Turkey is often referred to by travel and history experts as the gateway to Europe and the Middle East. Indeed, over the centuries, many empires have sought to conquer the land because of its strategic position and this in turn, has infused the country’s cultural traditions with an abundance of variety.
Fast forward to present days and any keen observer will instantly notice the vast difference in cultures, ethnic heritage and traditions. From the East of the country, to the West, it is impossible to clarify in a simple sentence what exactly Turkish culture is. A few similarities exist though and knowledge of these will help you to enjoy your time in the country even more.
Getting to Grips with Cultural Differences in Turkey
1. The Flag and Founder of Turkey
Turks, especially in the West of the country, are extremely proud of their history and heritage. On Turkish public holidays, the Turkish Flag hangs proudly from windows, balconies and between street lamps. Most Turks also consider it rude to stand on the flag, sit on it or even to display it as part of bodily clothing, quite unlike the UK where Union Jack shorts are commonly worn.
Most shops and offices also permanently display a profile picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who formed The Turkish Republic, and his legacy is known as the “Father of all Turks.” In most town centres, his statue has been erected.
2. Social Greetings
Turkish people often greet each other with a kiss on each cheek. If a Turkish person is greeting a grandparent or elder, it is customary for them to kiss the right hand of said person and place their head to the hand, as a mark of respect.
They also walk down the street with arms linked or wrapped around each other’s shoulders. This can apply to men as well and is normal social behaviour. If you are in an in-depth conversation with a Turk and they touch your arms or hands, it is just their way of emphasising their thoughts and opinions.
3. Breakfast in Turkey
As the most important meals of the day and an ideal opportunity for friends and family to gather, you may receive an invitation to breakfast rather than dinner. Any visitors will be presented with a feast including eggs, olives, salami, tomatoes, cucumber, fruit, bread and various sweet condiments.
Even if you have had your fair share of food, it is quite certain, that you will be told on more than one occasion to eat more and more. Sharing food with everyone, including strangers is important in Turkish culture.
4. Daily Conversations
Turkish people at times can be passionate and extremely expressive depending on the topic and foreign visitors often wonder why they are shouting. When two Turks hold a conversation it is easy to mistake a friendly everyday chat for an argument.
Known as the “Turkish natural volume,” do not feel intimated. Occasionally, you might also ask a question to a Turk and the response is a tut, followed by raising their head. They are not being rude, but just simply saying no.
5. Women’s Dress Code
This largely depends on the area that you will visit. In big cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, dress sense is fairly relaxed and similar to modern European dress codes. Likewise in the beach holiday resorts of the Aegean and Mediterranean, women in bikinis, short and short sleeve T-shirts are a normal sight.
However in the East of Turkey and in small villages, devoid of foreign visitors, women dress sense is more conservative. A lady wearing a traditional headscarf usually does so because of religious beliefs and occasionally you might see a woman in a full length burka. Women visiting mosques should cover their head, cleavage, midriff, knees, and upper arms.
6. Turkish Tea
Known as Cay, it is the national drink despite the foreign misconceptions about Turkish coffee. Tea houses are daily filled to the brim with men, sipping tea while playing the Turkish game of Okey. Even on shopping trips, stall owners might offer you a tulip shaped glass filled with sweet black tea. For families, the local tea garden is a popular hang-out place, especially at the weekends.
7. Time Keeping
Time in Turkey does not hold the same importance as it does in Western countries. Turks think nothing of being late when you have arranged to meet them at a specific time, or when you have invited them for a meal to your house. The only way around this culture aspect even though it seriously infuriates foreigners is just to get used to it.
8. Queue Jumping and Privacy
Standing in-line is frustrating at the best of time, but often some Turks ignore queues. Even when completing a bank transaction, someone might stand next to you, asking the teller about their own personal financial details.
Queuing for a bus, is rarely done and it is every man for himself when the bus finally arrives. This could be seen as rude to someone coming from a Western culture, where we are taught to wait our turn but in reality, it is just easier to accept it.
9. Traffic in Turkey
Research of road attitudes is strongly advised if you want to drive in Turkey. Outside of big cities, traffic cameras are rarely used and this encourages a blatant attitude of “I need to get somewhere fast”. Leaving a car in the middle of the street, while popping into the local shop, is common and the horn is a frequent everyday object to be used to the drivers advantage.
If you want to let someone know you are coming, beep your horn. Likewise, even though the traffic lights have just turned green, drivers behind you will beep their horn to let you know that you can proceed. A family without safety helmets is a common sight, as is, on occasions, a blatant disregard for zebra crossings. Keep your wits about you, whether you are a driver or pedestrian!
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