Exploring Turkish cultural norms, for longterm business with Turkey

Istanbul TurkeyWe wrote the article below, for people who want to do longterm business with Turkey. Click here to read why cultural norms matter.

When you travel the first time to Turkey for business, you will quickly find out that many things are the same, but some things are quite different to what you are used to. Why are the things like they are? What are do’s and don’t-s, and what are the reasons behind this all? We’ll go quickly through the history, language, religion and while we do this, we’ll think about how you can get the best results out of your personal and professional relations. If you want to know more about the Turkish business culture and living in Turkey, please contact Cornelis Wildenberg who wrote this article. Call or text (Whatsapp) him on +31 6 2941 3994, or send an email to cornelis.wildenberg@allianceexperts.com.

History

Atatürk and the War of Independence

Each country’s “truths” are based on “its last local war/revolution” on its own land. Be aware that historical facts and views are still sensitive in the present days, so listen carefully when others speak but avoid discussions.

For Turkey, the most important is the War of Independence, 1919-1923 (directly after World War I). Anything after 1923 (the foundation of republic) is perceived as “not history yet” but more like “old news”. This history still has the following effects on Turkish society. Some examples:

  • You will see many photos and statues of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of the Republic of Turkey.
  • Nationalism is seen as a good thing: loving your country as a good patriot.
  • Turkey’s borders are “holy”, splitting the country is a “no go”.
  • “Turkic peoples” (speaking similar languages) are seen as “brothers”.
  • Atatürk’s wisdoms are like proverbs, e.g. “peace at home, peace in the world”.

Older history

The land is called “Turkey” only since Atatürk. Before the republic was declared, present days Turkey was the heartland of The Ottoman Empire. It once ruled the whole Balkan (until Vienna), North Africa, both sides of the Red Sea, all shores of the Black Sea and the Middle East until the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Many more civilizations made what Turkey is now. It has thousands years of history with many great civilizations.

Languages

Turkish is the one and only leading language, known by the majority and all minorities too. Turkish people are very proud on their language.

Learning Turkish as a foreigner

  • It’s very hard to learn Turkish as a foreigner, but not impossible
  • Turkish people like it very much if you know some phrases / words
  • Memorize such phrases if you come to Turkey
  • Learn more Turkish when you (plan to) stay longer

Knowledge of English

  • The best known foreign language is English.
  • Turkish people tend to be perfectionist, speak it very well… or just not.
  • English is the best known by people who need it for their profession: the touristic industry and export and import departments.
  • Doctors and engineers know their technical jargon, enough to read specialist literature. Therefore, talking about your profession with colleagues is easy, but small talk might be harder.

Other foreign languages

German is known by quite a number of people. It’s known for its technical and economic importance and many Turkish people have stayed a while in Germany. Russian is known by people who have stayed in the formal USSR (central Asian Turkic countries). Also a lot of people in the northeast learnt (basic) Russian, since they have trade relations with Russia and other formal USSR countries. Arabic is known as a native language by people from near the Syrian border and the large number (nearly 2,5 million) of Syrian refugees.

Beliefs, ideologies and ways of life

The best word that describes Turkish lifestyle is “mosaic” which connects the modern and ancient worlds of Eastern and Western cultures and traditions. The fascinating blend of East and West makes up the Turkish lifestyle.

Secularity

Turkey is a secular country in the Islamic world, the constitution secures the freedom of belief and worshiping. Like other European countries, the weekly holiday is Saturday-Sunday, not Friday as many are mistaken (the prayer day for Muslims).

Diversity

For many centuries, different faiths and ethnic groups lived together. During harsh times in history, some of them migrated, but there is still a diversity preserved and modern laws protect this.

Dress code

People wear modern cloths like in any other western countries: from jeans and t-shirt, to hip-hop inspired urban street-wear. It is only in smaller villages, more remote areas and the east of the country that dress codes are more local. The only time you need to be mindful about dress codes is when visiting a mosque. Everyone should wear clothing that covers his or her legs, women should also make sure that their shoulders and head are covered, shoes should be removed before entering a mosque.

Gender equality

Gender equality in Turkey is visible by many women in senior levels. An interesting fact to start with, is that the Turkish language is gender neutral in itself. E.g. he/she is one word, so is his/her and most nouns have only one neutral version.

Hugs

It’s normal when men hug and kiss (on the cheeks) other men. This only shows friendship.

Having another religion

Having another religion shouldn’t be a problem. A good advice is to focus on the good things, and to talk about what you have in common instead of differences.

Turkey’s importance for Christianity, some facts:

  • Christianity was born here, except that Jesus lived in Palestine
  • The apostles visited and lived here
  • The first church, where people were first called “Christians”, was in Antioch (now Turkey)
  • Istanbul was once called the “New Rome”, and is the capital of many orthodox Christians
  • Jesus’ mother Mary passed the last years of her earthly life in Ephesus (near Izmir)
  • The first seven “Ecumenical Councils” were all in what is now Turkey
  • Many more Christian saints lived in what now is Turkey, e.g. Saint Nicolas (“Santa Claus”)

General do’s and don’t-s:

  • Act good, then people will appreciate you.
  • Don’t try to change anybody’s religion or way of life.
  • Avoid too sensitive subjects (sex, politics and religion) unless you are sure the other side will appreciate what you say.

Professionalism

Personal relationships in Turkey are very important and it helps to improve business relationships. You have to win Turkish people’s trust before doing business with them. Personal relationships in Turkey can help to create a network of acquaintances and third party introductions are important for building trusting relationships.

In Turkish business environment you can see much respect for rank, education and authority. It is usual that the most senior person in the company makes the decisions. As a result of the value put on the family in Turkey, the most senior business person is viewed as a father or mother figure who should consider the well-being of their employees. In Turkey, age is considered a sign of wisdom and should be respected in all aspects of society.

“Saving face” is important in Turkey. Turks tend to be very proud and may be easily offended, so be careful not to embarrass another person.

Professional finesse

  • In Turkish business life you can hear people addressing a Turkish professional by his/her occupational title.
  • Turkish people use this way of communication as a polite way of addressing people they don’t know personally, and it is considered as respectful. For example; A man who is “Doctor” is called as ”Doktor bey” which means “Mr. Doctor”, a woman who is “Lawyer” is called as “Avukat hanım” which means “Mrs. Lawyer”, a man/woman who is professor at high schools/universities is called as “Hocam” which means “My teacher”, a man who is “Manager” is called as “Müdür bey” which means “Mr. Manager”, any man/woman can be called as “Efendim” which means “my master”.
  • Meetings with Turkish business people should be scheduled one or two weeks in advance to avoid Turkish holidays.
  • Sending details about the people who will attend the meeting (including their positions, titles and responsibilities) will be very helpful to have the attendance high.
  • The meeting may start later than scheduled, but be patient and enjoy the tea served while waiting.
  • Decision making in Turkey can be slow, you may need to meet with less senior managers, before meeting with the key decision-makers. If you are accepted as being trustworthy, then it is likely you will meet the executives or senior members.
  • In the first meeting, Turkish people like to talk about family, personal interest, culture, country, weather and sports. It is called as “Havadan sudan konuşmak” in Turkish, which means a saying like “Talking about weather and water”. The aim is to get to know you and it is extremely rude to insist on talking about business right away.
  • The first meeting they will ask “Do you like Turkey?”, in other words are you a “stayer” or just a “flash in the pan”?
  • For Turkish people, business meal is the time to relax, have some good conversation and build the relationship on a more personal basis. They are proud of their cuisine, so wherever possible try to emphasize your appreciation of the food.

Head to toe image enhancers

  • Turkish people wear modern dress as in any other western country.
  • Business dress is conservative, varying from casual to smart casual.
  • People are expected to be dressed more formal especially in official companies, state institutions, schools, universities and banks etc.
  • In private/small/family companies, relatively informal dressing is acceptable (smart casual).
  • In the summer, it’s very hot and humid, so it is acceptable to wear only trousers with shirt and without tie.
  • People seldom wear jeans and t-shirts, only in small family companies.
  • Shorts are not considered appropriate.
  • Women mostly wear modest and not revealing cloth.
  • Dressing tendency also depends on the age: above 35-40 (more conservative and formal), under 30 (more trendy and smart casual).
  • No traditional dressing in Turkish business life.

Do’s and don’t-s of Societal norms

Turkish people may stand close to you during a conversation, it is normal in Turkey. If it is a social occasion, it is not rude if you arrive late. In general, people get to an event/occasion later than expected, the trafic situation is always a good excuse. Body language may have different meanings, varying from rude to insulting and offensive.

The following should be avoided:

  • Standing with your hands on your hips or in your pockets.
  • Pointing at someone with your finger.
  • Discussing business right away without getting to know your partner first.
  • Using pressure tactics, such as imposing a deadline.
  • Showing a lack of respect for cultural and national values.
  • Talking about sensitive historical issues.

First names versus surnames

Surnames were introduced in the time of Atatürk. It’s still not common to use them. Some explanation on how to talk and write:

In formal situations, use first name with Bey or Hanım afterwards:

  • Mr. Mehmet Yüksel is “Mehmet Bey”
  • Mrs. Ayşe Yanmaz is “Ayşe Hanım”

In informal situations:

  • Mr. Mehmet Yüksel is just “Mehmet”
  • If Mehmet is older and/or you don’t know his name yet say “Abi” (big brother)
  • If Mehmet is seriously older (older than your father), you can say “Amca” (uncle)
  • Mrs. Aşe Yanmaz is just “Ayşe”
  • If Ayşe is older and/or you don’t know her name yet say “Abla” (big sister)
  • If Ayşe is seriously older (older than your mother), you can say “Teyze” (aunt)

These informal situations are like within the family, where Turks use first name + family relation. So if you have two bigger brothers and one is John, he is “John Abi”.

Sometimes foreigners and politicians are called by their surnames. Foreign soccer players for example are always named with their surnames, however Turks soccer players are named with their first names.

When formal, when informal?

At work: always formal (even if he/she is your family or good friend). At the street (strangers) most often informal, but go back to formal if you prefer.

Talking English with Turks: Mr. John

Probably Turks will use your first name when they speak with you in English.
So, if your name is John Smith, they probably call you Mr. John at work, not Mr. Smith.
Note that Mr. John is still formal speak, for a Turkish person there’s nothing more formal than this.

E-mail

As long as you write in English, try to keep your universal English standards.
If you write to Mr. Mehmet Yüksel, he will not really matter whether you write:

  • “Dear Mr. Yüksel” (English standards)
  • “Dear Mehmet” (Turkish standards) or
  • “Dear Mehmet Yüksel”

Telephone and cell phone

Turkish people answer phones without telling their names, you have to ask for it. That is not rude, that is just the way it is. But instead of asking “Who are you?” (that sounds rude), ask: “Who do I speak with?”.

Meetings

People may arrive some minutes later. However, foreigners are expected to be on time (always show you from your best side). Meetings start with some small talk and Turkish tea.

First question: “Do you like Turkey?”

What appears to be small talk, Turkish people always ask foreigners: “Do you like Turkey?”. The real reason that they ask this, is to find out whether you are a “stayer” or a “flash in the pan”. So, answer positive without exaggeration and convince them that you really like Turkey. Of course you know some negative sides of Turkey, but it’s not to you to give negative comments, they already know negativity much better than you.

Contact us

If you want to know more about cultural differences, do’s and don’ts in business, the market situation in the Netherlands and finding suppliers or distributors, please contact Cornelis Wildenberg, who wrote this article. Call or text (Whatsapp) him on +31 6 2941 3994, or send an email to cor.wildenberg@allianceexperts.com.

This entry in countries was updated on January 4, 2021 by Cor.