Intercultural Communication in Turkey

Intercultural Communication in Turkey
Just how are things done in Turkey?

Turkey is an increasingly popular destination for Americans and this is why it is important to recognize some key differences in communication values between our two cultures. The United States (US) military has an important presence in the country because of its strategic location in the Middle East and role as a crucial NATO ally, university students are increasingly drawn to Turkey for study abroad programs, and more civilian Americans are working here than in the past. These positive trends will continue as Turkey works on becoming a member of the European Union. This summer I am one of those civilian Americans working in Turkey. Upon arrival our employer provided us with a chapter from this book, which aims to introduce Turkish culture to Americans who are planning to live here. This being my fourth trip to Turkey, I highlight two of the cultural differences in communication that are described in the chapter because I know they will be particularly relevant for any American visiting Turkey for a prolonged time period: assertiveness vs. passiveness and equality vs. hierarchy.

Assertiveness vs. Passiveness

The United States was founded by revolutionaries who cherished individualism and this value has been a part of our heritage since the 18th Century. We are taught to be assertive and direct. We usually pride ourselves on solving problems directly, honestly self-disclosing information, and freely promoting our own qualifications. The US is the epitome of an individualistic society. Turkey, however, is a collectivist society because the societal priority is the group rather than the individual.

Instead of directly addressing problems, the Turks oftentimes prefer to be indirect and strategic about addressing them because they do not wish to hurt their relationships with other members of their group (i.e. a workplace) and they feel addressing problems directly will insult the individual. For instance, two of us were a few minutes late to an important event the other day because we had the wrong starting time for it. Instead of directly telling us we were late and reprimanding us for it, one of the supervisors came to our door with some papers he had to give to us and also added that the event had already begun. The use of the papers as an excuse to come to our doors was a strategic and passive technique to tell us we were late without actually insulting us or making us feel judged.

Turks may also be taken aback by the American habits of self-disclosing personal information to strangers and openly speaking about our own qualifications. They generally communicate more formerly with strangers than Americans do; for instance, they have customary phrases that are expected to be used when speaking with someone who is older or in a higher position. Turks are also more modest when it comes to describing their own qualifications because their culture is not an individualistic one. Instead of doing it themselves, Turks expect their close friends to speak about their credentials and achievements. For example, I’ve noticed that very few of the Turkish students I’ve met offer up information about their studies and past achievements unless I directly ask them to.

Americans in Turkey need to be aware of their preference for passive and non-insulting attitudes. If you will be working in Turkey, for example, your supervisor may not directly tell you that you are doing something wrong, but might instead hint at it with eye contact or a passive comment. Also, they may not answer your questions as directly as your management in the US may. Also keep in mind that they may find your own American assertiveness and directness to be offensive.

Furthermore, they may find your well prepared ‘elevator speech’ to be impolite because of how much you talk about yourself. If you are looking for a job in Turkey, try to focus more on your references and how they will portray you than you might in the US. If you are hiring Turkish people, realize that they may not wish to reveal all of their achievements to you because they see it as inappropriate. In this case, be sure to ask for references.

Equality vs. Hierarchy

Like individualism, another highly cherished value in US culture is equality. The 18th Century revolutionaries who founded the country fought against the British monarchy system and replaced it with democracy. Looking at organizational communication, Americans usually respect superiors who try to relate to them and do not patronize them. Horizontal communication among equals is preferred over vertical communication where status lines are clearly drawn. In the US every individual voice is perceived as mattering and one’s status is determined by their individual accomplishments.

Turkish people, however, are much more comfortable with vertical and hierarchical workplace relationships and communication. They highly value status and a supervisor is looked to for all the decisions. Following the hierarchy is of upmost importance. Our Turkish employer requires us to go through numerous prescribed channels of communication, for instance, to address any problems we may have.To directly contact the main manager would be considered highly inappropriate. To bypass any steps of the hierarchy in an organization (no matter how little the issue) would be frowned upon.

Americans working in Turkey must be aware that while showing initiative and creativity during a job in the US and then explaining it to the supervisor later may be rewarded, doing so in a Turkish organization without first going through prescribed channels to get permission to change a procedure could easily be interpreted as disrespectful and damaging to the organization as a whole, no matter how good the idea was.

As more and more Americans visit, study, and work in Turkey, our knowledge of the differences in communication values between the US and Turkey will have to increase. The information above is based on the book I link to and my own experiences. If you are planning to go to Turkey, I highly recommend buying a book such as the one above and talking to people who have spent a lot of time there before, so that you become comfortable with the differences in communication.

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About Igor Ristic 2 Articles
Igor Ristic has a Master's in Communication from Northern Kentucky University and is currently working on his PhD in Communication at the University of Kansas. He is also a Communication instructor at KU. You can read more of his work on his blog, CharacterRistic.

2 Comments

  1. I want to dispute the way this article is written. Rather than discussing communication styles exclusively it makes some generalizations about personalities that aren’t fully accurate. Americans aren’t “aggressive” by character and Turks are not “passive.” This simply isn’t true. What’s true is that different types of statements and questions will be seen as aggressive or passive in Turkey. A question like “how much money do you make” will be seen as aggressive and imposing by an American, but it’s quite commonly asked in Turkey. Direct comments about a person’s weight are common in Turkey, an American by contrast wouldn’t talk about another person’s weight because they wouldn’t want to hurt another person’s feelings.
    It’s quite often the case that strangers on the street in Turkey will bark out questions to me “hey, where are you from?” “Hey, come here!” The guy downstairs will often yell at me when I’m clearly too busy to talk. This would strike an American as somewhat aggressive (though there is no aggressive intent whatsoever).
    This is written as though Americans will just directly say anything with no consideration of how the other person will take it. If that were the case, Americans in Turkey wouldn’t bother trying to avoid hurting people’s feelings when they accidentally said something insulting. As a general rule, no people of any culture enjoy insulting people, there are merely different rules and conventions about what is and is not polite.
    In Turkey people quite often cut in line while in the states people wait their turn. Which is more collectivistic and which is more individualistic? Cultures defy easy classification along those lines.

    • Daniel,

      Thanks so much for checking out the website and my post, and for the detailed comments about the first sections of the article!

      I certainly made no intentional implications that people of any culture enjoy insulting any other people, and after re-reading it, I don’t see where you see the ‘people enjoy insulting each other’ implication in my article above. Furthermore, I had no intent to portray Americans as ‘saying anything with no consideration of how the other person will take it’. I am simply portraying that they are generally more aggressive and not suggesting that this aggressiveness is the result of malicious intent.

      I believe communication styles and personalities are NOT mutually exclusive; one does not exist in a vacuum without being influenced by the other. It is indeed possible to have an aggressive personality versus a passive personality, and the type of personality will influence how that person communicates with others in certain contexts. Of course it is illogical to generalize a certain aggressive / passive style onto an entire population; there will always be outliers. However, it has been proven through research that on the aggressiveness-passiveness continuum, Americans skew more towards aggressiveness than collectivist cultures in certain contexts, such as organizational and during conflict management.

      I agree that perceptions can often be just as important; your examples of times when Americans may perceive Turkish people as aggressive are valid. However, in my examples above, I was talking about aggressiveness/passiveness in conflict-management and organizational scenarios, because the source that I used (linked to in the original article) was also looking at the conflict management context. I should have made the context more clear in the examples. Looking at different contexts (such as interpersonal interactions and talking about topics such as weight, as you mention) changes the situation a bit. Communication is so exciting to me because of how complicated it is; what I write in this article is not a formula that works 100% of the time, but an observation of patterns. Thus I happily acknowledge that there will be many times in which Turks seem more aggressive and Americans more passive.

      I also believe you perceive ‘aggressiveness’ here as being something negative–again when I use this word I mean no malicious intent. Notice I also used directness vs. indirectness a lot, which gets at the idea that these are not choices in which one is more insulting than the other, but just that they vary in how the information is delivered.

      Again I refer to the original source I used for this article, and to any number of academic and non-academic (i.e. guides for international business travelers) sources about intercultural communication if you would like evidence supporting that individualistic cultures are more aggressive/direct in their communication styles when looking at conflict-management and organizational contexts than collectivistic cultures.

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