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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What's Next

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

parinush April 17, 2013 at 9:23 pm

thanks.it was a good advice.

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Marcia April 27, 2013 at 8:32 am

Nice info

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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Erlend Geerts October 21, 2014 at 7:54 pm

Hi Ata,

Thanks for the recognition from a local :-)

Kind regards,
Erlend

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Demetrius November 9, 2014 at 3:45 pm

I was just wondering… i’m friends with a turkish girl and im planning on going out for coffee/lunch with her. Being middle eastern myself, i wanted to know if it was normal in turkish culture for the man to pay? It must be noted however, that we’re both westernised and have grown up in Australia but i know she is deeply rooted in her culture.

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Erlend Geerts November 10, 2014 at 6:27 pm

Hi,

She will be flattered, but she may still insist to split. Don’t wait for her to pay though, that would be rude. Suggest to pay for both, and see how it unfolds.

Kind regards,
Erlend

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Christoph March 18, 2015 at 4:39 pm

I visited Turkey a few times. Folks told me if I invite someone I pay for it. That was exactly at my first encounter at the Istanbul airport.

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Katarina Westman January 18, 2015 at 9:06 am

Thanks for interesting information! Customs are very similar to those in Indian culture.

Recently I was in Istanbul one day only, in transit, and saw two old men saying goodbye by bumping their temples or foreheads. Afterwards I can’t recall if it was both sides or just one side. Probably both, like kissing? It reminded me of the traditional Maori greeting, but there they make forehead and nose meet, once.

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Jc January 21, 2015 at 2:55 am

Very descriptive. It really helped on my school project. Thank you.

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Nathalie February 8, 2015 at 11:22 pm

Greetings Erlend!

A colleague recently learned that I have plans to travel to Istanbul with my beloved in April and she noted with eyebrows raised, “Be certain that you wear skirts and that they’re long.” I was surprised, as I am considerably more conservative of dress than my colleagues are anyhow at work and do not wear mini skirts or short-shorts in even my own leisure time.

However, I was more surprised at her cautionary tone as many of the resources I have read in planning for the trip do bring up women’s dress explicitly – noting that Istanbul, being a cosmopolitan city, is more relaxed than perhaps the countryside might be.

The aforementioned colleague noted that when she was traveling with her husband two years ago, she received some disturbing attention and comments about her dress – though her skirts reached her knees, she did not wear slacks, and she wore her wedding band.

I hoped you might be able to offer your sense on whether using my own common sense about clothing (as one should do always and anywhere!) should be all right or whether I should perhaps take some added caution in my selections. Additionally, as I am traveling with my beloved but we are unmarried, I wondered your thoughts on whether I should wear a band for traveling purposes or if all should be fine without a ring.

I know that these things can widely vary and that any advice cannot account for all scenarios, but as my colleague’s advice was the first that went contrary to what I have read, I hoped that perhaps asking another person might offer some balance and a clearer view.

Thank you!

Cheers,
Nathalie

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Erlend Geerts February 10, 2015 at 2:11 pm

Hi Natalie,

Yes, Istanbul is a very modern city, and certainly much less conservative than the Turkish countryside. Having said that, there are still some pretty conservative neighborhoods in Istanbul, too, such as Fatih.

But, as a tourist, you are most likely to walk around in areas such as Sultanahmet, Eminönü and Beyoğlu. These are very Western. I would not suggest to wear a mini skirt or attire that is even to Western standards regarded sexy. Although some do, and are ok, too.

Dress like normal, standard Western women do, and you should be just fine. Do keep in mind though that you must cover shoulder and knees when you visit a mosque.

Kind regards,
Erlend

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Natalie February 15, 2015 at 5:07 pm

Thank you, Erlend!

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Marissa February 25, 2015 at 6:52 am

Hello Erlend!

Thank you for your lovely tips. I am visting an old classmate who is from Turkey this summer. For a portion of the visit we will visit her family in Marmaris. I was raised never to show up empty handed but my typical host gift is a bottle of wine, which I realize may be very offensive if her parents are conservative. Do you have any suggestions on something I could bring them to say thank you? Is it customary to bring one gift for the household or do I need to bring something seperate for both parents?

Kind Regards,
Marissa

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Erlend Geerts February 25, 2015 at 9:11 pm

Hi Marissa,

You were brought up well. And your Turkish friends would do the same. If you are unsure, just bring whatever your country is famous for, but stay clear of alcohol and porc. They’ll be very appreciative for anything else you bring from your hometown. As for how much to bring, that’s up to you.

Kind regards,
Erlend

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Elira March 18, 2015 at 3:47 pm

when you make the gesture to appreciate a meal, mind that it is the same gesture as american ok, your palm looking outwards.
the opposite is considere an insult.
frankly we have quite homofobic gestures and sayings in common life and two circling fingers with inwards looking palm means accusation of being gay.

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Ja'Tavious Robinson April 20, 2015 at 9:27 pm

It really help me with my school project. THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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