Each landscape in Turkey is a backdrop and a context for people and events in the play of life. Perhaps the most thrilling aspect of travel is to become an active participant in this landscape.
As in all human interaction, the basic rule is equal partnership, given the roles of host and guest. This rule defines mutual respect and a shared sense of responsibility as the guiding principle in an adventure where the parties involved are, by definition, different in their understandings and ways of life. When Turks entered the tourism arena not so long ago they were armed with a tradition of hospitality rather than sophisticated facilities or a service mentality. Although Turkey now has an excellent tourism infrastructure, the motivation of most Turks remains one of sincerity and courtesy.
The desire of Turks to be understood and liked, to communicate and learn about people from other lands, and be on equal terms with them as citizens of the world is a much more important motivation. Interpret their enthusiasm to interact with you with this perspective in mind. They would rather make long term acquaintances, hang-out together, exchange cards, letters and gifts than receive "fair payment" or large tips for help rendered. This attitude may change as the tourism industry develops more in the coming decades and much depends on the visitors. But, for now, the sweetness of the Turkish people is unspoiled.
Here are some tips about social graces and conduct, which may be useful in interpreting the goings on around you and help you to enjoy your participation in this landscape even more.
Starting at the beginning: greetings involving welcomes, hand shakes, hugging and kissing on both cheeks, followed by a "How are you? How is the family? How is your health? How is business?...." are important rituals. It is expected that everyone will inquire about the health and well being of everyone else present before anything else. During religious holidays greeting are even more important. The young visit and kiss the hands of the elderly family members. Every friend and family is visited to renew bonds and kinship. The children receive pocket money and gifts, and social charity obligations are met. Like elsewhere, these are joyous occasions. However, celebrations emphasize traditional social and spiritual aspects, and a certain amount of decorum in action and appearance is expected from everyone.
In social gatherings, even though everyone might be sitting in the same room, it is common for women to start their interaction mostly with other women and similarly, men with men. Parties where people stand around and "mingle" are not among the common forms of socialization except among the urbanized elite. During a typical after dinner gathering coffee, tea, candy, cookies, pastries and fruit are served.
A dinner invitation to someone's home is a special honor. At the dinner table it is customary for the hostess to offer additional servings many times and with great insistence. The guest is expected to oblige after several such offers. Dinners are leisurely affairs, to be savored slowly along with the delicious home-cooked food. Sometimes guests bring flowers or sweets to such occasions.
In business relationships the whole affair is conducted as a social occasion, complete with greetings, sharing coffee, tea, or food and drinks, depending on the extent of the transaction. Even in ordinary shopping a lot of personal information is exchanged between the vendor and the customer, setting the stage for everyone to fulfill their responsibilities in the transaction. Bargaining is not a simple game of negotiation between adversarial parties but part of socialization and friendly chit-chat to confirm the non-adversarial nature of the activity.
There are a few subjects which need to be treated with care. These include the flag, the army, the country, and religion. Even though people take great pleasure in explaining and answering questions about these, criticism or disrespect, even in jest, is not taken lightly. On the other hand, politics is fair game. There are few people who love talking politics as much as the Turks do.
To sum up, a guest might commit social faux-pas, but what matters is the underlying intention. If there is the presence of equality and respect, which the Turkish people will be quick to detect, all will be well. Enjoy your stay!