Navigating Turkish customs and traditions will help you make the most of your visit to Turkey. Since hospitality is a cornerstone of Turkish culture, here are a few you’ll want to remember on your visit.
Greetings, first impressions and useful phrases
According to Turkish customs, a stranger at the door is considered a ‘guest of God’. Here are a few tips to make sure things get off on the right foot:
- Greet people with either the Islamic greeting of As-salāmu alaykum (Peace be upon you) or simply Nasilsiniz (How are you?).
- In Turkey, the reply is just as important as the greeting. For example, if someone greets you with As-salāmu alaykum, you should reply Wa-alaikum us-salām (And peace be upon you).
- Merhaba (Hello) is probably the most well-known Turkish greeting and it’s a good choice if you’re feeling unsure.
- When meeting for the first time, always offer a firm handshake to everyone present – men, women and children (elders first). If you are unsure (for example, a man meeting a woman for the first time), take your cue from the other person.
- Maintain eye contact while speaking to the locals, as this is regarded as a sign of sincerity.
Above all, courtesy, politeness, respect and kindness are very important to the Turkish people. For example, giving up your seat on public transport to expectant mothers, the elderly, injured or disabled passengers is a noteworthy Turkish custom.
Personal space and public displays of affection
One of the Turkish customs that may take some getting used to, is the idea of ‘personal space’. Turkish people tend to stand closer than most foreigners may be used to. Here are few other differences visitors may find surprising:
- It is impolite to stand with your hands on your hips when talking to others – or to put your hands in your pockets.
- Good friends will often touch each other (it’s common for women to hold hands with women, and the same for men), but you will rarely see members of the opposite sex touching in public.
While Turkish people are conservative when it comes to public displays of affection, don’t expect the same level of “holding back” when it comes to conversation. Locals are naturally curious and eager to connect with strangers, so don’t be surprised if you get asked personal questions like “how much do you earn?” and “how old are you?”.
Eating and drinking
The Turkish people are generous with their food and their time. Think abundant meze platters, delicious kebabs and baklava enjoyed in a traditional Meyhane, and stories shared over tea and pastries. Eating out in Turkey? Take note of the following Turkish customs:
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- Going “Dutch”, i.e. splitting the bill, does not exist in Turkey. If you invite someone to dine, you pay the bill. It will be reciprocated at a later stage.
- Never refuse tea or coffee. An important part of Turkish culture, the host will always insist that guests have one more cup. Once you’ve had enough, place your teaspoon on top of your tea glass. This means, “Honestly no – that’s enough. Thank you!”
Visiting a mosque
Visiting a mosque in Turkey, for example the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, is an incredible experience. But there are a few Turkish customs to keep in mind:
- All visitors to a mosque will need to remove their shoes (plastic bags are provided free of charge), and wear appropriately modest clothing (avoid vests, leggings or shorts).
- Women are required to cover their hair – and while head scarfs are often available at the entrance to a mosque, it is a good idea to carry your own.
- You can take photos or videos inside a mosque, however, be considerate and respectful and do not disturb people who are mid prayer or practicing their faith.
Turkish customs and gestures
Immersing yourself in Turkish customs on one of Trafalgar’s Be My Guest experiences, will be a highlight of your trip. Enjoy a traditional Turkish lunch with the Yazir community in the Taurus Mountains or discover the rural village of Demircidere, home of Turkey’s most empowered and liberated women.
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But before you pack your bags, here are a few other customs and gestures to be aware of:
- Observant Muslims cannot eat, drink, or smoke between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan. It is a good idea for visitors to avoid eating, drinking or smoking on the street.
- Pointing at someone is considered rude.
- “Yes” is a slight downward nod of the head, while a slight upward tilt of the head combined with a “tut” or “tsk” sound means “no.”
- To decline an offer, Turkish people often just put their hand on their heart.
- When visiting homes, removing your shoes is commonly expected. When you sit down and cross your legs make sure that the bottom of your foot is not facing towards someone.
- Turkish people don’t queue in an orderly line. Don’t feel offended or overwhelmed when locals ‘bunch’ together to board a bus or a train.
Have you visited Turkey and come across any other Turkish customs and traditions you’d like to share with fellow travellers? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below…