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Cultural overview: Turkey Cultural overview: Turkey
by Joseph Gatt
2019-11-15 10:23:46
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Every individual is different. Sweeping generalities on the cultural traits of a nation of 80 million individuals.

Generalities

If you go to big cities like Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, or touristic cities like Bodrum, Antalya or Marmaris, you will find a lot of easy going people who like the finer pleasures of life. If you go to other cities, you will usually be dealing with conservative Muslims.

Either way, in big cities, many Turks in bigger cities consider themselves Europeans first, and many won't discuss religion, many will claim not to be “Muslims.”

turk01_400_01Note that gossip is incredibly common and few secrets are kept. My tactic to fight this evil was that for every true statement I would add a lie, just to avoid being gossiped about too much. That is if I said I was at a friend's house the previous night, I would add that “Taylor Swift called me last night” and that way that would make gossiping about me a lot harder. Being accurate can lead to trouble in some cases, so vaguely recount the facts if you were at an event, or you can even distort them a little bit. Lying is not as sinful as in North America.

Unfortunately rivalries are common and if you're popular some people will always try to find a way to be more popular than you. So you want to make sure that you know a lot of people, but also that most people don't know that you know a lot of people. So if someone gets mentioned, make it sound like you know very little about that person, if you know that person at all.

Language

Speaking Turkish is a huge asset. Turkish people will tend to discourage you from learning it and will tell you that you won't find much use in it, but it is very useful.

If you don't speak Turkish, a lot of times you will have to rely on bilingual speakers who pretty much control and filter out what you are hearing. Let's put it this way. I was a de facto interpreter for a French-Turkish partnership, and wanted them to reconcile, so filtered out all the foul language and they reconciled. There was this other Serbian-Turkish pair and I saw their business was clearly not going anywhere, so I asked them to conclude and told both of them to put an end to their partnership.

Also, if you don't speak Turkish, there will be a lot of important team members you won't be able to communicate with. Not to mention all the paperwork and other stuff you will have to do in Turkish. Turkey is just one of those countries where nothing is in English, not even street signs or signs at a lot of places.

Stereotypes they have about foreigners

This is where Islam plays in. Despite many claiming they are “not religious” and all that; non-Muslims tend to be viewed with a little bit of suspicion.

That is people from Iran or Albania or Egypt or Syria tend to be viewed with indifference. But many Turks feel that they have accounts to settle with Greeks, Bulgarians, Armenians, and in some cases Americans and Jews. Gypsies are not highly esteemed either.

Either way your country of citizenship will often be tied to football players who play in the local league. If you are from Nigeria, you will hear a lot of stories about Amokachi, Uche and Okacha. If you are Algerian, you will hear stories about El Ouazzani, Feghouli, Slimani and Medjani, and of course coach Halilodzic. If you are Romanian, you'll get lots of stories of Hagi, Popescu and Filipescu among others.

Either way, don't insist too much on your country of citizenship. If you live in Turkey, your country is your vacation home and that's about it. Don't make it sound like you're home sick.

Greeting

All men-men, women-women and women-men start by greeting each other with a kiss on both cheeks starting from the right, then to the left. Sometimes the kissing on cheeks is accompanied by a formal handshake or a hug. Note that if you're a guy and getting wet kisses from a girl, or a girl getting wet kisses from a guy, they probably have feelings for you.

Note that in Turkey kisses start from the right, when in most of Europe and North Africa they start from the left. This can cause awkward moments if you are traveling from or to Turkey.

Finally, gün aydin (good morning) and yaksamlar (good evening) are mandatory greetings in Turkey, and are said upon entering stores, businesses or at work.

Small talk

First thing you'll notice is that very few Turkish people are shy. They will ask you about local Turkish football teams and local singers, and the more you know about those, the better. They will also ask you questions about your job and your life plans, and could give you paternalistic advice on those.

The more you get to know them the more small talk will involve finding out what other people are doing and gossip, so catching up with the news on Facebook or with the network always comes in handy. And Turkish people will take action if you're struggling with life, and will call those friends who seem to be struggling to figure out what they've been up to and how they can help.

Meals

Liking Turkish food will play at your advantage. Turkish people will pay attention to see whether you are enjoying the food, and you will get praise if you like the food.

Most meals involve some kind of meat, vegetables and perhaps rice. All kinds of herbs and spices and yoghurt tend to be used for the meat. If you're not a fan of Turkish food they could take you out to Italian or French restaurants. But liking Turkish food will be a big plus.

Smokers tend to take a cigarette break or two during the meal. Dinner is often accompanied with alcohol, and conversation tends to start as the meal is about to finish.

Many families have a tradition where they play backgammon after the dinner meal. My Turkish foster mother and I would play the game for an hour or two after each dinner meal, and many families have a similar tradition.

Finally, if you enter any store or business and that they are having lunch; they will invite you to join. If it's an individual eating alone, it is polite to decline. However, if it's a family or large business, they won't let you leave without having a meal. For example, I once bought something like 30 kilograms of meat at a butcher shop one day, tried to pay for the whole thing, but they wouldn't take my money until I came back for the meal. In sum, big business transactions involve mandatory meals.

At home

Most Turkish people will take off their shoes when entering a home, and when putting your shoes on as you're about to leave, some families will tell you to start with your right shoe.

Rules at home tend to be informal except for meal times. That is between meals you can do whatever you want. However, many Turkish families believe it's rude to go out when invited, for example if you have to buy cigarettes. In such cases, it's polite to ask any person coming home to bring the cigarettes, or order the cigarettes as some grocery stores provide home delivery.

Note that when ordering home delivery, as in pizza or grocery stores items and drinks, there's an informal rule where people take turns to pay. So if you're the kind of person that does not know about this rule, Turkish people will hint you should pay by asking you to get the door for delivery and they won't give you money to pay for delivery items. That means it's your turn to pay.

Everyday life (hospitals, banks, the post office, pharmacies)

Hospitals are rather decent, but they are very expensive, and the health insurance system is very complicated. I once needed minor treatment for a cut and that cost me around 200 dollars and insurance did not cover that. But hospitals tend to be clean in big cities and treatment is rather decent. Watch out for doctors who like to make money by imposing unnecessary procedures.

Banks are also rather decent, but because of inflation, most expats send their paychecks home and keep the strict minimum in their bank accounts.

The post office is also very modern and you'll get what you need. Pharmacies tend to open at night, late into the night, and provide most medication at acceptable prices.

Shopping

Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir have among the highest concentrations of supermarkets per capita in the world. Hard-discount supermarkets can be found almost everywhere, and you'd be a fool if you paid anything over 20 bucks for a week's worth of groceries if you live alone, excluding beer and cigarettes of course.

Liquor stores can be found everywhere. In most countries, glass bottles tend to be placed at the bottom of the shelf to prevent them from breaking in accidents. But they don't do that in Turkey. So take extra-precautions when you buy liquor or beer, because if the glass bottle breaks, you have to pay for the bottle anyway.

Turkey is a textile-producing nation, and you'll find anything from brand clothing to cheap clothing at incredible prices. Cosmetics are also rather cheap, even for the big brands. But note that most Turkish women take it easy on the makeup, and if you put too much makeup on, that could attract the wrong kind of attention.

Other shopping items such as furniture and so on are also reasonable priced. Shopping for carpets is a national sport, so is the haggling over carpets. Most carpet salesman will use kindness and friendliness, that is invite you for a cup of tea and a chat, and once the “friendship” is established they will charge you incredible sums for the carpet that you intend to purchase. Everyone has a good story about purchasing carpets. I buy them second-hand from expats who are about to leave the country.

Asking favors

1996. I did not speak Turkish, took the wrong bus, ended up in a ghost town in the middle of nowhere. I strolled around for what seemed like an eternity, saw two guys walking, asked them in English where I was. They did not speak English, told me to stay where I was. They left, and a few minutes later came back with two guys, one who spoke French, the other English. The French guy took me to the bus station, explained what mistake I did when taking the bus, took my phone number, got me on the correct bus, and told the driver to keep an eye on me. And the guy even asked me if I had money for the bus.

Such acts of kindness are the norm in Turkey. And you will be expected to help out as often as you can. People can come up to you with translation favors, can ask you for emergency loans, or can ask you to show up at meetings where they will need your languages skills or other skills. If you're a businessman and help out each time, your reputation will shoot way up.

Beware of scams though. I wouldn't recommend you loan anything over 50 bucks (or 100 bucks for a close friend) and I wouldn't recommend that you give into “complicated” arrangements, such as signing your name for documents you are not involved with (for example, renting a house under your name but for someone else). Be very careful and never, ever guarantee a loan. And some Turkish people can insist that you perform such favors, so always make it sound like you are “broke” and that you are “about to go back to your country” among other excuses.

Bragging

Turkish people tend to treat each other as equals, especially when they are family and friends. You might hear Turkish people brag about getting “bad grades” and being “really bad at school” or being “really bad at soccer” and joking about those facts. The good guys? The let other people praise them.

Note that immigrants from Turkey who settled in Europe are notorious for their bragging, and there are several songs and comedy shows poking fun at those German-Turks who come to Turkey claiming Germany is heaven on earth, when a lot of them really suffer in Germany.

Note that some Turkish men can brag about getting all the women, when the truth is, they get absolutely nothing. Some Turkish women can also brag about getting all the attention from men, when indeed, they get very little attention from men.

Dating

Very often, Turkish men and women tend not to beat around the bush when they have feelings for someone or are interested in dating someone. They will let everyone know they have feelings for the person, and won't expect that to be a secret.

However, if you have feelings for a Turkish guy or girl, you need to get authorization from their friends or “mafia.” Of course I don't mean mafia in the literal sense, but here are a couple of experiences I've had (I spent my teenage years in Turkey).

There was this girl, incredibly pretty, who had feelings for me. I was 15 back then, and was interested to say the least. I spoke Turkish so there was no language barrier. But my friends/mafia detected a few things that could go wrong, namely, the girl thought I was rich, when in fact I was broke. So my friends thought that could be a problem. Another case was one where I went on a blind date, the blind date went very well, we could have been a perfect match, but my friends/mafia thought there were huge differences in personality, as I was the outgoing social creature and she was the introvert stay-at-home kind of person. So my friends worried I would get banned by this girl from seeing them.

My adult friends in Turkey tried hard to find a blind date for me, but being an adopted child, the adults thought that it could be a point of contention in the future in any date. Point is, your Turkish friends will think hard and look around to find a perfect date for you. But if you a date is not a good match, they could intervene before disaster strikes.

Marriage

Proposing “American style” by offering a ring is occasionally done, but the minute you meet a Turkish woman's parents you are technically engaged. Now there are modern families where boyfriends and girlfriends visit home regularly, even sleep over in some cases, but a lot of the more traditional families don't have that. Point is, if your girlfriend has sisters (and no brothers) and a deceased (or absent) father, chances are, you can visit her place on a regular basis. But if she has brothers or her father is at home, visiting her home means you are technically engaged.

Marriage culture is diverse and you'll be invited in all kinds of weddings. Some like to have American-style weddings with an old man presiding over the ceremony and making vows. Others like to bring an imam to the ceremony and have the tradition where the father of the groom asks the father of the bride for authorization. Some have lavish weddings, others more modest ones.

Note that many couples in big cities will share a place before they get married. And a lot of weddings get called off as the couple share a place. Let's put it this way. Turkish girlfriends tend to be sweet and affectionate. Turkish fiancées will start bossing you around. Turkish wives tend to lose that smile and start getting serious about life.

How they treat children

I've rarely seen people shower children with affection as much as the Turks do. They call their children pet names such as “my lion” and “my ram” and “my love” and “my soul” and so on. “My liver” is also a pet name when accompanied by “my soul” as in “my soul and my liver.” However, children are expected to be obedient and polite, but tend to get showered with gifts and affection.

When visiting homes, you don't have to bring gifts for the children. But children participate in conversations, and are rarely told to “move to the kitchen” or “go to their rooms.” In some cases, children can be allowed a sip of alcohol. Whatever you do, never, ever look irritated by their children's behavior, and you must indeed tolerate excesses by children, and let their parents handle them. Parents will find lame excuses for bad behavior like “his uncle just passed away” or “he was in Bali during the tsunami” or something like that.

Pets and animals

Persian cats have a reputation and so do Turkish cats. They are the friendliest cats in the world. Cats tend to be quiet, gracious, and like to rub themselves against humans. Naturally many like to raise cats, those with white fur are preferred, and cats are treated like semi-gods.

Dogs with white fur (and blue eyes) are also preferred. Many raise dogs. Many are animal lovers and will own several pets, and the animal rights movement is somewhat huge in big Turkish cities. The vegetarian and vegan movement is also picking up.

Driving

Driving in Istanbul is known to be a little reckless. Most people don't yield and you have to be very careful when crossing the streets as a pedestrian because many drivers don't respect the red light. Stay with the group as you cross the streets in Istanbul.

Other cities see relatively safe driving, although some young men like to challenge each other into road races. Several deaths, including those of pedestrians, have resulted from those road races. In sum, keep your guard while driving and while walking in the streets.

Religion

Big cities have their Muslims, but most tend to be moderate, some even claim to be Atheists. Most food is Halal, although non-Halal meat sections including pork can be found in supermarkets.

There is a small Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Sephardic Jewish community. But just to give you an idea, whenever I read Shalom, the local Jewish newspaper, I see all kinds of ads for immigration to Canada or the US, and the only ones who advertise there are immigration lawyers who promise painless immigration to Europe or Canada. All minorities, including Greeks, Armenians and Jews are dwindling.

You can eat and drink during Ramadan, and alcohol can easily be found during Ramadan. There are concerns that Turkey is imposing Muslim-friendly laws. The morning-after pill was banned a few years ago, alcohol has been heavily taxed (a small bottle of raki now costs 20 dollars, when it used to be sold for 2 dollars or so). There have been attempts to lift laws banning the headscarf in schools, and laws trying to ban alcohol after 10 PM, although such laws have not been voted yet. A ban on headscarves in government buildings was lifted a few years ago.

Smoking, alcohol and recreational (legal and illegal) drugs

Cigarettes have been heavily taxed over the years and all closed areas now ban smoking. The days when you could smoke everywhere are long gone. Still many people, both men and women smoke. Many will carry metal cases around containing 10 cigarettes or so, hoping to limit their smoking as smoking is very expensive.

Alcohol is also heavily taxed, and a bottle of beer now costs 3 dollars and liquor is around 20 dollars a bottle. Many will have a glass of raki (a local anis-based drink) or two while some enjoy a few beers. Drinking before dusk is considered weird in some places, although most pubs open rather early.

Marijuana is illegal and can lead to serious problems with the law. Any form of illegal drug, including marijuana, can make you an outcast in some Turkish circles. If you've smoked marijuana as a teenager, keep that anecdote to yourself.

Death and funerals

Despite many claiming they are agnostic or Atheist, virtually all burials proceed according to strict Muslim tradition. That is the minute someone passes away, they are taken to the Mosque for a ritual bath on the corpse and a ritual prayer, before immediately being take to the cemetery for burial. Burial usually takes places a few hours after the passing, except in cases where the police have to investigate or an autopsy has to be performed.

Family and friends then mourn for 40 days and visits of the grieving family are common and frequent.

Social gatherings (conferences, cocktail parties etc.)

Turkish people are social creatures and parties and conferences are held all the time, in some cases weekly. You could for example join an association that has chapters all over Turkey, and could be paid to give talks all over Turkey.

There are many, many associations that hold very frequent events. Charity is considered important, and I have discussed “forced” donations in the past.

Any club that you join will have its load of events, parties, and sports tournaments. Your tennis club for example could hold frequent tennis tournaments, while charity associations could hold a table tennis championship with proceeds going to the association. Any association you join will have some kind of charity wing, so if you join an association, keep in mind that in addition to membership fees, you will have to donate every now and then.

K12 education system

Grade inflation has not yet hit Turkey and if you don't study you will get in trouble with the school system. Drop out rates are phenomenal. However, discipline problems are rare. Teachers tend to be very strict, although some can be very friendly. Either way, teachers can have emotional outbursts every now and then, in some cases just because one student did not understand the instructions.

Science and math are taught seriously. The Turkish language curriculum is archaic, and insists “old Turkish” rather than modern Turkish. English tends to be very poorly taught. History has its good teachers and terrible teachers, and mostly involves dictation. Sports is mostly team sports such as football and basketball, and girls often get excuse notes from the doctor to avoid participating in sports class.

Recess is heavily guarded by proctors and most schools have rules where you have to pay a 100 dollar fine if you are caught smoking. Drugs and sexual harassment can lead to suspension. If a student gets expelled, that could be the end of his or her school life, as few schools will accept expelled students.

University education system

To enter a good university, you need a good score in the OSS, the local university entrance examination. The university system is somewhat elitist, but there are about twenty or so “good” universities, and no single one or two are the crème de la crème as in East Asia. However, “bad” universities have a bad reputation, and getting a job when attending such universities is complicated.
There is no grade inflation in universities and getting good grades can be very complicated. Most students aim at getting “pass” grades, and the drop out rate is quite high.
Note that until recently university students used to aim for sports scholarships as in many cases sports was pretty much the only way you could get a scholarship. So many high school students used to join football clubs, basketball clubs, volleyball clubs, track and field clubs and so on hoping to make the cut to the sports scholarship.
 
How their elites behave

There's something Turkish people like to call “tikki” which is a term that basically denotes snobbery. Tikkis are famous for not going anywhere without a driver, for refusing to take the bus or public transportation, for inventing fashion trends (such as wearing shirts backwards) and for pronouncing the Turkish “r” sound with an American-style “r” sound when the “r” sound is usually the Spanish-style “r”.
 
London used to be a favorite hangout spot for the Turkish elites, but the current Turkish elite tend to prefer Dubai or Doha. You'll notice subtle bragging among the elites, such as paying for everything with 200 TL notes (equivalent to 100 dollars in the old days, today perhaps 50 dollars with inflation). I had the 15 year-old former son of a Turkish president tell me he was the president of a famous TV channel, while the 12 year-old son of a former high-ranking minister had is good days as he was the star of a famous sit-com, and he wasn't modest about his fame.

Entertainment

Football, music and soap operas are really big on TV and there are entire shows dedicated to football, music and soap opera gossip. Going to a football match on the weekends is quite common. Note that gossip shows have no ethical limits, and the camera crew can act as the worst form of paparazzis. Unfortunately Lady Diana's death did little to curb such ethical lapses.

In big cities and touristic cities night clubs abound, and Turkish people tend to love their night clubs. Tea shops and restaurants are quite common, note that good dark coffee is quite difficult to found outside a Starbucks. It's usually either Turkish coffee or instant coffee at coffee shops.

There are lots of green areas, and walking around big cities in Turkey, especially in the summer, can be quite pleasant. Big names give concerts in Istanbul, and some big European Champions League games are played in Istanbul. There are social clubs everywhere, anything from charity to heavy metal bands to everything else. Local European and American expats also have clubs and hangout places.

Technology

Turkey adopted technology faster than almost any country in the world, and a friend of mine opened an online store in 1998. He used to sell mugs where you had to scan your picture, send it to him, and he would insert your picture on a mug. Apparently worked quite well, considering his was only 14.

Turkey overall was very quick to adopt new technologies. Online stores started in the late 1990s, by the late 1990s everyone had a cell phone, by the late 2000s everyone had a smartphone. And... video blogs started in Turkey before anywhere else. Some say Sacha Baron-Cohen's character Borat was inspired from a Turkish video blogger who blogged in the late 1990s. That video blogger famously used the phrase “I love sex, I love you” in English and also concluded his blog with “I kiss you.” Note that in the Turkish language, when parting on the phone or via email, people use the phrase “öptüm” which literally means “I kiss you.” In sum, technology should be easy to sell in Turkey.

Intellectual conversation

Turkey has something of an intellectual tradition and some novels are instant best-sellers. There tends to be a preference for romantic historical novels set in the late Ottoman empire or in the early days of the Republic.

Russian, French and British novelists tend to be immensely popular, notably 19th century novelists. Many won't be familiar with Sartre or Camus, but many will know Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Balzac, Zola, Maupassant, Dickens to name a few.

Economic theory is something of a favorite topic, and even chefs at kebab restaurants can give you a good economics theory lecture. Politics is discussed, somewhat openly, and politics tends to be viewed as the theater of the absurd. Avoid discussing Kurds or ethnic minorities.

How to deal with money

First things first, Turkish people tend to believe it is polite to show friendship by conceding large discounts. That is, if you're going to pay a lot of money for something, first you'll have tea and make small talk, small talk is always very friendly and involves a lot of praise. Then they will say something like “I hate to do this, but I am a business after all” then they'll suggest a price. They always inflate the price and expect you to haggle. Some pay the full price without haggling, which Turkish people think is naive. When haggling, don't use pressure tactics such as threatening to leave or saying anything that could hurt the relationship. Remember Turkish business is one big network and family.

The best way to haggle is to say something like “come on! I thought you were my friend!” My tip is, buy small the first time, a little bigger the next time, then a little bigger, then a little bigger and so on. As the relationship progresses and becomes friendship, they will tend to offer hard discounts. Note that you get better deals in foreign currency in some cases.

In sum, if you're buying carpets, start with a very small one, tease the carpet salesman that you want a better deal next time. Then buy a bigger one, and save the large carpet for last. Same applies to any other business.

Finally note that some Turkish businessmen can use high pressure sales tactics and can basically force you to buy stuff. What I do in that case? Excuse my French; what I say is “bunlar ibne için abi” which means, excuse my French, “these are for “gay” people, my friend.” I have nothing against gay people, but in business, sometimes you have to use that kind of language.

The legal system

All my friends who to choose between a law major and a psychology major chose the psychology major. Indeed, being a shrink in Turkey is a lot easier than being a lawyer.

The legal system tends to value mediation and arbitration, tends to be very slow, and tends not to go after organized crime groups. And because everything works with networks in Turkey, sometimes pulling the right strings works better than resorting to the legal system.

Unfortunately, when you have a legal problem, some of your friends could suggest help when they in fact have no idea how to help.

Just an example. I once went to a restaurant where they had expired mineral water, and they overcharged me for the food. I took this to the police station, thinking I'd get a free meal. Unfortunately, the police suggested I pay the real price, minus the water.

Final note: use rough or foul language won't help, and will go against you in most cases. So when dealing with the legal system, you'll have to stay cool.

Other final note: the legal system is so slow that a friend of mine got in a car crash that killed someone, and justice was so slow that he had time to flee the country, and the victim's family decided to drop charges as any procedure involving extradition would have been very costly, and would have taken several years.

Farewells and before you leave the country

Depends how tight-knit your group was. I spent the summer of 1997 with a tight-knit group of people and on the last day everyone was crying. But that's the exception rather than the norm.

In most cases farewells involve a few parties, a few farewell gifts, a collection of pictures that are shared and exchanged, and a promise to come back very soon for a visit.


      
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