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[Know how to] master non-verbal communication in Turkey

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Laurence Rega

From one country to another, some body moves can have quite a different meaning than the expected one.  To help you avoiding finding yourself in an embarassing situation, cafébabel here offers you the first part of a glossary that should get you through nonverbal communication's tricks. Real life experiences included! 

More than taming some basic Turkish words, mastering local nonverbal language is a must if you wish to survive. 

Indeed, just like our Italian friends do, Turks place a communicative value in their body language as much as in their voice - because a wink and slapping fingers are worth a thousand words. But there is a catch: Turkey is one of those countries where some moves can be perceived, culturally, in a different way. Here, you do not play « I stole your nose » with the daughter of your boss, unless you secretly hope to be fired without notice. Because embarrassment is a heavy burden, cafébabel Istanbul elaborated for you a glossary (supported by testimonies!) of these body-language moves you absolutely need to master in your everyday life / should reproduce in Turkey under no circumstances / simply ought to forget once you go back home.

1 - « Yes », not to be mistaken for « I am feeling sleepy »

« I went to a farm in southern Turkey as a part of my Voluntary Service. Famous for its goat cheese production, I worked there for two weeks. Every morning Zarife, a woman from the village, was coming to help the owner with the milking of the goats. I was helping them too: I was separating puppies from the mothers that, during the afternoon, were going to the forest. Zarife did not speak a word of English, and I did not speak a word of Turkish. One day, I asked her whether I should or not open the gate and let the puppies out. She did not answer in English, because she didn’t know how to, but she had understood me. Instead, she just closed her eyes in a very gentle way. At first, I thought she probably was feeling sleepy. After several times, I finally understood. It meant YES! Otherwise, when she would open her eyes wide, that meant NO! Rather strange to me, it actually was in the end a nice experience of non-verbal communication. »

(Cristina, Italy)

In order to say yes, Turks often simply close their eyes, rising / lowering their head gently, like a mysterious spiritual coach would do in a yoga club downtown.

2 - « No », not to be mistaken for « yes » nor « get out of here,  you piece of shit »

« After spending a few months in Turkey, I went back to Belgium. At the movies, I bought some popcorn: when the cashier offered me a half price coke with it, I responded by doing the T noise while lifting my chin and - instead of saying "no, Thank you".  She became very cross and rude to me. I told her there was no reason to be upset because I did not want to buy a Coke. She replied that I was the one being rude, imitating my gesture. At that point, I realized that in Belgium, a similar gesture means something like "get out of here, you piece of shit". I was struck by cultural difference, apologized - but was unable to convince her that my gesture actually meant "no, thank you". »

(Sophie, Belgium)

« The "no" that is looks like a "yes"! At first, when I was for instance inviting my colleagues out for a smoke, they would answer with that "no" ... and I would stand there, waiting anyways! »

(Cath, France)

« For "no" , they tut/click their tongue on their teeth, while raising their heads upwards quickly and lifting their eyebrows. That looks pretty offensive ... and more like a "yes"! Two years ago, the bus driver did that when I asked him if he was going to the Bebek Sahili. So I stayed on the bus and found myself quite away from initial destination! »

(Nariman Essam El-Din El-Mansoury, Egypt)

Unique, the Turkish « no » consists of, as illustrated by these stories, raising your head and lifting your eyebrows, while hitting your foreteeth with your tongue. Rather perceived as offensive in Western countries, we advise you to adopt it, but definitely not to import it!

3 - « Fuck you », not to be mistaken for « I stole your nose »

« I was playing "I stole your nose" with my 3 year-old step-son in the elevator while waiting for my husband. You know, the thumb in between the index and middle finger and then wiggle it. My husband just entered when I did it, and was outraged that I was swearing rudely to a 3 –years-old kid. I explained I was playing a game, but I still think he was too shocked to get it! »

 (Anonymous, England)

In Turkey, by playing this innocent, cute game, you are actually telling people to go fuck themselves. At your own risks!

4 - « Atishoo », but not in public

« I did an Erasmus in Germany. My biggest cultural shock: people blowing their nose in public. Not only it seemed extremely rude, but I was also traumatized by the sound that could get out of all those noses around me. Cleaning your nose is a private matter here in Turkey! »

 (Serdar, Turkey)

You got it: avoid blowing your nose in public, unless you want to say something like « guess which famous song I am imitating with my stuffy nose without caring about the fact that it seems to disturb you a lot »!

Yes, no, I stole your nose, atishoo: four examples that show the complexity of the local non-verbal language. Very, very soon, we will come back with some other basics you need to master in order to ensure your survival - in the meantime, you can already work on these!

Translated from [Apprendre à] maîtriser le langage non-verbal turc