Learning the social niceties of Turkish people will help ease your cultural transition into Istanbul. Being caught unaware of local customs may cause you to offend someone with just a simple greeting, conversation, or when bargaining for a better price.
It is important to greet people properly and show respect and courtesy in Turkey. When attending a gathering of any sort, always start by greeting the most senior person, unless someone welcomes you first. At a restaurant, it is customary to greet the person closest to you then work your way around the table in an anti-clockwise direction.
Turkish men are tactile, much more so than their British or North American counterparts. When meeting for the first time, men generally perform a firm handshake. Many close friends and family members will hug or pat each other on the back. You may even see men kissing on both cheeks in a European style greeting. Another type of greeting you may not be familiar with is men gently touch the temples of their heads together.
When meeting for the first time, women will shake hands. Friends and family will kiss both cheeks whilst engaging in a gentle hug.
Although Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, it has strong European influences. This can make male/female interaction a little unpredictable. When unsure, it’s best to take your cues from the other person. Generally, women only engage in physical greetings with other women, especially when they are married. However, if a woman offers her hand or cheek, then respond accordingly. If they don’t initiate contact, then nod and politely say hello. Men may also decline physical contact with a female for religious reasons so again, follow their cues.
In Turkey, you should always treat elders with respect. Stand when an older person enters a room and offer them your seat if there isn’t one available. A respectful greeting is to kiss the right hand and then touch it with your forehead. Also, when entering a room, unless someone greets you first, always start by greeting the most senior person present. In a social setting, such as a restaurant, you should always greet the person closest to you first. Then work around the room or table in an anti-clockwise direction.
One aspect of Turkish culture that can take some getting used to is the lack of personal space. Turks like to be in close proximity with each other, especially when engaging in conversation. Even if you are feeling uncomfortable, it is important not to back away as this could offend.
Also, remember to maintain eye contact while engaged in conversation as Turks take it as a sign of sincerity. Avoiding eye contact can give the impression you are untrustworthy or have something to hide.
Turks always expect to negotiate; it’s a way of life. Haggling can be time-consuming and challenging. But, once you get the knack, it can also be very enjoyable.
Haggling is a game and also an art. You should never accept the first price offered. Often Turks will make an initial offer that is extreme. This is typical to gauge your reaction so they can develop their negotiating strategy. You will counteroffer until you can agree on a price. An agreed price is usually always for cash. You may need to renegotiate if you pay with a card as bank fees can be high.
If a Turk invites you to their home, it is customary to bring a gift. Typical gifts would include small ornaments such as a vase or sweet pastries like Baklava. Flowers are also acceptable, and if the host has children, you should take them some quality candy or chocolate. Avoid bringing alcohol unless you know the family drinks. You could easily offend as many Muslims abstain from alcohol and don’t tolerate it in their homes.
Be aware that if you ask someone out to dinner, as the host, you will be paying the bill. Likewise, if someone invites you, they will pay the bill. However, it is still polite to offer to pay even though, no matter how forceful you are, the host will reject your offer. It’s also worth noting that the concept of splitting the bill doesn’t exist in Turkey.
Most restaurants will serve Turkish coffee or tea at the end of a meal. You can drink Turkish coffee with or without sugar but always sip it and never drink to the bottom of the cup. The dregs contain coffee grounds and taste terrible!