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alameda 22 Feb 2009

Observations on Turkish culture and etiquette

What I´ve noticed after years of observation.


Hopefully this will be useful to others.  In light of events here, I decided on this topic, and as I was recently given a little book called: A Pocket Guide to Turkey. The title in itself does not sound particularly interesting, until looking inside and finding it was published in 1959 by the US Department of Defense. It was a guide for military personnel on what to expect, and how to act when on assignment in Turkey. Most of the advice in it is quite valid, and still stands today. 


I showed the book to a Turkish friend, who exclaimed, with notable nostalgia, "Oh, in those days those people were wondeful!".


How things have changed since then!  One paragraph, I noted in particular, said: "As a guest in Turkey, you will not want to offend your hosts. By showing courtesy, respect and friendliness towards Turks, you will win their respect and friendship, which is well worth having. Some of their customs will appear strange to you, just as ours must seem odd to them. The important thing is to understand them, not to criticize or act superior. After all it is their country.".  Perhaps that would be a good idea to remember today?


The book went on to say: "Even the poorest Turk has a proud dignity, and is proud of his country.  He will resent a foreigner´s belittling or condescending attitude, but he will be courteous and polite, nevertheless.". How true this is.  I´ve found the Turkish people to be very polite, even if they don´t like someone, and under circumstances most Westerners would find quite impossible to maintain decorum. In fact, I´m sad to say, most in the West would not even bother.  I´ve found Turks to be sensitive and tolerant people. 


To me one of the most endearing aspects of Turkish culture is their fine delicate etiquette.  Good manners are very important in Turkish society.  Etiquette, like good motor oil, is the lubricant that enables societies to run smoothly.  Take them away and the ride gets bumpy.


Most of the time a Turk will not openly criticize, or directly say you should do things in a particular way. Instead, a common practice is telling a story that incorporates the issues, and brings one around to think about and hopefully notice the similarity. Another approach is for someone will gently whisper in your ear if the incident is one that need immediate attention......like , “take your shoes off”....or give a look that tells.


Exposing others faults is considered very rude.  Rather the Turk would attempts to over look the faults of others, and certainly does not bring them to the attention of others.


Gossiping about others is considered very rude, as is raucous and loud laughter, ostentatious display considered vulgar. Hands on the hips is not viewed favorably.


Although Turkish people are very hospitable, your visit will be more welcome if you do not go to a home empty handed.  However, large extravagant gifts are an imposition.  As the majority of Turks are Muslim, alcohol is not the best gift to bring to a home.  Even if some in the home do drink alcohol, others may not, making it a not particularly useful, but expensive gift.


Going to local markets one can find wonderful things to bring, like sucuk, pastirma or local home made cheese.  As many items in the local markets are cottage industry products, they may not be available in other parts of the country, as each village has specialties that are welcome, but unavailable in other areas. In addition to finding a nice gift, you will be helping local economy.  It is probably women who produce many of the items, as many village women make cheese unique to their  family and local.  I once brought half a kilo of pastirma and a special village cheese from Kayserie to someone in Istanbul who requested that cheese from a local I was visting.  Another time I found dried mulberries in a local market.  I found everyone enthusiastically ate them.  Because it is customary for Turks to offer refreshments to guests, they always keep a supply of offerings for guests, thus, helping with the offerings is usually welcome.  The mullberries I brought made a nice addition to the guest offerings.


Most Turkish homes don´t have a lot of knick-knacks. As a clean and tidy home is a source of pride and honor having knick-knacks around to collect a lot of dust complicate the life, and gives extra work to those who do the house cleaning.


I´ve found small key chain LED lights a welcome gift.  Remember this is earthquake country.  Some people who were victims of the 1999 earthquake advised me, as I also live in earthquake country, to always keep a flashlight, a whistle and water near by.  I´ve taken that advice, and now when I go to Turkey, I bring small led flashlights and whistles to give as gifts.


When visiting a Turkish home, be careful about how you admire things, as it can be taken as your coveting whatever it is you are admiring.  Many will feel obligated to offer the item to you. 


Although many Turks are not superstitious, gushing over a cute or beautiful child is not generally welcome. Traditionally it has been thought to invite the evil eye.  It is traditional to say “Mashallah”. 


Turkey is in a highly strategic area.  Many have had designs on it´s territory.  Some still do.  If they seem protective of their country, maybe they have reason.  Being critical of politics, or cultural traditions can bring unexpected and unpleasant results. Remember, “After all it is their country.”

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