Of course, these cultural differences are also part of what makes moving to or doing business in Turkey so fascinating. They should also be understood but not feared. Turks are very welcoming. All you need to do is meet them half (or even part) way!
Getting to understand another country’s culture is not about learning lists of cultural facts or creating tick-lists of things that you need to do when working with people from that country. It is about gaining an understanding of the country and how it works and then proceeding sensitively in your dealings with the country and its people. However, a short (well, shortish – three pages!) guide pointing out some of the key features of Turkish culture is a good starting point for this, very enjoyable, journey of discovery.
Video guide to culture in Turkey
You can get a quick overview of the cultural differences in Turkey by watching this video interview (below) with Turkish lawyer Başak Yıldız Orkun. Learn more by scrolling down and reading the detailed guide by John Howell, Editor & Founder of Guides Global.
Cultural diversity in Turkey
Many of the most obvious cultural challenges that will strike you when you are living in, travelling to, or doing business with Turkey stem from the sheer diversity within the country. Of course, there is diversity within every country but diversity is far more striking in Turkey than in most places.
There are several examples of this diversity. They often overlap.
Turkey has long been a cultural melting pot. Its core cultures have been derived from the various cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia – especially Thrace and Anatolia – plus, to a lesser degree, from those of Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus. Over the years, these cultures have repeatedly been mixed, partly separated and then remixed, each time resulting in a different flavour and emphasis.
Big cities and sparsely populated rural areas
With over 15million as of 31 December 2017 (officially – in reality, many more) living in Istanbul, and with millions more in several other big cities, Turkey’s is a predominantly urban society. Yet 20million people – 25% of the population – live in rural areas that are sparsely populated.
Throughout the world, city dwellers differ from country-folk in the way they live and their attitude to life. This is particularly true in Turkey where, concealed within the country-city divide, there are several other important splits.
Europe v Asia
Turkey is famous for being the place where east meets west, both physically and culturally.
The part of Turkey in Europe – about 5% – feels very different from what Turks call “the Asian side” or “the Anatolian side”. This is not surprising. 65% of Istanbul lies in Europe and Istanbul is Turkey’s leading city, the centre of its economic life (producing nearly half of its GDP) and receiving 30% of Turkey’s tourism.
For most of the last 2,500 years, coastal Turkey on the Asian side has been genetically, culturally, and commercially, fused with coastal Greece. Despite the 1923 exchange of populations (when two million Christians in Turkey and Muslims in Greece changed places), living or doing business in the Aegean facing part of Turkey – say from Çanakkale to Fethiye – still feels much more European than living or doing business in the other coastal areas or (even more so) inland.
East v West
Within the Asian side, even ignoring the Europe vs Asia issue, there is a large cultural difference between east and west. As you move into Central, Eastern and Southeast Anatolia, life generally becomes poorer, the land less fertile, the population more traditionalist and the general culture more Islamic. The food is different, the way of dressing is different, and the way of life is different. In fact, in some ways, these areas in Eastern Turkey feel more like their neighbours (Iran, Iraq, and Syria) than they do Istanbul or Bodrum.
With the exception of some Kurds (18% of Turkey’s population), the people in these areas identify strongly as Turkish. Overwhelmingly, they speak Turkish. The government, legal and administrative systems are applied in the same way throughout the country. So these differences should not be exaggerated but need to be recognized.
English map of the Turkish regions, by Pinpin
Traditional v modern
Mingled with the ‘East vs West’ divide is the ‘traditional vs modern’ divide; yet this divide can be seen throughout the country, not just in the east. Even in cosmopolitan places such as Izmir, you will find many traditionalists.
Some differences are, on the face of it, superficial: the style of dress, men sporting a moustache and so on. Others go deeper, often being framed as issues of personal freedom. For example, a national debate erupted in 2013 about whether unmarried male and female students should be allowed to cohabit in rented accommodation and there has been a decades-long tussle about whether women should be allowed to wear the headscarf, with the military only lifting their ban in 2017. Until 2011, wearing a headscarf was illegal, as something in conflict with the principles behind the secular state. However, by 2016, a survey by IPSOS KMG showed that 60% of women said they wear a headscarf, and nearly half of men said their wife should wear a headscarf.
As in most places, older people tend to be more traditionalist but you will also find the young and well educated who embrace general traditional values – not just traditional religious values.
Turks have, historically, been very accepting. The old accept the music and dress of the young. The young respect the traditions of the old. But if you are living or doing business in Turkey, you need to be aware of these cultural issues and work out which are likely to impact your business and how – if at all – to accommodate them.
Religious v secular
Related to the ‘traditional vs modern’ divide, but different from it, is the ‘religious vs secular’ split.
Constitutionally, Turkey is a secular society: there is separation of religion and the state. The current Constitution neither recognizes an official religion nor promotes any.
Yet 99% of Turks are Muslim. Some 75 % of them are Sunni Muslims, arguably the most pragmatic and flexible of the Muslim sects. Some are devoutly religious, others follow their religion in a more casual way. Few attend mosque, or pray, the prescribed five times per day.
The consumption of alcohol is prohibited in the Islamic faith but is practised widely in Turkey – mainly in the western part of the country. Many younger people cohabit, yet only 2% of births are outside marriage (OECD average 35%).
With a population of 80million and 783,000km2 of land area, Turkey seems big, particularly if you come from Europe.
This size, coupled with relatively poor roads in large parts of the country, leads to practical problems. Yet most big companies manage to operate across the nation.