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As a country straddling Europe and Asia, Turkey is a unique destination with a rich cultural heritage that blends East and West. Although the country has such diverse influences and is quite multi-cultural, expats are still likely to experience some culture shock in Turkey, and adjusting to life there may take some time.
Turkish people are generally friendly and welcoming to foreigners, and expats should move to Turkey with an open mind and not be afraid to embrace all aspects of their new life. The slightest effort to learn and speak Turkish will be highly appreciated.
Religion in Turkey
Although the majority of Turkey's population are Muslim, the country is adamant about its persona as a secular state. This stance is enshrined in the country's constitution but, between the secularists and the traditionalists, tension continues over issues such as the Islamic headscarf and women's rights.
For all practical purposes, and in Istanbul in particular, one can safely practise one’s own religion and Western dress is widely worn. Despite this, local religious customs should always be respected. This is especially important during the Muslim holy month of Ramazan (Ramadan) when Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and smoking between sunrise and sunset.
Understanding gestures in Turkey
Turks consider it rude to say 'no' outright if something is not possible. Instead, expats may get a roundabout explanation which new arrivals may find confusing and frustrating. Unlike shaking the head, Turks have a unique gesture for indicating ‘no’ – it is an upward flick of the head accompanied by a clicking of the tongue.
Addressing others in Turkey
In Turkey, women will always be addressed by their first names with a hanim (pronounced 'hanum', meaning lady) attached to it. It is not considered familiar or rude to use first names. For example, Jane Smith will be addressed as Jane hanim, rather than Mrs Smith. The male equivalent of hanim is bey (pronounced 'bay') and, as such, John Smith will be addressed as John bey.
Women in Turkey
Turkish people are known for their friendliness, but sometimes this extends a bit far when it comes to how men respond to women. Although most men are respectful towards women, reports of sexual harassment of foreign women in Turkey are an unfortunate reality, particularly on public transport or on the streets of Istanbul. It’s not unusual for Turkish men to perceive Western women as sexually promiscuous and for expat women to be the target of lewd comments. Female expats should rather avoid going out alone, especially at night.
►Learn more about cultural etiquette and norms in Doing Business in Turkey.
►Read some Expat Experiences in Turkey to get subjective views of life in the country.
"From what we’ve heard, experiencing culture shock is a normal part of anyone’s expat experience. We certainly had some, but we came into it knowing it would happen. During our first year in country, there were times of stress when learning Turkish felt overwhelming, when we just wanted a big cheeseburger or a burrito (both of which we can sometimes find here now!), or when we just missed what was familiar to us. Over time, new things began to feel familiar. Having relationships with people around us really contributed to helping us get through the difficult days." Read more about Emily and Jesse's move to Turkey and their experience of expat life in Bursa.
"Turkish culture is highly community-orientated. There isn’t a lot that is reserved for the individual, whether that is possessions, time or even information. It is common to be asked very personal questions as a matter of routine. It’s normal to be asked about your weight, your salary, your religion, your political leanings and the cost of your rent all in the same conversation. This is just small talk for them! This took some getting used to." Learn more about Ginny Lou, an American expat, and her experience of life in Turkey.
Are you an expat living in Turkey?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Turkey. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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