Traditions & Customs
Things to do
Turks are a very friendly, polite and hospitable people, sometimes even to a fault.
- When you are invited into a Turkish home, make sure to bring them a gift. Anything is fine from flowers to chocolate and indeed something representative from your country (but not wine and other alcoholic beverages if you are about to meet the host or if you do not know them well enough, as many Turks, for religious reasons or not, do not drink alcoholic beverages, and that is why it would be considered inappropriate as a gift). When you arrive at the house take off your shoes just outside or immediately inside the door, unless the owner explicitly allows you to keep them on. Even then, it might be more polite to remove your shoes. And if you really want their respect, thank your host for the invitation and compliment them. When inside the house, don't ask for anything for they will surely offer it. The host will make sure to make you feel at home, so don't take advantage of their kindness.
- People in Turkey respect elderly people, so in a bus, tram, subway and in other forms of public transportation, young(er) people will always offer you a place to sit if you are an old(er) person as well as a handicapped person or a pregnant woman or have children with you.
- It is respectful to bend slightly (not a complete bow) when greeting someone older or in a position of authority.
- Try to use some Turkish phrases. They will be complimentary if you try, and there is no reason to be embarrassed. They realize that Turkish is very difficult for foreigners and won't scoff at all at your mistakes; on the contrary, they will be delighted for trying it, even if they may not always be able to understand your pronunciation!
Things to avoid
Turkish people understand that visitors are usually not aware of Turkish culture and customs, and tend to be tolerant of blunders in this regard by foreigners. There are, however, some which will meet with universal disapproval, and these should be avoided at all costs:
- Turks in general have very strong nationalistic views, and would view any criticisms of their country and expressions and attitudes insulting the Turkish flag, the republic and Atatürk - the founding father of the republic as very offensive and with varying degrees of hostility. To avoid getting into the bad raps of your hosts, it is advisable to only praise the country and avoid bringing up anything negative about it.
- Don't mention the Armenian Genocide, Kurdish separatism and the Cyprus problem. These are extremely sensitive topics and are definitely to be avoided. Turkish society has a highly emotional approach to these issues.
- Be respectful of the Turkish anthem. Do not mock or mimick the Turkish anthem, as Turks are extremely proud and sensitive of their national symbols, and will be very offended.
- Be respectful of the Turkish flag. Don't put it on places where people sit or stand, don't drag it, don't wrinkle it, don't contaminate it, don't use it as a dress or uniform. Not only will Turks be very offended, furthermore the desecration of the Turkish flag is a punishable offence. The flag is extremely important and well respected in Turkey.
- Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, though secular, and although you will see varying degrees of Islamic practice in Turkey, with most Turks subscribing to a liberal form of Islam, it is extremely rude to insult or mock some of its traditions, and ensure that you do not speak badly of the Islamic religion. In regard to the Call to Prayer, which is read 5 times a day from the speakers of the numerous mosques throughout Turkey. Do not mock or mimick these calls, as Turks are extremely proud and sensitive of their heritage and culture, and will be very offended.
Social custom and etiquette breaches:
- Don't try to shake hands with a devout Muslim (that is veiled) woman unless she offers her hand first, and with a devout Muslim (often recognizable with a cap and beard) man unless he offers his hand first.
- Don't blow your nose during meals, even discreetly. This is considered extremely rude.
- Don't pick your teeth during meals, even discreetly. This is considered extremely rude.
- Do not put your feet up while sitting and try not to show the bottom of your feet to someone. This is considered rude.
- Don't point with your finger at someone, even discreetly. This is considered rude.
- Don't chew gum while having a conversation and during public occasions. This is considered extremely rude.
- Don't touch someone without permission. This is considered extremely rude.
- Don't bear hug or back slap someone, especially in formal situations and occasions and with someone you just met and/or you do not know well enough. This is considered very rude.
- Don't use swear words during conversation or while talking to oneself in public and also among friends. This is considered extremely rude.
- Public drunkenness (especially the loud and obnoxious variety) is definitely not appreciated and is frowned upon, especially in more conservative areas of the country. Drunken tourists may also attract the attention of pickpockets. However what is absolutely not tolerated with drunkenness especially by the police, if it is accompanied with physical aggressiveness towards other people, this may result with a fine and if this is repeated a heavier fine and/or a visit to the police station may result (if you are tourist, deportation from the country can result).
- Certain gestures, common in the western world, are considered rude expressions in this culture. People tend to be tolerant if they can see you are a foreigner. They know you are probably doing it subconsciously, but if you take the time to keep these in mind, you won’t have any 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 has connotations referring to homosexuality in the Turkish psyche. Avoid clicking your tongue. Some people do this subconsciously at the beginning of a sentence. It is a gesture of dismissal. Also the "got your nose" gesture which is made by making a fist and putting your thumb between your forefinger and the middle finger is considered the equivalent of the middle finger in Turkey.
Other things to watch for
- Public displays of affection in larger cities and tourist resorts is tolerated but might invite unnecessary stares from the public. In more rural areas it is frowned upon and is to be avoided. Gay and lesbian travelers should avoid any outward signs of affection, as this will definitely invite unnecessary stares from the public. However overt displays of affection regardless of sexual orientation is regarded as inappropriate.
- Avoid shouting or talking loudly in public. Talking loudly is generally considered rude, especially on public transportation. Talking on a mobile phone on public transportation is not considered rude but normal, unless the conversation is too "private".
- It's not so common for Turks to smile. Avoid smiling at a stranger, because if you do they most likely will not respond in kind and they will regard you either as odd or think that you are mentally handicapped. Smiling in Turkey towards strangers in public is not done and will be considered inappropriate. Smiling is traditionally reserved for family and friends; smiling at a stranger will be considered offensive, as they will either think that you are making fun of them and there is something wrong with their clothes or hair. Furthermore, an automatic "Western smile" is widely regarded as insincere, as in "You don't really mean it".
- Most of Turkish drivers will not respect pedestrian crossings so, be aware when crossing the street.
Because of religious traditions, all women are required to wear head scarves and not to wear miniskirts or shorts upon entering a mosque (or a church and synagogue). The same goes for the tombs of Islamic saints, too, if the tomb is not named “museum” officially. If you don’t have a shawl or a scarf to put on your head, you can borrow one at the entrance. However wearing-a-scarf rule is somewhat relaxed recently, especially in big mosques of Istanbul in which seeing a tourist is not a rarity. On such mosques, no one is warned about their clothes, or because of their lack of head scarves. Even if you’d have to wear a head scarf, no need to worry about how head scarves can be worn properly, just put it onto the crown of your head (you may wrap it under your chin or behind your neck, lest it slip), that will be excessively adequate.
Also, men are required to wear trousers, not shorts, upon entering a mosque (or a church and synagogue), however nowadays no one is warned about their clothes (at least in big cities). You may find when entering a mosque in more rural areas you will be expected to follow all traditional procedures.
During the prayer time, worshippers choose to line in the front rows of the mosques, at such a time stay behind and try not to be noisy. During the Friday noon prayer, which is the most attended, you might be asked to leave the mosque, don’t take it personally, it is because the mosque will be very crowded, there just won’t be enough room for both the worshippers and the sightseers. You will be able to enter back as soon as worshippers are out of the gate.
Unlike some other Middle Eastern cultures, eating, drinking, smoking (which is strictly banned), talking or laughing loudly, sleeping or just lying, even sitting on the ground inside the mosques is frowned upon in Turkish culture. Public displays of affection is definitely taboo.
All shoes should be removed before entering any mosque. There are shoes desks inside the mosques, though you can choose to hold them in your hand (a plastic bag which would be used only for this purpose would help) during your visit. Some mosques have safeboxes with a lock instead of shoe desks.
Although there are “official” opening hours, which are typically shorter than what the mosque is actually open, at the entrances of the most sightseen mosques, they don’t really mean anything. You can visit a mosque as long as its gates are open.
Despite the odd tourists who do not conform to the dress code, it is best to dress conservatively and to follow all traditional procedures, when entering mosques, tombs and other places of worship; not only because it is required but also as a sign of respect.
Gay and lesbian travelers
Turkey is considered to be quite safe for gay and lesbian travelers, and violence against homosexuals is quite rare. There are no laws against homosexuality in Turkey, but same-sex relationships are not recognized by the government and revealing your orientation openly is very likely to draw stares and whispers.