The importance given to guests in the Turkish culture is quite remarkable. The Turkish people are known for their hospitality and take great pains to make their guests feel comfortable and happy. This is not only on a special day, for a special celebration, or for a bayram. (Bayram is the Turkic word for a nationally-celebrated festival or holiday, and applicable to both national and religious celebrations.) Any guest visiting in the home of a Turkish person is the single most important person in the house at that time.
Turkish homes used to have “guest rooms”. These special rooms were infrequently used by family members and decorated more carefully than any other room in the home. This was the room in which guests would be entertained. This traditional custom has lasted for many years. Although it is not as widely practiced in modern-day Turkey, special guest rooms can still be found in many Turkish homes.
In my American upbringing, the equivalent of the Turkish “guest room” was called a “parlor”. Similar to what is practiced in a Turkish home, this room was only used for visitors and special guests or on special occasions. It was always kept in spotless condition. Tables were dusted, the carpet was swept, the windows washed, and the furniture covered with white cloths that would be removed when visitors were expected. The best china and glassware was brought out of the sideboard or china cabinet and, of course, special foods were offered. The most likely food items served were homemade pies, or cakes and cookies, accompanied by numerous cups of strong coffee, lemonade or iced tea, and milk for the children if any were coming.
Since the Turkish people value their guests so highly, they also pay special attention to the items that will be used by their guests. Household items such as dinner sets, cutlery, towels, etc., are not used daily by the family. Instead they are usually kept in a separate place for use only when there are guests in the house. Another reason the guest in a Turkish home is made to feel valued and special!
Shoes and Slippers:
Turkish people do not enter their homes wearing the shoes they have been wearing outside the house. They expect their guests to do the same and remove their shoes when entering the home. Shoes are taken off inside the front door and family members or their guests put on house slippers. Many Turkish homes still practice this custom. You will find quite a few pairs of slippers in a Turkish home.
“What can I offer you?”
Ikram (the Turkish word for “treat”) is the general name of everything offered when entertaining guests. The Turkish people want to make their guests happy by constantly offering them something. Even if the event is not an arranged dinner party, it is next to impossible to sit in a Turkish home without eating and drinking.
In traditional Turkish homes, guests are first offered cologne followed by candies or chocolates. Ikram continues with other foods and beverages. Tea (çay) is an absolute must in Ikram. The Turkish people love drinking tea and offer it to their guests (sometimes without even asking). Almost always offered with the tea are pastries, like pies, cakes, or cookies. Ikram will continue as long as the guest is staying in the home. After tea and pastries have been served, fruits and/or assorted nuts may follow. If a guest refuses to eat or eats only a very small amount, the host is very likely to conclude that their Ikram is not liked. In other words, not eating or drinking in a Turkish home makes the host very unhappy. The best and most appropriate thing to do is to visit a Turkish home when you are hungry!
A few “Unspoken” Turkish Rules: Should you be lucky enough to be invited into a Turkish home, it is important to observe the traditions and customs that govern social life in Turkey. Anyone interested in Turkish culture will want to become familiar with them. Practiced over hundreds of years, it is a matter of respect for any traveler who wants to experience the "real" life of the Turkish people to know what these customs are, and to be prepared to practice them when visiting a Turkish home.
You greet people by kissing both cheeks: Hugs are reserved for close friends and family members. Men prefer women to initiate this greeting if both parties are just acquaintances.
Respect for elders: Turks treat elderly people with a lot of respect. When someone enters a room for a social event, they approach the eldest person first. On special occasions, people also kiss their hand and raise it to their forehead. If you are visiting a friend’s parents, add “teyze” or “amca,” after their first name. This means “aunt” or “uncle” and is a sign of respect. For those a bit older than you, to show the proper respect, add “abi” for a man or “abla” for a woman after their first names. In more formal circles, people address men by their first name and then add bey. For women, the word hanim follows their first name.
Always bring a gift to your host/hostess: Whenever you are invited to a Turkish person's home, it is very important to bring a small token of appreciation, whether it’s food or flowers. Pastries like baklava are a popular gift, and definitely bring sweets if children will be there. Avoid bringing alcohol unless you know for sure that your hosts drink it. Some Turks do not drink alcohol for religious or other reasons.
Remove your shoes before entering a home: Covered previously, it bears repeating. Turks prefer to keep their homes spotless. This means wearing slippers inside and there are always a few extra pairs for guests. Before entering someone’s home in Turkey, it is customary to remove your shoes so you will not track dirt into the entryway.
When to say when: Between meals, after a meal, first thing in the day and the last thing at night: Turkish Tea (çay). It is a social lubricant and Turks drink liters and liters of it! When you finish your tea, your host will immediately refill your glass. Instead of politely drinking until you are so full and, pardon me, might have to make a run for the bathroom, leave your teaspoon lying across the glass to signal “no more”.
Don’t leave early: Leaving before midnight means you do not consider your host has done a good job. Turkish people enjoy long visits, talking and drinking raki into the night, with children nodding off on the sofa or trying to stay up late as a treat.
Personal space: Turks make friends easily. Do not be surprised for a Turk to kiss on both cheeks, whether a man or a woman. The one exception to this rule is conservative Turkish women who wear headscarves and value personal space. They will just shake hands unless you are a close friend.
Conversation starters: If the conversation lags, ask questions about Turkish history and culture. Turks love their heritage. Football is very popular and most Turks support Galatasaray, Besiktas, or Fenerbahce so ask about a team’s recent successes. Turks are passionate about their country and often have strong views. Insulting Turkey, their flag, or founding father Ataturk is very offensive.
Weight is an acceptable topic: Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Turks will openly discuss your weight with you and remark if you have put on kilos or pounds. They mean no malicious harm because this is an acceptable topic in Turkey so you should not take it personally. On the positive side, however, this also works in reverse and Turks will comment on and admire weight loss.
Take care with gestures: A few gestures you might use without thinking are quite offensive in Turkey. Making an “o” shape with your forefinger and thumb demonstrates homosexuality. Clicking your tongue is a gesture of dismissal. Making a fist and sticking your thumb between your forefinger and middle finger is the equivalent of the middle finger in Turkey.
Water for luck: This is a version of throwing salt over your shoulder for luck. The Turks throw water behind a person or their vehicle as they leave for a journey. At the same time, they say, “Su gibi git, gel” which means “Go and return, like water”.
When I left Turkey last September for my journey back to America, no one threw water behind my vehicle of departure. Of course, it would have been difficult to do that behind an airplane on the runway ready for take off! However, the welcoming spirit of the Turkish people will surely draw me back at some point, and I will “return like water” to experience more of this wonderful country.
Copyright by North America TEN and Mary Bloyd