Business Culture in Turkey

Whatever your reason for doing business in Turkey, you will probably find that there are some big differences in business environment and culture.

Video guide

You can learn about business in Turkey by watching this full-length interview (below) with Turkish lawyer Başak Yıldız Orkun, and by scrolling down and reading the detailed guide that she has written with us.

The video guide below is a playlist – split into several parts. One part will play right after the other.

Introduction

You may wish to serve customers in the country (whilst remaining based in your own country), you may wish to take advantage of the lower Turkish labour costs to help service customers elsewhere and/or you may wish to base your business in Turkey to take advantage of its low rates of tax.

Or, of course, you might just want to access its huge market of potential customers.

As with most countries, it is no good trying to fight the local reality. The best you can hope for is a compromise. To state the obvious, to compromise you and your company need to move part way towards their way of doing things!

Cultural differences when doing business in Turkey

Foreign ownership of Turkish companies

About nine out of ten big ‘Turkish’ companies belong to non-nationals.

This applies to banks, supermarkets, gas (petrol) stations and in many other sectors. This is despite the names of the companies looking resolutely Turkish!

Turkish business hours

Turks tend to be hard working: normal business hours in an office are 09:00-18:00 for private businesses, 08:00-17:00 for public officials.

Pre-planning in Turkish business

Most people only plan their lives a few days in advance. People would not usually arrange a business meeting a month in advance; a week would be more normal. The actual time of the meeting would be arranged closer still. The time may then move, even at the last moment. Many people just call in!

Once a time has been arranged, it is rude to be late, though quite common to be kept waiting.

Things slow down a lot during July and August (when many people go on holiday). These months, and Ramadan, are best avoided if you are visiting Turkey for business purposes.

Courtesy

Courtesy is crucial in all business dealings, even when you need to disagree about something. This is not the exaggerated and effusive false courtesy found in some countries but a genuine, measured approach based on mutual respect.

Do not mistake the need for courtesy with the idea that you cannot speak directly in your Turkish business dealings. Direct talking is appreciated and, if you know somebody, a sign that your relationship is genuine.

Maintain eye contact.

Women in the Turkish workplace

Only 24% of Turkish women are employed, so the workplace is definitely male-dominated. Yet the percentage of women executives is, in some industries, higher than the Western average. In the Turkish finance industry, for example, there is a higher ratio of women executives to male executives than in Germany, Italy, or France.

Nonetheless, women – especially in traditional parts of Turkey – should avoid wearing short skirts, plunging necklines or stiletto heels in the workplace.

In some rural areas it may be unacceptable for a woman to shake hands with a man.

Many of our female colleagues in Turkey take pride in ignoring all of these ‘rules’, whilst being careful to avoid offending the elderly.

If you are a man meeting a Turkish businesswoman, wait for the woman to extend her hand before you move to shake it. If you are a woman, the decision will be left to you. As a foreign woman, you will certainly be given wider latitude with your dress and business customs, but you may still prefer to comply with local customs.

Turkish business dress

In the big cities, suits and ties (and the equivalent for women) are still the norm. In the summer months and on the coast, shirts and smart trousers will be more common. For women, a certain modesty in dress is required – or, at least, appreciated (see above).

Meetings in Turkey

Meetings, particularly meetings early in your relationship, may start slowly, with many questions that may seem irrelevant to the purpose of your visit. It is rude to press colleagues to get to the point!

Topics covered at the beginning of a meeting may include anything from your family to football. I find that enquiries about various aspects of Turkish life and culture are good – and very useful – topics for discussion during this opening phase.

Turkish business card etiquette

Unlike in places such as China, business cards are exchanged without formal ritual.

It is thought polite to use both hands to exchange cards.

It is helpful to give a business card to the receptionist when you arrive and to have others available for all the people attending your meeting.

You can have one side of your business card translated into Turkish. This is useful if you are doing a lot of business in Turkey but not essential. However, it is a simple act of courtesy to your Turkish business colleagues.

The Turkish etiquette of entertaining

Relationships in Turkey are developed over a long period, often helped by extended lunches, dinners, and social outings. Recently, Turkey has begun to suffer from the same time pressures found in the West but entertainment – and eating – is still important and time will be found for it.

Most business entertaining will take place in restaurants. Turks enjoy food and the meal is a time for relaxing and engaging in some good conversation as well as developing business relationships.

The protocol of Turkish hospitality dictates that the host always pays for the meal. The concept of sharing a bill is completely alien. You may try and offer to pay, which may be seen as polite, but you would never be allowed to do so unless your relationship is already very close. The best policy is to graciously thank the host then, a few days later, invite them to do dinner at a restaurant of your choice, making sure that you pay. As a foreign visitor, that can sometimes be easier said than done. It may be a good idea to inform the restaurant manager that under no circumstances whatsoever are they to accept payment from your guests! Even then, I have failed.

Business gifts in Turkey

In business relationships, gift-giving is generally not practised. Indeed, in a world where Turks are increasingly proud of the reduction in corruption, some would see them as inappropriate. If you do decide to make a gift, avoid anything lavish. Something that relates to your home country is usually good.

If you’re given a gift in a business situation and your company policy prohibits you from accepting it, be tactful when declining the gift. Do not, whatever you do, suggest that the giver has any ulterior motive! Explain your company’s policy.

Negotiating in Turkey

One of the most noticeable aspects of the different business environment is the different ways of negotiating and of saying no.

Most businesses in Turkey are still run by an owner-operator. This person is used to taking control of all aspects of the business and to getting his (and it usually still is a “his”) own way. There is, therefore, a tendency for the owner to enter negotiations with a very clear idea of what he wants and a great reluctance to move away from it. This, of course, conflicts with the general Turkish way of solving problems by negotiation – and so one of your tasks when negotiating is to bring forward that basic cultural aspect and to work through the phase of resistance.

This will usually happen if you have valid points to make: reasons why your proposal makes more sense than your partner’s and a set of proposals that fit into the Turkish legal and cultural framework.

It will also usually happen if your partner can see a clear mutual benefit in your proposal. This benefit can go beyond the mere financial.

The process of negotiating in Turkey tends to be much faster than in many other countries. You will typically make a proposal to your business partner by email and receive a quick response from them. That will, usually, be followed by a face-to-face meeting at which any differences will be discussed and resolved and the deal done. It is not common (except for the most complicated projects) for many meetings to be needed.

It is not wise to try to impose deadlines or other time pressure, especially early in a relationship.

Saying “no”

Of equal importance to the business person wanting to work with Turkey is an understanding of how to say no, and being able to tell when your partner is actually saying no while his lips are not moving.

Part of the tradition in Turkey is one of courtesy and not wanting to offend. It is therefore quite common for your business partner to prefer not to give you a straightforward answer of “no”.

Suggestions of further meetings, the raising of lots of queries – especially if they’re very detailed – the failure to invite you for a beer or a glass of wine after your meeting, and a distancing of your relationship or a more formal tone in your emails can all suggest that this is a project that the partner does not wish to pursue.

Turks are very used to the world of international business. They have been traders for thousands of years. They much value the directness and clarity of business thought found in North and Western Europe and in the US but you shouldn’t expect them to fully reciprocate that directness, especially when it comes to saying “no”.

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