Turkish Customs and Etiquette

Couple hugging each other in Istanbul, Turkey.

by Erlend Geerts

in Practical Information

Istanbul is a modern world city, like so many others.

What makes it unique (except the vast amount of historical sightseeing spots) is the mix of Oriental and Western influences. Add a predominantly Muslim population to the mix, and you’re all set to experience a variety of cultural differences.

So, to make most of your stay — and to prevent being rude or a fool — familiarize yourself with these common Turkish customs and etiquette rules that apply in Istanbul.

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How to Greet Each Other?

  • Greetings Among Men — When two men meet for the first time, they shake hands and sustain direct eye contact. A reasonably firm handshake would be appropriate. Among close friends and family members, hugs or gentle pats on the back are quite common. Other men may kiss each other on both cheeks as well. You may also see men greeting each other by making their temples touch, a greeting among people supporting one of the political parties. Colleagues in business often do not engage in the Turkish kiss.
  • Greetings Among Women — For initial encounters, a light handshake is commonplace. However, if the women know each other quite well, they usually kiss each cheek of the other woman while giving a light hug.
  • Man Greeting a Woman — This is a little less set in stone. The best advice is to take your cue from the other person. If their hand is offered, respond with a simple handshake. If their cheek is offered, then place a kiss on each cheek. If you are not offered their hand or cheek, then just nod and/or say merhaba (hello) politely. It is possible that a person’s religion prohibits them from touching a member of the opposite sex.

Lesser Personal Space

  • Personal space tends to be quite small and this may be quite disturbing to foreigners. The generally accepted sufficient amount of space when speaking with acquaintances and colleagues is an arm’s length.
  • When it comes to family and close friends though, this personal space becomes considerably smaller and a certain amount of touching occurs.

Turks Love to Touch

  • Turks love to touch each other, but there are rules.
  • You might often see women holding hands with other women and men holding hands with other men.
  • Sometimes women even put their hands around each other’s waists while they walk or they hold the hand of their female friend while they talk.
  • Although Turks can be regarded as touchy-feely during friend-to-friend encounters, note that all touching is always above the waist. Touching a leg would be very inappropriate, as this is considered a sexual gesture.
  • In public, you will very rarely see members of the opposite sex touching except when they are widely known as “only friends”.
  • When business partners talk to a third individual, briefly putting a hand on the upper back or shoulder of the third individual is an indication of mutual trust. Remember to avoid touching the lower back, as this could be seen as sexual.

Eye Contact

  • Maintain direct eye contact when you can, as this is what is often expected and appreciated.
  • There may be cases when women will avoid having direct eye contact with men.

Come to the Point Please

  • Communication style would mainly depend on the context of the situation.
  • If one is attempting to build a relationship with another, they’ll mostly use an indirect style of communication. They may actually take ages to get to the point, so be patient.
  • On the other hand, when it comes to other things such as politics, people may be very direct and even confrontational.
  • Some people have no qualms about saying what’s on their minds.
  • In business conversations, a little small talk is usually expected and appreciated before going into the issues at hand.

What’s the Rush?

  • The Turks are actually quite generous with their time.
  • There is no single definition of time. Like their communication styles, the definition of time would largely depend on the context of the situation.
  • If it is a social occasion, you would not be considered rude if you happen to arrive late. The consequence of this would be that in general, you should never expect people to get to an event or occasion on time.
  • Trains and buses are usually on time or thereabouts. When it comes to deliveries though, they usually do not arrive on the day that you expect them to.
  • In business situations, punctuality is valued.

Common Gestures

  • Making a circle by joining one’s fingers with one’s thumb then moving the hand up and down generally means that something is good, delicious, or good looking. This gesture is often accompanied by an “Umum” sound.
  • Raising one’s chin and making a “tut” sound means “No.”
  • When people want someone to come over to them, they usually beckon the person by extending their arm with the palm facing downward, then making a scratching motion with their fingers towards themselves.
  • To decline an offer, people often just put their hand onto their heart.
  • Holding your hand next to your head and move as if you’re unscrewing a light bulb means that someone is crazy.
  • You’ll noticed people dabbing their nose instead of blowing it. When you do have to blow your nose, make sure to keep the noise down.

Really Not Done

  • Pointing at someone is considered rude.
  • People do not French kiss in public.
  • When visiting homes, removing your shoes is commonly expected. When you sit down and cross your legs by putting your ankle of one leg on the knee of the other, make sure that the bottom of your foot is not pointing towards another person.
  • Whispering in the ear in a small social gathering like a dinner table.
  • Observant Muslims cannot eat, drink, or smoke between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan. Refrain from eating, drinking or smoking on the street out of respect, certainly in conservative areas such as Fatih.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

parinush April 17, 2013 at 9:23 pm

thanks.it was a good advice.

Reply

Marcia April 27, 2013 at 8:32 am

Nice info

Reply

Trish January 18, 2014 at 1:37 pm

I’m interested in the part about touching below the waist. I’m a non-Muslim women who is close friends with a very relaxed Muslim man and whenever we spend time after work together and I am sitting In a higher seat then him, he will rest his arm across my knees. When we sit level, he has his arm across my back. Is this common for Turks or does it symbolism that we are more familiar friends.

Reply

Erlend Geerts January 18, 2014 at 6:46 pm

Hi Trisha,

As you stated yourself, you’re really close friends, but I assume nothing more than that. As written in the article, it may be his way of protecting you, certainly when you are in an elevated position and to prevent peeping. And the way you described it, his arm is just resting. No caressing.

However, if you are uncomfortable when his arm resting on your knees you may point that out to him. If you are really close friends and have no other intentions, then he should understand.

Kind regards,
Erlend

Reply

Sarah August 4, 2014 at 4:21 pm

Also worth noting is that Turks may ask what feels like an overly personal question, such as your age, salary, etc. I’m in turkey right now, and my male companion is constantly asking my weight and making guesses at it. I’m tall and built very strong (I’m a rower turned rugby player), and everywhere I go people comment on my build, and tell me I look like a wrestler or even once a body guard. Even the waiters at restaurants and people working in shops have done this. You just have to smile and move on.

Reply

Ata October 20, 2014 at 5:46 pm

The article is absolutely true. As a Turkish reader, I couldn’t prevent myself from approving all of these. Besides, the sentence “To decline an offer, people often just put their hand onto their heart” made me smile because, including me, that’s what most people do.

Reply

Erlend Geerts October 21, 2014 at 7:54 pm

Hi Ata,

Thanks for the recognition from a local :-)

Kind regards,
Erlend

Reply

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