Traditions & Customs in Turkey

EuropeTurkeyTraditions & Customs in Turkey

Things to do

Turks are a very friendly, polite and hospitable people, sometimes to excess.

  • If you are invited to a Turkish home, be sure to bring a gift. Anything is fine, from flowers to chocolates to something representative of your country (but no wine or other alcoholic beverages if you are just getting to know the host or if you do not know him or her well enough, as many Turks do not drink alcoholic beverages for religious or other reasons and it would therefore be considered an inappropriate gift). When you arrive at the house, take your shoes off in front of or just inside the door, unless the owner specifically allows you to leave them on. Even then, it may be more polite to take your shoes off. And if you really want people to respect you, thank your host for inviting you and compliment him or her. Once you have entered the house, don’t ask for anything, because they will surely give it to you. The host will make you feel at home, so don’t take advantage of their kindness.
  • In Turkey, people respect the elderly. For example, on buses, trams, metros and other public transport, young people will always offer you a seat if you are an elderly person, a disabled person, a pregnant woman or if you have children with you.
  • It is respectful to bow slightly (not completely) when greeting an older person or a person in a position of authority.
  • Try to use a few phrases in Turkish. They will help you if you try and there is no reason to be ashamed. They know that Turkish is very difficult for foreigners and will not make fun of your mistakes at all; on the contrary, they will be happy to try, even if they don’t always understand your pronunciation!

Things to avoid

Turks understand that visitors are generally ignorant of Turkish culture and customs and tend to tolerate foreigners’ mistakes in this regard. However, there are some that meet with general disapproval and these should be avoided at all costs:

Politics:

  • Turks generally have very strong nationalistic views and would consider any criticism of their country and any statement or attitude insulting the Turkish flag, the Republic and Atatürk – the founding father of the Republic – as very offensive and more or less hostile. To avoid falling out of favour with your hosts, it is advisable to only praise the country and not mention anything negative about it.
  • Do not mention the Armenian genocide, Kurdish separatism and the Cyprus problem. These are extremely sensitive issues and should be avoided at all costs. Turkish society has a very emotional approach to these issues.

Symbols

  • Be respectful of the Turkish anthem. Do not make fun of or imitate the Turkish anthem, because Turks are extremely proud and sensitive towards their national symbols and will be very offended.
  • Be respectful of the Turkish flag. Do not put it on places where people are sitting or standing, do not pull it, do not crumple it, do not defile it, do not use it as a dress or uniform. Not only will Turks be very offended, but desecrating the Turkish flag is a punishable offence. The flag is extremely important in Turkey and is highly respected.

Religion:

  • Turkey is a predominantly Muslim, albeit secular, country and although one can see varying degrees of Islamic practice in Turkey, with most Turks favouring a liberal form of Islam, it is extremely impolite to insult or ridicule some of its traditions and care should be taken not to speak ill of the Islamic religion. Regarding the call to prayer, which is read out 5 times a day by speakers at the many mosques in Turkey. Do not mock or imitate these calls, because Turks are extremely proud and sensitive to their heritage and culture and will be very offended.
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Violation of customs and social manners :

  • Do not attempt to shake hands with a devout (i.e. veiled) Muslim woman unless she offers her hand first, and with a devout Muslim man (often recognisable by his cap and beard) unless he offers his hand first.
  • Do not blow your nose during meals, even discreetly. This is considered extremely rude.
  • Do not pick your teeth during meals, even discreetly. This is considered extremely rude.
  • Do not put your feet up when you sit down and try not to show the soles of your feet to anyone. This is considered rude.
  • Do not point your finger at anyone, even discreetly. This is considered rude.
  • Do not chew gum during conversation or at public events. This is considered extremely rude.
  • Do not touch anyone without permission. This is considered extremely rude.
  • Do not agree to kiss or slap someone, especially in formal situations and occasions and with someone you have just met and/or do not know well enough. This is considered very rude.
  • Do not use swear words during conversation or when interacting with each other in public or even among friends. This is considered extremely rude.
  • Public drunkenness (especially the loud and obnoxious variety) is certainly not appreciated and is frowned upon, especially in the more conservative parts of the country. Drunk tourists can also attract the attention of pickpockets. However, drunkenness is absolutely not tolerated, especially by the police. If it is accompanied by physical aggression towards other people, it can result in a fine, and if it is repeated, a more severe fine and/or a visit to the police station can result (if you are a tourist, you can be expelled from the country).
  • Certain gestures that are common in the Western world are considered clumsy expressions in this culture. People tend to be tolerant when they can see that you are a stranger. They know you probably do it unconsciously, but if you take the time to notice this, you will have no misunderstandings. Making an “O” with your thumb and forefinger (as if to say “OK!”) is rude because you are making the gesture for a hole – which in the Turkish psyche has connotations that relate to homosexuality. Avoid clicking your tongue. Some people do it unconsciously at the beginning of a sentence. It is a gesture of rejection. The gesture of “grabbing one’s nose”, which consists of making a fist and placing the thumb between the index and middle fingers, is also considered the equivalent of the middle finger in Turkey.

Other points to consider

  • Public displays of affection in big cities and tourist destinations are tolerated but may attract public attention. In more rural areas, this practice is frowned upon and should be avoided. Gay and lesbian travellers should avoid any outward display of affection as this may lead to unnecessary public stares. However, open displays of affection, regardless of sexual orientation, are considered inappropriate.
  • Avoid shouting or speaking loudly in public. Speaking loudly is generally considered rude, especially on public transport. Talking on a mobile phone on public transport is not considered rude, but normal, unless the conversation is too “private”.
  • It is not that often that Turks smile. Avoid smiling at a stranger because if you do, they will most likely not respond to you in the same way and may think you are strange or mentally challenged. Smiling in Turkey towards strangers in public is not appropriate and is considered inappropriate. Smiling is traditionally reserved for family and friends; smiling at a stranger is considered offensive as they will either think you are making fun of them or that there is something wrong with their clothes or hair. Furthermore, an automatic “Western smile” is widely seen as insincere, in the sense of “you don’t really mean it”.
  • Most Turkish drivers do not respect pedestrian crossings, so be alert when crossing the road.

Mosques

Due to religious traditions, all women must wear a headscarf and are not allowed to wear miniskirts or shorts when entering a mosque (or church and synagogue). The same applies to the tombs of Muslim saints, unless the tomb is officially called a “museum”. If you do not have a scarf or shawl to wear over your head, you can borrow one at the entrance. However, the rule about wearing a headscarf has been relaxed a bit lately, especially in the big mosques of Istanbul where it is not uncommon to see a female tourist. In these mosques, no one is admonished for their dress or lack of headscarf. Even if you have to wear a headscarf, don’t worry about wearing it properly, just place it on the crown of your head (you can wear it under your chin or behind your neck so it doesn’t slip), which is quite sufficient.

Also, men are required to wear trousers and not shorts when entering a mosque (or church and synagogue), but nowadays no one is warned about their clothing (at least in the big cities). In more rural areas, you must follow all the traditional procedures for entering a mosque.

During prayer time, worshippers line up in the front rows of the mosques, staying at the back and trying not to make any noise. During the Friday noon prayer, which is the busiest, you may be asked to leave the mosque. Don’t take it personally, it’s because the mosque will be very crowded, there just isn’t enough room for worshippers and tourists. You can go back once the worshippers are outside.

Unlike some other Middle Eastern cultures, in Turkish culture it is frowned upon to eat, drink, smoke (which is strictly forbidden), speak or laugh loudly, sleep or just lie down, even sit on the floor inside mosques. Public displays of affection are definitely taboo.

All shoes must be removed before entering a mosque. There are offices for shoes inside mosques, but you can keep them in your hand during your visit (a plastic bag used only for this purpose would be helpful). Some mosques have safes with locks instead of shoe lockers.

There are “official” opening hours at the entrances of the most visited mosques, which are usually shorter than those of the mosque, but they don’t mean much. You can visit a mosque as long as its doors are open.

Despite the few tourists who do not follow the dress code, it is preferable to dress conservatively and follow all traditional procedures when entering mosques, tombs and other places of worship; not only because it is mandatory, but also as a sign of respect.

Gay and lesbian travelers

Turkey is considered quite safe for gay and lesbian travelers, and violence against homosexuals is quite rare. There are no laws against homosexuality in Turkey, but homosexual relationships are not recognized by the government, and openly revealing your orientation is likely to attract attention and whispers.