From tea to offering treats to playing it cool and keeping quiet: the following are some guidelines you can follow to forge the best interactions with Turks during your time in Turkey.
Any foreigner that visits Turkey will know that Turks like their tea! What many may not realize, however, is that drinking a cup of tea with a Turk is not only a great way to forge a friendship, but it is also key to doing any sort of business. Most shop owners, legal offices or really any private place of business will either have their own tea setup or will become regulars of a neighborhood tea stand to have trays of the tiny “thin-waisted” glasses delivered periodically or on demand throughout the day. Not only do the Turks enjoy drinking tea at all hours of the day, but many, if not most, business transactions in Turkey are held over a cup of tea.
Regardless, at some point during any stay in Turkey, you will undoubtedly be offered a cup of tea and I say when possible, accept it. Enjoying a cup of tea with a Turk breaks the ice in any interaction and you get to forge a friendly acquaintance, which is truly the basis of most operations here in the country.
Now, a cup of Turkish coffee even has a saying about its importance in making connections in Turkey. As a cup of coffee shared with a Turk is supposed to be a memory that will last 40 years, in other words for a long friendship. Don’t get hung up on the difficulties that seem to be involved in its presentation or the amount of sugar added, etc., the Turks, and especially the women, are skilled at preparing Turkish coffee and if you are lucky, they may even share some of their secrets.
If you catch a Turk at the right moment and in the right circumstances, you can truly forge a lifelong friendship and uncover intimate details in unexpected conversations. The thing is, the Turks love to share about their own life and inquire about others and if you let them, the chat can very easily go into the darkest of crevices. From lost parents to lost loves, you could very well end up discussing the meaning of life within mere moments of meeting. This can be true of taxi rides, sitting alongside someone on a ferry or seriously even standing in line. Turks may ask what feels like too many personal questions, such as your weight, marital status, etc. But, I say don’t feel offended feel fortunate, because you never know, you may be greatly rewarded with a true connection.
In all honesty, it can be hard for foreigners to read which Turks to spill their whole life details to and who you are supposed to just keep cool with. Because in different circumstances, such as in organized social events, versus spontaneous gatherings, then suddenly Turks become shy, standoffish and almost too cool for school. You could end up trying to ask what they do or what they studied and it could feel like pulling teeth. Sometimes, the Turks give you nothing. So, as a foreigner and a journalist at that, who loves asking questions, I have made it my rule here in Turkey to never ask first when it comes to personal details. And, to never ask questions like where are you from or what do you do until the information is willingly offered.
As we all know, in general, most Turks are forthright, friendly and funny and are known for their hospitality and for offering guests food or tea, over and over again, leaving it up to the guests to try to forcibly refuse in the end. So, we know Turks will offer to feed someone at their table multiple times, and many times won’t take no for an answer. In fact, many have most likely been brought up to not accept a treat offered to them, unless it has been offered three times. A friend of mine from Turkey came to visit me in Los Angeles and my mother had prepared a lavish meal for his arrival. Except, when he arrived and she asked if he would like to eat, he said that he wasn’t hungry. So, my mother as any other straightforwardly communicating Westerner would do, believed him and we all sat down with a plate of food except for my friend who was the guest of honor.
I remember my mother pulled me aside to say what kind of crazy Turkish boy was this that flew nearly a day to our home in California and he won’t even eat the spread my mother had prepared. I said to my Turkish friend, could you please just pretend to eat the food, and he said to me, “Actually, Leyla I am starving.” So, of course, I said why aren’t you eating then, and he, (just a teenager himself at that time), said that his mother told him he had to be asked at least three times whether he was hungry and to only admit so then, otherwise it was rude, another frequently used word here in Turkey, “ayıp.”
The Turks are wonderfully skilled at insisting people drink tea or eat food or what not as they have literally been trained in it. However, they have also been taught another form of passive communication that is not so helpful but will be helpful to know for foreigners. The thing is, in Turkey, and especially in older times, there is a concept called “naz,” which pretty much translates into "coy." What it means in practice is that the girls in Turkey tend to act coy, even if they are interested or not, it is how they were brought up. But what that means for foreigners, women or men, is that the person playing coy may just be acting that way. Some Turks may want you to overtly pursue them before they give an inkling of interest and thus contrarily, you may also be the subject of overt and even unwanted attention. You might even think that the Turks just don’t understand the word “no.” But don’t worry, if you are clear in your intentions and state that you are being “naz,” or coy, then their attempts to pursue you should come to a halt. Otherwise, they are just trying their best and doing what they were taught, which is if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
“Ketum” is a new concept I learned here in Turkey, but it turns out I have been living with it all of my life. You see “ketum” translates into English as the “unspoken,” “discreet” or “uncommunicative.” What it means in practice is that there are some situations that are just never spoken about among the Turks, especially if they are sad. My father for example, didn’t even know his father had died until five years after the fact as his family didn’t tell him and chose to send him to boarding school instead. Some families have sad histories they do not discuss. As a foreigner, you need to realize that if a Turk suddenly clams up, then do not try to pry them open. Be aware that Turks are very sensitive when it comes to lost loved ones and there are many cases where sad situations are just not discussed as a means of dealing with it, and this is called “ketum.”