February 21, 2011

TURKEY: Respect and honour

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ISTANBUL, Turkey / Today's Zaman / Columnists / February 21, 2011

By Charlotte Mcpherson


Unlike much of the West, Turkey is a culture where “old-fashioned” manners are still practiced.

For the most part, elderly people are respected. You will see younger people offering their seat on the bus to an older person. It is still common not to contradict an older person in front of others.

Perhaps you have noticed that different people will use different titles for you. It all depends on age and education. Certain names are used as signs of respect. Here are the basic ground rules: A person who is in her 20s or 30s will be addressed by children and youth by adding the title “abla” (older sister) or “ağabey” (big brother) after their name. Shop vendors and taxi drivers may also call just you “abla” or “ağabey” as a sign of respect. If you are older you will be referred to as “teyze” (aunt) or “amca” (uncle).

In Turkish culture it is rude to call a new acquaintance who you have just met by his or her first name. The polite form to use is to put “bey” (sir) or “hanım” (madam) after their first name. If you are a teacher, you will be called by your first name and then “hoca” (teacher).

The other day I was in the supermarket and the young Turkish man at the checkout counter wanted to practice his English with me. When he handed me my change he called me “lady.” Naturally this struck me as funny, but I did not laugh. I knew that he had done a literal translation and was trying to be polite. In English a simple “thank you” or “thanks, ma’am” is fine.

Throughout the Middle East and Asia you will observe how important honor is in the society. Turkish culture is strongly hierarchical. Individuals are ranked according to status.

Age is of great importance in determining status.

Sometimes this can be offensive to Westerners in their 40s and 50s who still feel like they are 21. Special respect is given to older people. By this I mean in absolute terms any individual past middle age.

Significantly older could also be determined by the age difference between you and your parents. It is true in Turkey that determining relative status by age also depends on the older person’s perception of himself as I hinted above.

Portrait of an elderly Turkish man with hands together. © 2011 Erik Annis

The foreign guest needs to be careful to use the right title at the right time. Let me just give an example: A visitor in his 20s with all honorable intentions addressing a person in his 40s as “brother” when that man may prefer to be called “uncle” can prompt some teasing from his friends. The general rule is until the foreigner knows just how that person prefers to be treated in regard to age, he should show more honor than less. It is better to err on the conservative side.

Although some young adults may indicate that showing respect is not as important as it used to be and that it is a show, generally speaking, showing respect is still important. Other people who are normally honored are people with power based on individual reputation, family, fame, wealth and political or religious leadership.

For example, an employer is usually treated deferentially by an employee. A teacher is honored by a student. Westerners can make the mistake of being too friendly with their employees or students and lose control of boundaries and discipline, as their students or employees are not used to this type of relationship.

It is important to know how and when to honor others. A visitor, particularly from a Western background, can easily overlook or ignore the standard ways of affirming status. This may cause humiliation for the person of special status. A visitor who overlooks the deferential behavior to show respect and honor will be seen as being rude.

When refusing a request, it can be done in a manner that avoids personal offense. Westerners who are used to being more direct must learn to not give straight refusals and a frank “no.” Such direct replies cause the person who has made the request to lose face. It is best to give an answer that takes the embarrassment from the one asking and puts the blame on an outside cause. This can be hard for us Westerners who value frankness and directness.

Often Westerners interpret polite and indirect answers as being dishonest. Beware! These two points can lead to cultural clashes between Turks and Westerners.

© Feza Gazetecilik A.Ş.