Personal questions

Lonely Planet publishes a good Turkish phrasebook, which has been handy in many situations. It provides some basic information about the language, the country, and the culture. I’d recommend carrying a copy, unless you’re fluent in Turkish.

But like any guidebook, the advice about social interactions is necessarily simplified, often essentializing differences. For example, the book advises:

Avoid asking questions about someone’s age, religion, or sexual preference, as the Turkish prefer not to discuss these topics openly. They love talking about politics, but exercise a little caution when expressing your opinion – some Turks verge on the fanatical when it comes to the ‘p’ word.

Phrases such as “the Turkish” or “They” are red flags, which can never be universally valid. I accept the advice to avoid personal questions on a first meeting, but I’ve found that at least some of the “They” actually like to talk about these topics. I’ve been asked: How old are you? Where do you live? What religion are you? How tall are you? What do you think about Obama? What do you think of Turkey?

When in an eczane (drugstore), I took advantage of the free scale to weigh myself. A druggist peered at the scale to check my number and then gave his approval. That may have been professional monitoring, but I sensed simple curiosity at work as well.

I’m sure that some of the They “love talking about politics,” but we were cautioned not to bring up politics with two men, who despite being friends and colleagues, had radically different political views. On the other hand, in the US, I know many people who “verge on the fanatical when it comes to the ‘p’ word.” Maybe they all have Turkish heritage.

The phrasebook also suggests,

When you meet someone of the opposite sex who has strong religious beliefs, avoid shaking hands or kissing them. Instead, greet them with the Arabic words selamin alekküm. (p. 105)

Again, broadly useful advice, but off in so many particulars. Turkish people we have met seem to vary widely in terms of talk and gestures. Some women initiate the double cheek kiss. Moreover, in a city, especially in university communities, there are people from all over the world with diverse habits. “The Turkish” vary a lot in terms of their international experiences and customs. And I haven’t heard selamin alekküm used in greetings.

One might also ask how to know whether someone has strong religious beliefs if that topic hasn’t come up. You can guess by clothing styles, but that’s far from infallible. I have a friend here who is deeply religious, but dresses in a modern style and drinks alcohol. Some women dress very conservatively, but for reasons of family or personal choice, not religion.

At another point, the phrasebook suggests,

When talking with people you’ve just met, or those you’re talking to in the polite siz (you) form, it’s considered rude to cross your arms or place your hands in your pockets. (p. 108)

This reminds me of a different guidebook that warns “the Chinese” do not like it when you point a finger at them. In my experience, most people sense that crossed arms, hands in pockets, pointing at people, and so on, are at best informal, and usually off-putting. I might just as well suggest to a Turk, “when meeting someone in the US for the first time, especially in a formal situation, don’t stand there with your arms crossed or point your finger at them. The American doesn’t like that.”

One thought on “Personal questions

  1. You hit, in my opinion, a very crucial point. With language we start creating barriers. Something as simple as “you”, “we” and “they” clearly distance people, even if it is unintentionally. No one should fall into assumptions or stereotypes about different cultures. It has been my personal experience that when I’ve made a cultural blunder, those with me have laughed and explained to me what I did with no judgement.

    Like

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