Social Occasions, Business Meetings and Body Language in Turkey
written by: Finn Orfano
• edited by: Rebecca Scudder
• updated: 9/11/2012
When visiting a foreign country, you can get into deep trouble if you are not familiar with the basic greeting formalities and the meaning of certain gestures. Learn how to behave correctly in Turkey.
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Turks are a very hospitable people in general and toward foreigners who have come to visit their country. As tourism increases, many Turks (particularly in cities and holiday resorts) speak at least a few words of English. However, if you know some basic Turkish words and make an attempt to use them (even if the pronunciation is "off"), your effort is highly appreciated as a sign of respect. Respect, in general, is deeply rooted in Turkish culture; another left-over from the time of the Ottoman Empire which was characterized by great formality and ceremony.
Respect starts with the way a visitor should dress. All too often, and again mostly in holiday resorts, women can be seen walking through the town center clad in nothing more than a bikini top and the tightest of shorts and men wearing trunks and no shirt at all. They won't get arrested and nobody will say anything openly, but it is disrespectful behavior. Turkey is a Muslim country where the body, particularly the female one, is expected to be covered. Foreigners, away from the beach, should adhere to that expectation.
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If you don't know the words, express "Yes" by nodding your head once. Say "No" by lifting your head up and backward. You may also lift an eyebrow or make a sound like "tsz" if you wish to emphasize the negation. Do not shake your head. Shaking your head means. "I don't understand."
If you want someone to follow you; for example, if you wish to show them something in a shop, extend your hand, fingers pointing DOWN and make a scooping motion toward you. Do NOT extend your hand, fingers pointing up and wriggle the fingers toward you. That gesture could be misunderstood as an invitation to something you definitely did not have in mind.
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An all purpose word of greeting is Merhaba. It's easy to remember, easy to pronounce (as spelled) and can be used all day long.
An absolutely magical expression is: kolay gelsin. It translates as "Don't work too hard" or "take it easy", and is used as a form to say good bye and can also be used as a greeting. A foreigner who knows that expression has conquered the heart of the Turkish person so addressed!
In the street, you may shake hands, if the hand is extended toward you. Do not shake hands, hug or kiss a person of the opposite sex in public.
When you're invited to a Turkish home, you should bring sweets, chocolates or flowers; do not bring a bottle of alcohol. Take your shoes off before entering the home, even if your hosts say that there is no need for it. Turkish families possess a wide range of slippers sitting by the door, which are offered to guests after they have taken off their shoes. Don't show the soles of your feet or shoes toward anyone. Do not point your finger at another person and don't blow your nose in public.
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Business meetings are likely to be held in restaurants, rather than in offices or private homes. The person who does the inviting must pay, so use this as a guideline when the check comes. A firm handshake is fine, but definitely not a clap on the back or an immediate switch to first name terms. It's Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so, until officially decided by both parties.
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Visiting a Mosque
Non-Muslims, male and female, are allowed to visit a mosque, but they should not do so during congregational prayer time. They must also avoid loud talking, walking in front of somebody who is praying and taking pictures.
Before entering a mosque and stepping onto the carpet, shoes must be removed. Women must cover their hair and their body and men must not wear shorts. Sometimes, the mosque caretaker has a stock of long robes to provide to visitors who are not appropriately dressed. The ritual foot washing is not required from non-believers.
In general terms, let common courtesy rule, follow the lead of the native, then imitate and rather be reluctant than forward.