A comedy of manners

A translator I know was educated at Oxford; he spent a few years there, immersed in the English language and the culture. On his return to Turkey, by lunchtime of his first day his mother rounded on him and demanded to know why he kept thanking her for everything. You don’t do that in Turkey.

Please and thank you are normally the first words we learn in a foreign language, we like to be polite, to get off to a good start, but here they aren’t used that much because the standards of politeness are different.

I’m so intrinsically polite I recently noticed that I even write “please” on notes I leave for myself. Turks would never do this because so much is assumed in the close knit life here. That doesn’t mean Turkish people are not incredibly polite, they are, in a formal and intricate way that we have to learn to understand.

These things I know

It is rude for a man to phone a woman directly, or to call on her when her husband isn’t there. Many nicely brought up men will automatically check if the man of the house is present before entering the premises. It isn’t that they think you are a complete slut or too stupid to talk, they are just being polite.

In the same way the neighbouring ladies here will automatically ask for me if Nick answers the door, even if they just want to pass over the plate of grapes they are holding.

If someone gives you a plate of food you are supposed to hand the plate back with something you made yourself on it.

It is bad luck to throw bread away, so you leave it somewhere and it gets taken and then the bad luck isn’t yours.

Going out with wet hair is bad, everyone thinks you’ve just had a shag and have had the ritual wash afterwards. It makes me snigger because when ever I see the neighbour’s wife combing out her long dark hair after washing it I have to resist the urge to give the old man a knowing wink!

Scowling ferociously when having your picture taken is normal and shows how seriously you are taking the process of being preserved for eternity.

Personal space is a whole different thing here, as is privacy. The lady looking over your shoulder whilst you put your PIN number into the handset at Tansas isn’t a potential identity thief, she’s not even thinking about it, she’s probably just checking out your manicure.

Equally, when Aydem turn up in the village to read the electricity meters it isn’t rude for the neighbours to casually take the bill from the hand of Aydem employee and compare their bill with yours. Bills aren’t private here. Letters aren’t private. How much you earn or spend or owe is not considered something you just keep to yourself. Try not to worry about it; you won’t change it by being offended.

Calling and keeping in touch are important things in Turkish life, made even more a part of the society by the now widespread use of the mobile phone. A Turkish person who doesn’t receive four hundred calls a day feels like Billy No Mates. Turkish people expect to be contacted regularly; they want to hear from you. If you don’t call or visit they will be upset. I’m quiet, if I have nothing to say then I say nothing, this doesn’t really work in Turkish society. The complex dance of what appears to be essentially pointless communication reinforces the bonds of friendship and business and regularly touching base is an intrinsic part of life here.

Of all the things here I find that the hardest because I like quiet and I am frequently pre-occupied. I’m off somewhere working in my head and barely present in any real sense and I don’t notice time passing and I can mortally offend a Turkish friend by failing to call them.

Fortunately I now have Nick to act as a proxy; his gregarious, voluble, sociable nature makes up for my introvert tendencies and every day he is out and about in the village, touching personalities and keeping the wheels of society oiled with his presence.

And if he cocks up and does something offensive, which he does on occasion – we won’t forget his pantomime to the village ladies of Shadow in season! – he is forgiven because he is friendly and open and tries hard and that is the most important part of manners really.