Israr: insistence and hospitality in Turkey

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Prerequisites for this Turkish Culture Lesson

Survival vocab and travel guide for your first visit to Turkey

Basic pronunciation
Survival words & phrases
Cultural guidelines

In Turkey, insistence is a good thing

Many cultures view insistence as a negative thing. People from individualistic cultures tend to think that an offer should be made once and you shouldn’t insist. To insist would be rude and disrespectful of an individual’s decisions.

But in Turkey it is not that way. Here, insistence is simply the right thing to do.

Of course, there are exceptions. But often in Turkish culture, insisting shows that an offer is genuine ‑ whether a gift or service or hospitality.

4 confusing situations for outsiders

If you are from America or any other culture that places a high value on individualism, here are a few situations where you are likely to become uncomfortable in Turkey, where the culture places more value on collectivism than on individualism.

1. Paying for food or drinks at a cafe

In Turkey, if friends decide to meet up at a cafe or restaurant, it is common is for both friends to insist on paying the bill, even having a kind of friendly competition to decide who will be allowed to pay.

2. Offering food or drink

In many social contexts in Turkey, there is a social obligation for the host to offer food or drinks to their guests. If the offer is refused, the host may repeat the offer several times until the guest reluctantly accepts. It is not uncommon for the host to still bring out the offered food or drink even if it has been declined by the guest.

3. Inviting someone to an event

When inviting a local to your house or to an event, the initial offer may be politely declined even if they actually do want to accept the offer. If you insist on the offer, they will know that you are sincere about the offer and will feel the freedom to accept it.

4. Leaving a social event

If you are having a meal or drinking tea at a friend’s house and you indicate your intention to leave, it is not uncommon for the host to insist multiple times that you stay longer. They may insist that you have another round of tea or a plate of sweets before you leave. For this reason, locals will often indicate that they wish to leave 15 to 30 minutes before they actually plan to leave.

Cultural blunders with insistence

In Turkey, there are many unwritten rules on when certain things should be offered and how much those offers should be insisted. As an outsider learning the language and the culture, you will likely break these rules unknowingly. When this happens, you may end up communicating the wrong message through your insistence or lack thereof.

What happens when you don’t insist enough

A failure to insist on an offer according to the cultural rules in Turkey can lead the recipient of the offer to assume that the offer was not genuine. In general, the more effort the offer would require, the more insistence is expected if the offer is genuine. For example, if you offer to take someone with you on vacation or invite someone to stay at your house, the initial offer is likely to be declined. Only after the offer is repeated with strong insistence will the offer be accepted. Otherwise, they may assume the offer is simply a polite gesture and not a genuine offer that you’re hoping they accept.

In some cases, by not insisting, you can be perceived as unfriendly or rude by not fulfilling your hospitality obligations as a host. For example, if a local is drinking tea with you at your house and they indicate that they need to leave, you are often obligated as the host to insist at least once that they stay longer. If you stand up and lead them to the door immediately without protest, they may assume that you are communicating that there is something wrong in the relationship.

What happens when you insist too much

Just as there are cultural rules for when a person should insist, there are also cultural rules for when a person should not insist. As an outsider without knowledge of these rules, it is easy to get into a situation where you communicate the wrong thing by insisting on something inappropriately. Commonly, these blunders occur when an outsider insists on paying for something when it would be more culturally appropriate for the local to pay. By insisting on paying for something when the other person expected to pay, you may be inadvertently shaming them by communicating that you think they don’t have enough money to pay for it.

Here are some general guidelines for understanding the cultural expectations surrounding who should pay for the tea at a cafe or the meal at a restaurant. None of these rules are absolutes, but there is often a factoring of several of these rules going on.

Guidelines for who should pay the bill

  • Bills are not usually split, but are paid by one member of the group.
  • The person who suggested the meetup or chose the venue is more likely to be expected to pay.
  • If there is a significant age gap, the older person is more likely to pay.
  • Friends who meet together regularly will often switch up paying for bills. (So if they paid last time, you pay this time).
  • If one person is the host (or if they might be perceived as a host), they often feel obligated to pay.

Insistence and hospitality: who is the guest?

Many of the blunders that foreigners make in Turkey with insisting too much or not enough are rooted in a misunderstanding of the culture of hospitality in Turkey. Hospitality is one of the most important virtues in traditional Anatolian culture. Being hospitable to guests brings honor to the host. A failure in hospitality brings great shame to the host. Most people in Turkey take great pride in hospitality and many genuinely enjoy it as well. To these people who value hospitality, insisting on another round of tea is not just an obligation, but a delight ‑ to show that they value the friendship with their guest.

However, foreigners in Turkey often don’t even realize when they are a guest. As foreigner in Turkey, many people will automatically consider you their personal guest because you are a guest in their country. By striking up a conversation with a stranger in a cafe or on the street, you will often be perceived as a guest. In fact, it is not uncommon for restaurant owners and shop owners in non-touristic areas to refuse to accept payment from foreigners after striking up a conversation with them. This is because the foreigners are no longer customers ‑ they are valued guests!

Further reading on cultural perceptions of insistence

To continue learning about how the cultures in Turkey and other parts of the world perceive insistence, we recommend reading the following peer-reviewed article from the Cross-Cultural Communication journal. The article thoroughly discusses the concept of insistence in Palestinian Arab culture, which bears many similarities to the cultures in Turkey.

Mahmood K. M. Eshreteh. Re-Assessing Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: Insistence as a Marker of Affiliation and Connectedness. Cross-Cultural Communication: Vol. 11, No. 1, 2015, pp. 1-7.

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