With its rich and colourful history, a stew pot of Western and Middle Eastern, Traditional and Modern influences, you can expect to experience a variety of cultural differences when in Turkey. So as not to put your foot in it, here are a few rules of etiquette that may surprise you!
Personal space tends to be much smaller. While Westerners generally prefer to keep others at arm’s length, this is thrown out of the window in Turkey and a certain amount of touching is involved! However, even here, there are “rules” which apply. Walking arm in arm or holding hands is common place between both men and women – woman with other women and men with other men. However, it is uncommon to see members of the opposite sex touching in public, even if they are considered to be close friends, and touching is always above the waist, any lower is bad and definitely a no-go!
There is no kissing when you first meet someone – a firm handshake will suffice. However, if you are a man, on second meeting you can expect to be greeted with an air kiss on each cheek. Women tend to only greet other women in this way, especially if they are married. However, in certain circles, it is commonplace for a male not to acknowledge the presence of a female in a group at all, if they are the girlfriend of a friend!
Showing the bottom of your feet is considered to be offensive – the sole of the foot is seen as being “unclean.” Therefore, when visiting a person’s home, if you are invited to sit on the floor, cross your legs by putting your ankle of one leg on the knee of the other – this ensures that the bottom of your foot is pointing towards you. Equally, whispering in the ear or pointing at someone is also considered to be rude. Staring on the other hand, it perfectly normal! Turkish people usually have no issue with staring, especially at foreigners, mainly out of curiosity.
Interestingly, nose blowing is also uncommon and is actually considered to be bad manners by many – dabbing the nose is preferable to blowing! So, if you do need to blow your noise, do it discreetly and try and keep the volume to a minimum!
Westerners will usually, quite involuntarily, shake their head if they mean no. In Turkey, this typically means that you don’t understand, so you may find someone repeating themselves! In fact, in Turkey, saying “teşekkür ederim” (thank you) means “no thank you,” while “lütfen” (please) means yes…
Another gesture, often misunderstood by westerners, is raising your chin and eyebrows while making a short “tutting” sound. This means no, or declining an offer, say of a glass of tea. Alternatively, putting one hand on the right side of the chest (over the heart) and tutting and raising your eyebrows means you want to try it… confused yet!?
Three hand gestures, pointing (see above), the universal “OK” sign, and clasping the thumb between the index and middle finger, are all considered to be extremely offensive in Turkey, and should be avoided at all costs.
Finally, one you may already know: in Turkey, there is no single definition of time! Turning up late for an event is generally not considered rude among friends, indeed it’s expected. But for formal meetings, the most important person will often make a point of arriving late. So, if you are attending an official meeting, or have arranged to meet a Turkish friend, you may typically be waiting for at least 15 minutes – my suggestion would be to make sure you have a drink and a book in hand to pass the time!