There are two main reasons why we wanted to write this post. The first is simply to help people avoid being that ‘ugly foreigner’: rude, obnoxious, and breaking all manner of social norms like a bull running amuck in that proverbial china shop. The second is so that you, the tourist, the adventurer, businessperson or whatever you like to call yourself, can get the most out of your trip by being able to interact well according to local customs. What takes a good trip and turns it into an amazing experience is the interactions you have with the people so hopefully this helps you do just that!
Now these are general rules and will apply differently in different places. Touristic places will expect tourists to act differently and what you can get away with in Izmir is not what you can get away with in Urfa. Istanbul has enough diversity to make it feel like one neighborhood is a world apart from what you saw only 10 minutes before, never mind one part of the country to another.
And finally: foreigners make mistakes and yet in nearly three years of making mistakes I have never experienced worse than a bit of impatience. Even if you screw up, your attempts will make people love you!
Talking in Public
For people from the West visiting Turkey this is a tough one. The acceptable speaking volume in Turkey is simply way quieter than what most foreigners are used to. The result is often seemingly obnoxious foreigners practically shouting in cafes. Combine this with the fact that a foreign language always stands out, tourists can really grab attention in a bad way. My experience is that people who have come to visit me tend to need to be reminded to be quieter every five minutes, so if you’re not totally successful in being appropriate in this way, at least you’re not alone!
Related to this, I would highly recommend that you never assume that people can’t understand what you’re saying just because it’s not Turkish. I’ve overheard far too many people speaking way too loudly about their sex lives in English while on public transit or in the park. I can assure you that there were others who understood them. And there are countless stories like this. For everybody’s sake, please don’t be that person!
Treatment of Animals
Turkey is famous for the crazy amounts of stray cats and dogs. You can buy books like Cats of Ephesus for example. For the most part these animals are calm, non-aggressive, well-fed, and lazy (unless you’re a gypsy or are dressed like one. I had a hat that looked pretty grubby apparently and the dogs took exception to me when I wore it. Yup. Very weird). People treat the animals well, putting out old food for them, leaving water out for them, and even buying pet food just to put out on the street for them.
Everyone will give a slightly different answer as to why we ought to treat these animals so well. The typical include the religious (they are God’s creatures) and sometimes the inane (they’re just sooooooo sweet!). I like to think that it’s partly due to the Harırsızada Massacre of 1910-11 where the government rounded up 80,000 dogs and put them on Sivriada (a barren rock in the Marmara Sea) where they all died. The people of Istanbul were wracked with guilt and blamed the wars and natural disasters that came in the following years on their mistreatment of the dogs. There’s no evidence of a connection here but that’s my theory anyways.
Whatever the reason people now treat the street cats and dogs well. Shooing an animal isn’t really done very often. Shopkeepers will sometimes chase them out of restaurants but not always. I had a friend who sat awkwardly in his chair in a café for 5 hours till his back ached because a cat was taking a nap right behind him.
So, while it is OK to shoo animals away, be very gentle about it and expect to have to do it often.
Politics are a hot topic right now in Turkey and there are a number of groups that you don’t want to, out of ignorance or otherwise, end up associating with as a foreigner. As a foreigner people may be even quicker to ask your opinion about the situation in Turkey, about their leaders, etc. but I would highly recommend avoiding any overly political conversations. Remember that you are a guest in this country and the locals, especially the government, are your hosts! Letting that be your answer is usually respected and hopefully will get you out of an awkward situation. When I’m asked about something political I usually respond “as a guest in Turkey the government is my host and whatever I may think about (whatever issue) I must be respectful to my host and so I don’t mix in politics.”
As a general rule shoes do not go in the house. This is one that varies from home to home but if you’re not sure, err on the side of caution, take your shoes off and leave them outside. This will often apply to those raised, outdoor eating platforms that are popular in the Aegean and Mediterranean parts of the country.
The one place that you absolutely don’t want to wear your shoes into is a mosque. In the cramped apartments of major cities it’s a bit more common to bring your shoes in so that the hall doesn’t become crowded but they generally don’t go beyond the entryway.
About nine months after first arriving in Turkey I did a tour of the South East which is quite conservative compared to most of the country and modesty is pretty extreme. Right after coming back I was sitting out on the waterfront in Kadıköy when a girl walked by in a short leather skirt, fishnets, and platform boots. While it wasn’t super unusual for that neighborhood it was a world away from where I had been a couple days before. And that’s Turkey. The difference in what is normal or acceptable differs so drastically from one region to another it can be hard to figure out what you should do.
There is no one rule for how to dress in Turkey and it’s an issue for both men and women to consider. If you plan to travel widely around Turkey, be prepared to dress more conservatively (i.e. no shorts or tank tops). If you only plan to spend your time at a seaside resort, then it’s really not as big of an issue. My advice would be prepare for both and adapt to what you see being done around you.
When entering mosques you are not allowed to wear shorts, sleeveless shirts, or skirts above the knee. Women must cover their heads so it’s helpful to bring a scarf along for that purpose.
One other thing to note regarding modesty. Despite the fact that speedos are worn here and half-naked men get scrubbed down by other half-naked men in the Turkish Baths (hamam), being seen naked is not OK. No public showers, stay covered in the steam rooms, and use towels to stay covered while changing.
Personal Space and Affection
In Turkey the cultural norms concerning personal space may be very different compared to what you’re used to (take the notes on “Greetings” and “Modesty” above for example). It’s not simply a matter of having larger or smaller personal bubbles though. Between men and women there is very little contact whereas there is plenty between friends of the same gender. Public transit during rush-hour is an exception. When everyone is packed in these social norms get put on hold for the sake of getting around.
As a male, obviously I will have more insight on what goes on between men, though to a great extent this will apply to women as well. Friends will often sit much closer together than what most North Americans will be used to and to lean or lounge a bit on one another is common. This is a sign of friendship. The closer the friendship, the more contact will be normal. Its not uncommon to see men walking arm in arm or, in some regions, even hand in hand. This is simply a sign of close friendship and if you become good friends with someone you could very easily find yourself walking arm in arm with someone (especially if they are older or outside of Istanbul).
The first time this happened to me I had no idea what to do with my hand. I’m comfortable with it and even more or less used to it but I still don’t know what to do with my hand (put it in my pocket? Hold it stiff?). So if you’ve managed to watch it up close let me know!
In Turkey sharing is a big part of the culture, not just between friends but basically everyone. Sometimes complete strangers will offer you something just as you walk by on the street (I’ve had many half oranges this way). One of the weirdest sharing experiences that I’ve had was at the Camel Wrestling Festival in Selçuk where a guy I had just started talking with took my half-smoked cigar out of my mouth and, after trying it for a bit, handed it back. While that is a bit of an extreme example it does show that sharing is assumed. If you’re looking to make friends with locals, be quick to accept offers of food and drink and be even quicker to offer.
Two simple points here. As a general rule; don’t flush it. Plumbing isn’t exactly high quality whereas the paper is. This leads to disaster. If you’re in some newer buildings it may not be a problem but garbage cans should usually be provided beside the toilet. Secondly, if you aren’t skilled with the whole water dipper thing in squatty potties check out this video by the expert Wilbur Sargunaraj or keep a pack of Kleenex on you, there’s people selling them everywhere on the city streets.
What to do with Bread
Bread is eaten with everything in Turkey. Spoons aren’t really necessary when eating soup, menemen (a scrambled egg and veggie dish) is often eaten with a whole loaf of bread per person for breakfast, and simit (often referred to as a ‘Turkish Bagel’ though it really isn’t like a bagel other than being round and bread) is sold everywhere.
So, other than eating it (duh), there are a couple do’s and don’ts regarding bread. Firstly, try not to waste it. If there is leftover at a restaurant that’s OK. If you have leftover at home or on the street, don’t put it in the garbage but rather leave it for birds (cats will even eat it apparently), or throw it into the sea for the fish and seagulls. This isn’t considered wasting because it is being eaten by someone/something.
As bread is seen as a symbol of God’s blessing it is important to honour that blessing. So don’t abuse bread by stepping on it or other such things.
Giving Up Seats on Public Transit
This is an easy one. If you’re young and fit give up your seat to those who are not. On the buses this is expected and people are very quick to do it. On the metros and trams it’s not so common but that doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing and that people won’t appreciate the gesture. There are two tricks to this however. The first is trying to figure out the age of a covered woman. It’s hard. Being a young woman dressed like an old woman has the perk of getting seats given to you apparently. The second thing to keep in mind is that a young guy giving up his seat for a young woman may just come across as flirting.
Kids in Turkey
If you come to Turkey with kids it probably won’t take you long to notice that Turks love kids. Of course every culture likes kids, but in Turkey it’s much more common to show it exuberantly! People will give stuff to your kids, usually candy, though sometimes they’ll just give whatever is on hand. They’ll often want to hold them or will play with them. In restaurants we’ve often ended up with free babysitting! If you’re not comfortable with this it could be challenging at times but just remember that people mean well and will also be much more tolerant if your kids act up or are crying than you may be used to.
Cross-cultural greetings are hard. The most confusing time for me was when I was in language school in Istanbul and everyone being from a different country had different ideas about greetings. As a Canadian I would go for a handshake while my French classmate would go for a kiss on the cheek. So here’s some thoughts on minimizing some of that weirdness.
In Turkey it will depend on the relationship, the gender, how religious someone is, and even the politics.
Saying “merhaba” is a fairly standard greeting, though for the slightly more conservative or religious selamün aleyküm (respond with aleyküm selam) is normal.
With the opposite gender there often is no contact in greeting unless they are more liberal or close friends (between family members it’s totally different of course).
When greeting people of the same gender it is common to kiss on the cheek, right first, then the left. Many men will simply bump their foreheads (first going to the right, then to the left in the same way as the kissing greeting) and this is what I learned to do early on. I assumed that this was simply something guys did to avoid the kissing (and really I’m not a fan of feeling other men’s rubbing against my own). A long while later I learned that this greeting actually has political significance and is apparently associated with Turkish nationalism. My practice is to simply try to follow the other person and see what they’re going to do; nothing, handshake, kiss, or head-bump.
In the same way we try to adapt to any other cultural practice, we will make mistakes in our greetings. I’ve made plenty and so far they’ve all been met with nothing more than a chuckle and a smile. People expect us to mess up so don’t sweat it and have fun!