Turkey cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
Family, work and where you are from are neutral topics that could be broached without ramification.
Religious and sexual topics should be avoided unless one is extremely familiar with the individual, as differences of opinions in these topics have resulted in extreme disagreements.
Humour is a general trait of the Turks but be aware that their humour is locally-specific which means that unless you know the local versions you should be careful. Other than that the average person is very open to humour.
The best way to make a good impression is to praise the traditional foods of Turkey. Demonstrating your knowledge of the Turkey’s natural wonders, cuisine, and its geographical importance will assist you as well. Topics such as family, work and where you come from will give your colleagues a good idea about you.
Try to avoid speaking about religion, and politics during the first two meetings. These are very sensitive topics and they require knowledge and understanding of the details involved. The headscarf (hijab) issue is a controversial topic in Turkey. I would recommend caution in bringing up this matter, till you know your audience well and are aware of their point of view on this subject.
Humour is appreciated. People do kid around with one another. If it is tactful (not lewd), it will be acceptable, and will help you make a good impression. Turks like to engage in humour that involves double-entendre. The local politicians become the butt of jokes frequently.
Turks do not generally have a very strong sense of space and the space between two people will vary, the furthest distance being the length of one’s outstretched arm with tips of the fingers touching the other person’s shoulder.
Regular eye contact, not necessarily sustained, is used in judging whether a person can be trusted. Although constant eye contact is not necessary, people will be suspicious of a person who refuses to or is reluctant to make eye contact.
It is customary to shake hands with both men and women when greeting the person. In some cases, men and women will give each other a kiss on each cheek. While talking, men and women could frequently touch each other, for emphasis. This rule is different if the woman in question is obviously highly religious, i.e. wears a head covering and is fully covered from head to toe. In this case there will be no cross-gender handshaking, unless initiated by the woman; just a polite tip of the head will suffice.
Friends are more likely to touch each other and throw their arms around each other as a regular impulse.
A neutral facial expression with an active (i.e. varying) tone of voice, rather than monotone is always appreciated until the relationship has matured.
The rudest hand gesture is the thumb through the index and middle fingers, and should always be avoided.
Turks use hand gestures and mimic a lot to express themselves. They say yes by nodding their head forward and down, and say no by nodding their head up and back while lifting their eyebrows. Establishing and maintaining eye contact is acceptable, but gazing is viewed as impolite. Women do check each other’s clothing but when a man stares it is scorned as salacious. Among the hand gestures, using the middle finger is considered offensive. Putting the index finger between the thumb and middle finger is objectionable and must be avoided. Turkish people are hospitable and friendly, and become familiar quickly.
The personal space is narrower and physical distance between people is closer than in Canada. People touch more frequently than they do in North America. It is acceptable to take a person of the same and opposite gender by the arm when strolling. Kissing on both cheeks is common among both and within the same gender. Usually, it is initiated with a handshake and a kiss on the right cheek. Kissing the opposite sex may be discouraged in the more conservative circles. With such people, a full palm firm handshake with the opposite sex is discouraged. Just observe the people around you and emulate.
Every visitor will immediately be offered coffee or tea. It is impolite to refuse. Accepting food or anything else in your left hand may be considered inappropriate in religious milieus.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection, anger or other emotions are frowned upon but not totally inappropriate. The individual location and situations will dictate the appropriateness and the reception.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Workplaces are not all the same but it is good to be clean and punctual. Generally, Turks are fairly formal, and both men and women tend to dress conservatively in the workplace both in summer and in winter.
Initially everyone is addressed as Mr. and/or Mrs. In a semi-formal way. As familiarity increases, colleagues are often addressed by the first name but using Mr. or Ms. with the last name is usually more appropriate for addressing a supervisor unless told otherwise.
Many workplaces allow employees to work earlier or later and leave earlier or later than the usual 9-5 but punctuality and reliability are both highly valued, both by colleagues and bosses.
It is expected that deadlines should be met, although there is often some degree of flexibility, especially when setting it. It is not uncommon to work considerable overtime in order to meet a deadline and failing to do so may be viewed badly.
Dress code is rather conservative in banks, government offices, law firms, schools, etc. (darker colours and two piece suits). Women in larger urban areas, e.g. Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and tourist destinations are not restricted in their clothing. However, women are expected to dress more modestly outside the major cities, particularly in the southeast regions of Turkey. While it is possible to see women in more revealing clothing in the urban malls, it is equally possible to encounter those who are in traditional folk costumes, hijab, chadur, and rarely in burka. Generally though, it is customary to wear Western attire in Turkey.
The polite form "you" (siz). There is a transition period from the formal to the familiar form (sen), which is usually initiated by the senior of the two.
The approach to time
Appointments should be made wherever possible. Always be on time for your appointment but be prepared for delay or even postponement. Personal relationships are highly rated, and no visitor should come straight to the business in hand without exchanging a few friendly words first. Turks prefer to communicate directly so you are advised to phone rather than write to establish contact. A supply of business cards will be required, as they will be exchanged up front.
Punctuality is expected and appreciated in Turkey. Traffic is congested in major cities, therefore you must allow for extra time. It is wise to let enough time between meetings, about 2 hours minimum. Hours of work may vary during the month of Ramadan. Friday is the Muslim holy day, due to prayers; some may not be available during Friday afternoons.
Bey means Mr. and Bayan means Mrs. or Miss. When you are referring to a female, it is customary to use the first name and add the word Hanim (Ms), e.g. Selma Hanim. Similarly, male first name is followed by Bey (Mr.), e.g. Ali Bey.
Preferred managerial qualities
Experience and level of experience are important, but management experience and the ability to bring out the best in his or her staff are also very important. Academic and professional skills give some indication of background and ability but an approachable boss will often be more trusted than one who puts a lot of distance between him or herself and the staff. Being open to ideas would also be a good quality to have in a superior.
A superior who is distant and uninterested in his or her staff and their ideas and needs will probably not obtain a very high degree of cooperation.
If staff is generally very quiet around a superior and deferent, then it is often because there is little trust in that person. A superior who is not respected would not be told so directly, but it is quite likely that his or her staff would talk amongst itself. Other signs might be inflexibility or low morale.
The key thing is to ensure that the workers have a clear understanding of the requirements and how they will be evaluated against them. If the manager is an expat it might make the initial ramp up a bit less turbulent as the locals will make an allowance for the potential mistakes due to unfamiliarity.
Reliable feedback from direct reports would be difficult to obtain as the culture does not allow for the critique of the supervisor.
The last paragraph of question 1 is worth repeating here also as it is a key component of the Turkish mentality. "Above all else the most important aspect of all work related items is the fact that the average worker prefers to have a buddy instead of a co-worker. What this means is that if you have very good relationships within your circle of influence then such things as deadlines will not be as crucial due to the fact that your buddies will understand, help out and arrange to fit the deadline to your work."
Education, age and expertise are highly respected by Turkish people. They generally refer to people who are in leadership positions with seniority as Hocam (my professor) which is an indication of respect. Turkish business culture is a contrast of two extremes. On the one hand, they are quick to seize every opportunity; and on the other hand, there is a tendency to be very traditional and resistant to change.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decisions are almost always taken by superiors for both the private and government sectors. It is NEVER a good idea to jump the hierarchical ladder; always go to the first level superior.
The Turkish workplace is still very traditional. Although, changes are introduced through training and the introduction of modern management methods, the office culture is hierarchical. The "boss" generally makes the decisions. The person who has seniority is the person who makes decisions. This person can be the owner of the business, director, general manager, or supervisor.
The rank-and-file and middle management implement policy and procedures. If the ideas are to be generated by staff, they are expected to pass them on to the immediate supervisor who will then present them to the upper management. Generally, the originator of the idea is rarely recognized. The non-local manager/supervisors are appreciated for their technical knowledge and expertise. Dependent on their status in the company, age, education and social status, they may be treated as equals or superiors.
Unless one is solicited, it is not customary to provide feedback and have input into the decision making process as a subordinate. It is acceptable however, to ask politely for feedback.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
At first glance Turkey is highly Europeanized as men and women go off to work on a daily basis, farmers, workers and professionals do their jobs,. One has to keep in mind that the Turkish traditions are different than the other European countries. Turkey is a country where the bulk of activities are centred around men. Men are the dominant gender with women taking secondary roles. Men are regarded as the providers and women the nurturers.
The religion in Turkey is predominantly Muslim around 98%. Unless you belong to the same sect and know the person do not broach any religious topics, as it is quite sensitive and inflammatory in some cases because everyone has an idea of how religion should be practiced and none of them will compromise their beliefs.
The basic belief in Islam is that God created the world and everything in it pretty much according to the biblical account. The Bible is a holy book for the Turks also. The basic distinction is that Mohammed, Noah, Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were all prophets, and their relation to God is as teacher and NOT a divine being.
In daily life a Muslim must not touch or eat pork, drink alcoholic beverages, and must refrain from fraud, slander, and gambling in accordance with the Islamic theology. In reality the "Turkish Muslim" is more of a revisionist as distinct from the "Arabic and other Muslims", and you will see some relaxation of these tenets depending on which part of the country you are in.
Even though it is not outright, class distinction is visible in parts of the business world, more visible as rich and poor in some cases. Due to its diverse nature Turkey has a mix of all kinds of people ranging from the uneducated labourer, to educated middle class worker and the highly educated or very rich business owners.
Turkey has a significant Kurdish minority estimated at around 12 Million (this is not an exact count as the Kurds are not officially recognized). According to some scientists Kurds could be closely related to the Persians (Iranians) and they migrated from northern Europe. Most of the Kurds are Muslims and look like the Turks though with a slightly darker complexion.
There is a small Jewish community around 25,000 centred primarily around Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and other cities. These are the remnants of the Jewish people who were forced by the Spanish inquisition to flee their homes in the 16th century and were made welcome by the then reigning Ottoman empire.
Armenians who have lived in the eastern Anatolia region total about 75,000 and are the remnants of the original tribes who had been ruled by the Romans, Persians, Seljuk’s, and Ottomans.
The above items have a very drastic impact in the workplace, and any wrong move could alienate the individual, and even cause serious ramifications. If you are a foreigner Turks are very understanding of the different customs and beliefs that are associated with them. The key thing is to keep a civil tongue and be aware of the local feelings, use polite words and stance at all times to ensure that the tolerance given to you is not overcome.
Turkey is a secular country. Ataturk’s reforms legislated and instituted gender equality and since the 1920s women have been contributing to all aspects of the Turkish society. Yet contrary cultural attitudes prevail even today and gender-related issues are sensitive subjects. Class is the only factor that overrides gender in the sense that women are treated as equals among the educated upper and upper-middle classes. There are many female physicians, lawyers, professors, deans, and other professionals. Historically, professional women have been participating in the work life with men since the 1920s.
Gender concerns are more prominent among the lower income groups. Sexism exists subtly and blatantly depending on the venue and situation. On the other hand, women also receive a great deal of respect.
There is no state religion in Turkey. The Constitution of the Republic of Turkey states very clearly that the affairs of the nation are operated without the interference of religion, hence Turkey’s secular rule.
Still, 98 % of Turkish population is Moslem. The Christian and Jewish populations are negligible. The Moslem sects are divided among themselves into the: Sunni and Shiite. The Turkish population also includes about 12 % - 15 % Alevis who are fundamentalist Muslim people and whose faith and practices differ from the traditional Sunnis, among whom there are a number of other denominations.
There is no class or cast system in Turkey per se. There are, however, a moneyed class, the rapidly disappearing middle-class and the poor. Two decades ago there was no abject poverty but this situation has changed since the mid-1980s. As wealth grew in the hands of a small group of people, the lower-middle classes and lower income groups have been losing their economic grounding.
As it is true for many other countries in region, the Republic of Turkey is not ethnically homogeneous. The largest ethnic group consists of Turks who are the descendants of the Central Asian Turks. The Kurds make up the largest minority group in Turkey. In addition to these two groups, there are many other ethnic minority groups which constitute only a small portion of the population. They are the Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, Albanians, Bosnians, Circasians, Syriacs, Tatars and Jews.
One does not easily observe differential attitudes towards ethnic minorities in the typical Turkish workplace. The preferential treatment is ultimately determined by "who you know," and "what are your connections." In general, the minorities play down their differences, and are not openly discriminated. It needs to be noted that a member of a minority can hold leadership positions as did the previous Prime Minister, later the President of Turkey, Turgut Ozal who was of Kurdish descent. In addition, many Kurdish and Alevi members are represented in the Parliament, and in various professions. The Greek, Jewish and Armenian minorities are represented in various professions, industries and trades. In the field of entertainment, it is common to see many popular minority performers. The teaching profession also employs many minorities. The promotions are not held back or given out because of one’s ethnicity. They are decided based on one’s personal performance and connections.
Personal relationships are extremely important in Turkey, even if one is engaging in business negotiations for the first time. There is a certain ritual that is usually followed: inquire about health, then about family, then, possibly discussions about soccer. Then approach the business issues.
Personal relationships are highly rated in this society. It does help to have a personal relationship with a colleague or client before getting to business. Of course, this depends on the availability of time. If you only have limited time and resources, then you may have to conduct business as in North America. However, Turks are friendly, and they like to develop a sense of familiarity with the people with whom they are interacting in order to feel at ease. It helps to build rapport/trust with one’s business colleagues. Inviting them for lunch, drink or afternoon tea is a safe way to initiate the interaction. After several collegial interactions, the families can be brought into the relationship that will help to strengthen the connection.
Privileges and favouritism
One has to keep in mind that there is no widely applicable system in Turkey that governs business interactions. This means that one has to set-up and implement one’s own rules and processes. This is a very sensitive subject and the answer is directly related with the initial relationship that is set-up. There will be expectations of preferential treatment once the relationship reaches a certain level. One has to keep an open mind as this is usually a give and take process, and you may at some time require a certain service yourself. Thus, initial terms of a relationship are quite important and personally I would favour this kind of an interaction.
They may expect special privileges or considerations. These may include employment for the person’s friends or family. The foreign worker has to assess the situation and the merits of the various options before being pressured into hiring the person. If the recommended person has the credentials and/or diligence, then consideration may be warranted. If the person has neither, you still have to interview them and politely and tactfully make suggestions for alternative options.
Conflicts in the workplace
This will depend on the company and the environment. In general it is always recommended to approach an individual directly and in a private place. If this discussion does not resolve the issue then mediation could be requested through a peer or your immediate supervisor. In situations where the problem is with a peer, it may be a better idea to use a neutral intermediary to reduce potential sensitivities.
Confrontation is a sensitive issue. If you think you have offended someone, then ask for a private meeting over lunch or coffee and simply ask if you have done so. A simple apology may suffice. However, reiterating your point may be good for reassurance. Turks do not take to criticism well and may start defending themselves right away. They may also be offended. Use tact and diplomacy. If the employee or your colleague does not make an effort to change then you may approach him or her more directly, again in private. Public confrontation is a method you would use if it were absolutely necessary. However, if you use tact and diplomacy and present your case as suggestions, you may bring up problems publicly as well.
Motivating local colleagues
In general the average worker wants to have a stable job that promotes full satisfaction with the monetary privilege associated. Overall, power and monetary benefits are some of the key motivators within the business world.
In general, staff and colleagues are motivated by good pay, good benefits, reasonably good working conditions, opportunities for growth and recognition for a job well done. Developing good work relations will foster loyalty. Treating one’s staff and colleagues with respect, encouraging participation and initiative will motivate them. Keep in mind that it is customary and expected that the staff are given gifts and bonuses during holidays.
Recommended books, films & foods
Do not be beguiled with the diverse anti-Turkish culture movies that are available- such as Midnight Express. Rely on the following: Obtain brochures from the Embassy and/or Tourism offices and request presentations and/or cultural discussions from the cultural interpreter. You can also surf the following URLs to get a better idea: This is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs main web page (www.mfa.gov.tr) "All about Turkey" section; Ministry of Tourism; THY Turkish Airlines (http://www.thy.com.tr/); Association of Turkish Travel Agencies (http://www.tursab.org.tr/);The Travel Guide for Istanbul & Turkey (http://www.turizm.net/); Ministry of Culture (http://www.kultur.gov.tr/); Turkish Tourism Guide - Turkish Hotel Guide (http://www.firmalar.com/tourism.htm); and Turkish Odyssey - The Guide Book of Turkey, Travel Agencies and Tour Operators (http://www.tuttinsieme.it/tutti/tut/eur2/turkey/agencies.htm).
Nezihe Araz: Emperor’s Two Sons (a play about modern and ancient rulers); 1000 Days with Mustafa Kemal (a story of a brief marriage of the father of Turks); Esin Atil: Turkish Art; Ertug: Istanbul, City of Domes; Nevin Halici: Turkish Cookbook; Yasar Kemal: Memet My Hawk; Lord Kinross: Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire; William Morrow & Co., 1988; Bernard Lewis: The Emergence of Modern Turkey. London: Oxford University Press, 1961 (excellent source book); Metin Sozen: The Evolution of Turkish Art and Architecture; Cooking in Turkey. Redhouse Publications (good for expats living in Turkey, includes measurement conversions, etc.) and Richard Stoneman: A Traveller’s History of Turkey. Interlink Books, 1998 (a readable overview of Turkey).
Topkapi (1964), Gallipoli (1981) and Steam (story of a Turkish steam bath) Il Bagno Turco (1997).
The Turkish Economy Homepage http://politics.ankara.edu.tr/~kibritci/turkiye.html http://www.istanbulguide.net/, http://www.frommers.com/destinations/turkey/0349020052.html
All of the above are good sources for information, but the really good contacts would be your friendships with locals as the Turks are extremely hospitable and would act as your guide to all the cultural aspects you would need to know about. Be open to new friendships but always after a trial/breaking in period to verify that the relationship is both ways and NOT one way.
Turkey has a very rich and colourful history of which the citizens are extremely proud. There are local non-profit movie theatres such as "Cinematek" that show non-commercial movies. There are festivals of all sorts in all the various cities that would give a better understanding of the character of the Turkish people.
I would recommend you to do sight seeing to appreciate the historical and geographical treasures of Turkey. There are natural wonders, mosques, churches, palaces, cemeteries, bazaars (spice and covered), steam baths (hamam) and coffeehouses (kahve ocagi) to visit. These will be memorable experiences. You must sample Turkish coffee or tea in an hourglass, play a game of backgammon while puffing the water pipe (nargile). Do not forget to haggle for a Turkish rug or kilim. They will provide you with various aspects of the culture. Having done that, you may want to explore traditional folk music and dance throughout Turkey, Turkish art music and fasil, both of which date for centuries. The modern pop sensation Tarkan is well known for his rhythmic disco beat and belly dance moves. His song Kiss is often played in the European and the North American clubs.
The shadow games (Karagoz and Hacivat) are an interesting show but it is performed only in Turkish. There is a military museum in Harbiye, Istanbul, which puts on Ottoman Army shows (Mether) that, is worth seeing. Soccer is the main sporting event. Love of this sport reaches the dimensions of fanaticism.
There are many places to explore when it comes to traditional foods. The kebab houses are good for meat and rice dishes, and yogurt drink (ayran). In order to taste gourmet Turkish food, one has to visit the Divan Hotel in Istanbul, which will provide a rich assortment of dishes, and beverages. The hotel has produced a cookbook of their best recipes. The shoreline of Bosphorous is a great place for people watching and sampling teas from a samovar. There are many interesting culinary traditions in Turkey, one of which is the pudding shop. One can find plenty of dairy-based desserts and doner and rice in these shops. Simit is the Turkish bagel that needs to be eaten right away and with tea. You will see street vendors selling them all over Istanbul and Ankara. One other tradition is the Raki (Turkish ouzo anisette drink) evenings. Raki is sipped with water and savoured with aperitifs ranging from pungent greens, fish egg paste, walnut and pimento dip, to seafood. The evening is topped off with a fish and salad dish.
Bodrum and Marmaris are two cities in the southern Aegean Region, which are worth visiting. They are interesting, wild and fresh alternatives to the Italian or French rivieras. The Istanbul Guide is a good source that will provide you with tourist information as well as historical insights. It can be found on the web, http://www.istanbulguide.net/.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, (1881-1932) is recognised for his military accomplishments as the leader of Turkish Forces leading up to and during World War I, but he was also the founder of the modern Turkish state. Mustafa Kemal reformed the institutions of the Ottoman Empire and left an important imprint on the country.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is the founding father of the Republic of Turkey. He freed the country from the occupying forces and formed the modern Turkish nation in 1923.
Shared historical events with Canada
Canadian peacekeeping activities in Cyprus mediating between Greek and Turkish Cypriots will always be a positive factor in work or social relations.
Turkey participated in the Korean War along with Canada and other allied nations. It is one of the countries that did not participate in the recent Iraqi War; both Canada and Turkey contributed to the first Gulf War. Turkey and Canada are members of NATO.
None. On the contrary, Canadians are acknowledged as being from a country that is high on the list of places to live. This creates a harmonious atmosphere of cooperation. One has to watch out for it becoming "too harmonious" as there are quite a number of Turks who would like nothing other than the chance to emigrate to Canada and will likely ask for your help.
The Canadians generally think that all Turkish people are conservative Moslems and that the women are all covered up. This may be true for part of the population, but in general, and especially in major urban areas, people are very similar to those in the West.
Another generalization made by Canadians is that polygamy is acceptable in Turkey. Polygamy and bigamy are illegal in Turkey. They may occur, but not by government sanction.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Eskisehir the eldest of two children. He was raised in this city in the central/western part of Turkey until the age of eight, when he moved to Ankara to continue his studies. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the Middle East Technical University. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter immigrated to Canada to live and work in Ottawa. He is married and has two children.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Ankara. She is the eldest of 2 children. She was raised in this city and in Istanbul before moving, at age 10, to Montreal, and later to Toronto. She studied in Canada at the University of Toronto. Her work/studies sent her abroad for the first time in 1983 where she coordinated the feasibility study for a major health project. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter went back to Turkey many times, where she lived for two years. She is currently living in Ontario and works in Toronto.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.