Turkish Culture

Core Concepts

  • Generosity
  • Hospitality
  • Community Networks
  • Nationalism
  • Honour
  • Kemalism
  • Loyalty


Turkey (officially the Republic of Turkey) is a large country situated on the crossroads between Europe and Asia. Its geographic position between these continents has exposed Turkish society to both Eastern and Western influences – from the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe to Central Asia and the Caucasus. As a result, the culture hosts unique blends of both traditional and modern conventions as well as religious and secular practices. Indeed, Turks continue to negotiate their identity as some of the most secular people in the Islamic world.

 

It is important to note that cultural practices, social attitudes and lifestyles vary significantly across the country. There are substantial differences between localities (rural/urban), regions, socioeconomic status, ethnicities and educational levels. Nevertheless, Turks are generally united by a strong national identity (see National Identity and Kemalism below). They also share certain core cultural values, such as a sense of honour, hospitality and neighbourliness.

 

Regional Differences

The Turkish population has become increasingly urbanised, with the majority of people (75.1%) living in industrialised metropolitan areas.1 This has influenced a shift towards more cosmopolitan lifestyles. For example, it is now far more common for urban Turks to have dinner at a dining table, as opposed to a traditional floor table. Major cities, such as Istanbul and Ankara, are typically very modern and multicultural. However, many classic Turkish institutions remain very popular. For instance, local bazaars continue to be the main trading centres instead of shopping centres.


Traditional cultural practices continue to be observed in many rural areas – particularly in the Eastern regions and along the border with Syria and Iraq. Rural populations often occupy the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder and have less access to education and infrastructure. As a broad generalisation, the further one moves east towards Central, Eastern and Southeast Anatolia, the more traditional and Islamic the culture becomes.


Honour

The concept of honour (onur) is deeply embedded in Turkish culture, noticeably influencing people’s behaviour. A person’s honour is determined by their personal actions as well as the behaviour of those they are associated with (i.e. their family, community or any 'group' they belong to). Therefore, if an individual does something dishonourable, their origins (e.g. family) may be implicated as the cause. In this way, there is a cultural pressure on individuals to protect their personal reputation (namus) and the image of those around them. This may require people to give a public impression of dignity and integrity by stressing their positive qualities, emphasising their family member’s achievements and adhering to social expectations.

 

There are many ways by which one can gain or lose honour. Typically, honourable behaviour relates to having a high social status, maintaining sexual modesty and exhibiting core Turkish virtues such as honesty and hospitality. ‘Seref’ describes honour gained from accomplishments or achievements, whereas ‘izzet’ refers to honour that is derived from being good and generous to others. When one loses honour and feels a deep shame, this is referred to as ‘yuzsuz’.

 

It is worth noting that the expectations regarding what is ‘honourable’ and ‘shameful’ can vary significantly among people of different family backgrounds, regions, educational levels and social attitudes. For example, younger Turks may hide certain actions from the older generations who might be deeply offended by such behaviours. Those living in rural areas also tend to have more traditional and rigid views regarding the honour code. In these smaller communities, the social shaming following an act of dishonour can seriously affect one’s life, opportunities, socioeconomic status and self-worth. Nonetheless, the awareness of honour highlights the virtue underlying people’s actions and generally influences Turks to be generous, warm and honest.

 

Community Networks

Turkey has a collectivist culture whereby strong loyalty is shown to familial and social groups, as well as the broader nation. People’s relationships with their neighbours and community are generally closer than what many from the English-speaking West experience. Friends are often very loyal, performing favours for each other on a regular basis. It is common to call on vast social networks for support and opportunities, especially as the government does not totally guarantee social security in all cases. Though there is a strong group consciousness, Turks generally remain open and inviting to strangers and outsiders. Ultimately, neighbourliness is central to Turkish culture. 


The sociable nature of Turkish society (as well as the very high population density) does not provide very much privacy or seclusion. The details of people’s personal lives are often shared among communities and friends; a family’s shortcomings can quickly become publicly known and damage their honour and reputation (namus). Therefore, people may be careful to keep sensitive personal information within the family (see Honour above). Nonetheless, Turkish migrants may miss this aspect of their culture as those in the English-speaking West generally show less interest and concern for the private lives of strangers. It should be noted that the influence of cosmopolitan ideals and technology has led to a general decline of collectivistic/community values in urban areas of Turkey. The younger generation may also show more preference towards individualism.


Hospitality

The Turkish community is often exceptionally generous, attending to those in need very quickly. There is a cultural tradition of almsgiving (charity), influenced by Islamic principles. Selflessness is noticeable on a day-to-day level. For example, a Turk may feel compelled to give their own possessions as gifts when someone compliments them. They also tend to defer decision-making to the other person out of politeness. For instance, when asking for a time to meet, they may answer “whenever you feel like”. While this can slow down day-to-day activities, it's reflective of the humbleness Turks adopt out of politeness. Unsuspecting foreigners can sometimes take advantage of the hospitality of Turks, accepting overly generous offers that are made out of politeness and are customarily meant to be refused. This can put Turks in difficult situations where they find themselves over-extending beyond their means.

 

Daily Life

In Turkey, daily activity is approached at an easier pace and more time is devoted to personal interactions. There is rarely a great need to rush and so people generally allow engagements to run over-time. Attending to relationships with others is sometimes considered more important than being punctual and cutting a conversation short. 

 

Older men in towns are often seen sitting in teahouses (çayhane) sipping drinks and debating over board games and tea all day, while women visit their neighbours to talk about the local/family news. This approach to time and socialisation resembles that of the Mediterranean region Turkey borders. A cultural patience and flexibility is also somewhat influenced by religious fatalism. For example, the common response ‘Inșallah’ (God willing) demonstrates people’s belief that events are predetermined by the will of God (Allah).


National Origins and Identity

Turkey was previously part of the Ottoman Empire that ruled for six centuries over multiple nations and cultures in Europe, Africa and Asia. Turks were at the centre of this mega-conquest, with the capital Istanbul (known then as ‘Constantinople’) acting as a central trade hub between the East and West. The Ottoman Empire dissolved following its allies’ defeat in World War I. The Republic of Turkey was founded in its place in 1923.

 

The formation of the modern Turkish state was accompanied by the development of a strong national identity. There was a general declaration that Turkey had been established for ‘Turkish people’. As such, one’s national identity as a Turkish citizen came to take more precedence than one’s ethnic identity. This powerful national identity has arguably unified the country whilst marginalising some minorities (see Ethnicities and Minorities below). Nationalism continues to be one of the strongest ideologies in Turkish society. People are generally very proud of the Turkish country and culture, as well as its Ottoman history. Patriotism is visible on a day-to-day level. For example, one generally sees the Turkish flag displayed wherever they go in Turkey – hanging off houses, shops and highrise buildings.

 

Kemalism

Turkey’s national identity is often attributed to the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (“father of the Turks”), who was the founder of the Republic of Turkey and its first president. Motivated by ideals of secularism and democratic nationalism, Atatürk implemented a series of reforms during the course of his presidency (1923-1938). These were intended to modernise the country and alter public life to more closely resemble that of European cultures. For example, certain aspects of Western dress were made compulsory for citizens to wear, and the Turkish language was reformed to replace Arabic script with a modified Roman alphabet. He also removed Islam as a state religion after centuries of Islamic tradition and limited the visibility of faith in the public sphere (see Religion for more information). Although the actualisation of his ideologies was complicated by various factors, the shift was dramatic. 


Atatürk’s strongly held ideals and their newfound place in Turkish society were dubbed ‘Kemalism’. Many Turks continue to revere Atatürk for the steps he took to modernise their country and make it more culturally compatible with Europe. It continues to be a crime to insult his name or memory. The military has traditionally been recognised as the ‘protector’ of Kemalism, using force to overthrow leaders who have been perceived as threats to secularism and nationalism. 

 

Political Shifts

Turkey’s social and political landscape has shifted a lot in recent years. This has been most noticeable in the rise of the populist leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A religious conservative, Erdoğan has appealed to a large demographic of people who have felt disenfranchised by the secular politics of their country. He was democratically elected, originally taking power in 2002 as prime minister and president subsequently in 2014. However, his governing style has become increasingly authoritarian, limiting social freedoms, controlling the media and jailing those who stand in opposition to him. In 2017, he won a referendum that grants his presidency further unprecedented power.

 

Many of his critics accuse him of eroding secularism and democracy, and showing disregard for human rights. Military forces, police forces and other public servant factions are split in support (although many of those in outright opposition have been jailed). In 2016, a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces attempted a coup d’etat against Erdoğan’s government. This failed, killing over 300 people and leading to a crackdown on civilian opposition. There have been mass civilian arrests (more than 50,000 detained pending trial) and over 100,000 soldiers, police officers, teachers and judges dismissed from their duty.2 Turkey currently imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world.3

 

Divided opinions over Erdoğan have become more pronounced in society. Nevertheless, he continues to appeal to a large number of religious, conservative Turks (generally belonging to the middle and lower classes). Turks living in other countries may talk about politics quite openly. Political analysis and discussion is a pastime for some and the situation in Turkey arguably provides a lot of material to examine. However, consider that the crackdown on political opponents may limit some people’s ability to share their opinion.


Ethnicities and Minorities

Approximately 70-75% of the population is identified as ethnically Turkish.4 However, there are multiple other ethnic minorities, including (but not limited to) Kurds, Arabs, Zazas, Albanians, Armenians, Circassians and Assyrians. The Turkish government has a history of suppressing the cultural, linguistic and traditional identity of ethnic minorities in its effort to promote the national identity.Ethnicity has largely remained a sensitive subject in Turkey and is not commonly discussed.

 

The Kurdish people constitute the largest ethnic minority in Turkey. Their population size is a matter of debate, with various estimates indicating they constitute anywhere between 15-20% of the Turkish population. Kurds speak multiple dialects of Kurdish.6 The majority are Sunni Muslims, although a significant number are Alevis (see Alevis in the Religion section). The Kurdish population is significantly disadvantaged, occupying the lowest socioeconomic income bracket and having lower life expectancies and education levels than the majority Turkish population.7 Most live in rural areas, particularly concentrated throughout the Eastern provinces of Turkey.

 

Kurds generally maintain strong ties to their tribal affiliations and follow quite traditional cultural practices. For many, their ethnic identity supersedes the Turkish national identity. However, they are denied official status and have faced systemic marginalisation, such as the discouragement of the Kurdish language in public institutions. Not all Kurds are politically motivated. However, many peaceful Kurdish movements have appealed for equal rights and greater acknowledgment. There have also been rebellions and terrorist attacks orchestrated by Kurdish nationalists demanding that a separate state (‘Kurdistan’) be formed. This has escalated tension between the Turkish government and Kurds.



1 CIA World Factbook, 2018

Lowen, 2018

3 The Economist, 2019

4 CIA World Factbook, 2016

5 Eryurt and Koç, 2015

6 Minority Rights Group International, 2018

7 Eryurt and Koç, 2015

Download this Cultural Profile

Too busy to read it right now?

You can download this cultural profile in an easy-to-read PDF format that can be printed out and accessed at any time.

Turkey
  • Population
    80,274,604
    [July 2016 est.]
  • Languages
    Turkish (official)
    Kurdish
    Other minority languages
  • Religions
    Islam (99.8%)
    Other (0.2%)
    Note: There are no official statistics of people's religious beliefs nor is it asked in the census. This is a government figure according drawn from existing national identification cards.
  • Ethnicities
    Turkish (70-75%)
    Kurdish (19%)
    Other minorities (7-12%)
    [2016 est.]
  • Cultural Dimensions
    66
    37
    45
    85
    46
    49
  • Australians with Turkish Ancestry
    72,968 [Census, 2016]
Turkish in Australia
  • Population
    32,178
    [Census, 2016]
    This figure refers to the number of Australian residents that were born in Turkey.
  • Average Age
    45 [Census, 2011]
  • Gender
    Male (52.1%)
    Female (47.9%)
    [Census, 2016]
  • Religion
    Islam (77.1%)
    No Religion (9.7%)
    Eastern Orthodox Christian (2.8%)
    Other (6.9%)
    Not stated (3.5%)
    [Census, 2011]
  • Ancestry
    Turkish (80.6%)
    Kurdish (4.0%)
    Armenian (2.8%)
    Other (9.6%)
    Not stated (3.1%)
    [Census, 2011]
  • Language Spoken at Home
    Turkish (83.0%)
    English (8.1%)
    Greek (2.2%)
    Armenian (1.8%)
    Other (4.8%)
    Of those who speak a language other than English at home, 68.0% speak English fluently.
    [Census, 2011]
  • Diaspora
    Victoria (50.2%)
    New South Wales (39.5%)
    Queensland (4.2%)
    Western Australia (3.2%)
    Other (2.9)
    [Census, 2011]
  • Arrival
    Prior to 1996 (64.1%)
    1996 - 2005 (15.9%)
    2006 - 2015 (15.4%)
    2016 (1.1%)
    Not stated (3.6%)
    [Census, 2016]
    Note: Arrivals up until 9 August 2016.
Country https://dtbhzdanf36fd.cloudfront.net/countries/210/tr.svg Flag Country Turkey