Turkey: the bridge between east and west
“Türkiye” is the name of the country that fascinates many people. People often see Turkey as an Islamic country and therefore make certain assumptions. Others, particularly when they arrive in the metropolitan city of Istanbul, see Turkey as a very modern country, perhaps even more developed than some European countries. Either way, new arrivals are often shocked when they find that Turkish reality is not as they expected.
Turkey is complicated and seems to become only more complicated in every way. Many expatriates are reluctant to relocate to Turkey but at the end of their assignment want to extend their stay as they are not ready to leave. So how can you make the most of your time in Turkey, whether on an expatriate assignment or short business trip?
Your number one rule: relationships
Relationships mean everything in Turkey. In Turkish business culture, the distinction between the professional and personal domains of life are not clearly defined and may overlap. Consequently, personal relationships play a significant role at all levels. A work colleague can also be a “best friend”. This may puzzle many foreigners and they may find how to draw that thin line between being a colleague and friend. Remember, emotional people…
Great value is placed on the family unit in Turkey and so it is not uncommon for the most senior business person to be viewed as a father or mother figure who should consider the well-being of their employees’ family and social duties. Trust is extremely important as well. You should make them feel good but never give a promise that you can not keep.
Turks enjoy good food and most important negotiations will take place around a meal. When doing business in Turkey it is likely you will be taken to restaurants. This is a time for relaxing and engaging in some good conversation; it is important so do not rush business matters during this time. Turkish hospitality dictates that the host always pays for the meal. The concept of sharing a bill is not even considered. You can try and offer to pay and this may be seen as polite, but you would never be allowed to do so. The best policy when doing business in Turkey is to graciously thank the host then a few days later invite them to dinner at a restaurant of your choice. If you want to make sure that you pay the bill then it may be a good idea to make the payment in “secret” at some point during the meal.
Appointments and business hours
- Traffic jams are common in big cities like Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Allow plenty of time and be patient!
- Do not expect to get right down to business in a Turkish business meeting. You will be offered tea or coffee; always accept these offers as turning them down may be perceived as impolite. Some preliminary 'small talk' allows your host to get to know you. Don’t see it as a waste of time but on the contrary, time invested in relationships is very well spent.
- Do not arrange appointments too much in advance. Turks are more fluid about time and things change very often in Turkey. It is a good idea to call a few days before to check that it is still convenient.
In theory, Turks are indirect communicators and very direct communication is not appreciated at all – although they may be quite direct with each other. Face saving is very important too so if you need to convey a negative message make sure you do so sensitively and don’t give your Turkish partners reason to take it personally.
Formality is also important particularly when there is an age difference. Surnames were only introduced by Atatürk people are used to adding “bey” after a male given name and “hanim” after a female given name.
Hierarchy – here to stay?
Traditional Turkish companies tend to value a clear hierarchy but in modern companies with generation Y and Z coming through it is less important. However, respect for older generations is still always important.
Turkey has recently experienced a lot of economic and political change. And change is very rapid. However, the core Turkish cultural values such as respect for elders, hospitality and supporting others are still prevalent.
Turkey has always been a bridge between east and the west and its geographical position is as important as ever. Whether you come to Turkey for pleasure or for business you will see the values of the west and the east blended in a unique way: the Turkish way!
Ferhan is an intercultural trainer and coach based in Istanbul with many years' experience as an expatriate. She has lived and worked in the UK, Switzerland and Italy and worked across many other countries.