Culture Shock in Turkey II: Turkish Hospitality

The ubiquitous Turkish tea glassOne of the most central societal values and structures in Turkey is the notion of hospitality. In a society that loves flouting the rules, one unwritten rule cannot be disobeyed: you must treat your guests well. Turkish people consider themselves very hospitable, and even if an Turkish person is less than talented in the art of receiving guests, he or she will still claim hospitality because being inhospitable is culturally shameful.

I have had the privilege to meet some truly hospitable people in Turkey. One woman in Küçükküyü who fed me dinner and called me “cool” without even knowing me. My friend Tutku, and her family. The many people who have given me directions and told me where to get off transit. My friend Alper is almost comically hospitable. Before we had even met, within the first 30 seconds of our first phone conversation, he said “You’re new in Turkey. Is there anything you need?” Out to dinner, “Are you cold? Do you want me to ask them if they have a blanket?” as well as “Are you sure you’re okay sitting there? You could sit here and see the sea.” I brushed my bangs out of my eyes “I can ask if they have an elastic if you want.?” Leaving my job “You can always stay here.”

I have always been extremely clear about not being up for sex or a relationship, and he was initially planning to leave the area for a job. Normally I couldn’t help but explain that kind of behaviour through the lens of sex and courtship (is that bad?), but I think he might just be like that.

Turkish hospitality can get awkward for those of us from, erm, more inhospitable cultures. One reason, of course, is that we are not used to politely accepting gifts. Another reason is that it is hard to gauge what people want from you when they are all claiming hospitality – and in Turkey, many people are genuinely hospitable, while others are acceptably hospitable and others straight-up inhospitable. The common thread between all three groups is that they all made claims about being hospitable. This can get uncomfortable and overwhelming.

After the fifth cup of tea

Turkish person: “Do you want tea?”

Me: “Oh yeah, I’m getting up anyway, so I’ll get it this time.”

Turkish person: “Nonono. Turkish hospitality.”

On entering someone’s home or business

Turkish person: Do you want some tea?

Me: No thank you, I’m in a hurry.

Turkish person: I can’t not offer you teaaaaaaa. That would *destroy* my identity as a Turkish person! Turkish hospitality!

At basically any meal eaten with Turkish people

Turkish person: Eat more. Do you want this thing? What about this thing? What about this thing?

Me: No thank you. I’m full.

Turkish person: You have to eat! You are so skinny! Turkish hospitality!

Uttered after I unsuccessfully attempted to pay for my drinks

Turkish person: Refusal is not easy in Turkey. You have to be very firm, or you will end up saying yes to a marriage proposal or something. Gets the cheque.

Staying over at somebody’s house

Turkish person: Are you sure you don’t need anything else?

Me: Yep. I’m sure. Thanks a lot.

Turkish person: Really, are you sure? Are you sure you don’t want to shower?

Me: That’s the third time he’s asked me that. Do I smell bad?

Me: No no, I’m fine. If I want something, I’ll do it or ask you about it. Don’t worry about me.

Turkish person: Turkish hospitality!

In some of these cases, they really were being hospitable, and the awkwardness resulted mostly from the fact that I suck at accepting gifts with grace and dignity. On the other hand, sometimes “Turkish hospitality” can be more about the Turkish than about the hospitality. Like in every country, hospitality and manipulation coexist in the same space.

All that said, it was pleasing to live in a place where hospitality is a strong cultural imperative. For every person that’s doing it wrong, I’ve met a few that are doing it right, and these people have inspired me to hopefully be a bit more hospitable now that I’ve made my retour à Montréal.

So don’t hesitate. Invite yourself over to my apartment. Don’t even think about getting up to get yourself some tea in my home. Do you want tea? Do you want to take a shower? Do you want tea? Do you want coffee? I’ll bring you some tea. How about a beer? Coffee? How about some tea? Is there anything else you need? Shower? Tea? Of course, you can stay the night. Here’s one more glass of tea. Ok, I’m making you breakfast. Do you want eggs? With sausage? Shower with your eggs? Here’s some tea to tide you over. Yes yes, you can take it in the shower. I’ll have another cup waiting for you when you get out.

Try not to get uncomfortable. I can’t help it. Turkish hospitality!

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