying “su gibi git, gel,” which means “Go and return, like water”.
13. Take care with gestures
There are a few gestures you might use without thinking that are quite offensive in Turkey. Making an “o” shape with your forefinger and thumb demonstrates homosexuality - steer clear of that one. Clicking your tongue is a gesture of dismissal, and the “got your tongue” gesture that you do to little kids - making a fist and sticking your thumb between your forefinger and middle finger - is the equivalent to the middle finger in Turkey.
Some short sharp don’ts…
- Blowing your nose or picking your teeth during a meal is VERY rude.
- Don’t put your feet up while sitting, and try not to show the bottom of your feet to others.
- Don’t point with your finger at someone.
- Chewing gum while having a conversation or at public gatherings is rude.
- Swearing and public drunkenness is a big no-no.
While some of these rules can seem confusing or difficult to remember, bear in mind that Turks are hospitable people who will want you to feel comfortable and at home. They won’t care if you inadvertently make a few mistakes, as a foreigner they won’t expect you to know every nuance and will just be happy that you’re making an effort.
WANT MORE? Have a read of our second article in this series: 12 MORE unspoken Turkish rules you might not know by clicking here.
You can also read about the 9 Turkish habits that will drive you insane - and how to manage them.