Expats doing business in Turkey will find themselves in a unique and dynamic business environment. With the country at the crossroads of Asia and Europe and its access to the Middle East, Turkey is a melting pot of Western, Eastern and Arabic influences.
Due to its political and economic stability, and its strategic geographic location, it has been seen by many international investors as the stepping stone to Central Asia and the Middle East. As such, many international organisations have set up regional offices in Turkey, particularly in the capital, Ankara, and Istanbul.
Doing business in Turkey is not overly complicated, but expats need to have a good grasp of the local business environment and the country’s unique cultural and social dynamics.
Business hours are usually Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 6pm, with lunch generally between 12pm and 1pm.
Language of business
Turkish is the official language of business, although English is widely spoken by Turkish businesspeople. It may be useful for expats to learn a few key phrases of Turkish as this will be highly appreciated, but interpreters are also plentiful in Turkish business circles.
A firm handshake is exchanged when male associates greet each other, and direct eye contact should be maintained at all times. This is often accompanied by the Islamic greeting, 'Assalamu alaikum' (peace be upon you). Although some Muslim women prefer not to, most women will also shake hands with business associates. If unsure, wait for a woman to initiate greetings.
Business dress in Turkey is conservative. Men are expected to wear a suit and tie, although high temperatures and humidity in Turkish cities may sometimes negate this and a shirt and smart trousers are acceptable. Women should also wear smart business suits and keep their shoulders, arms and legs covered.
Gift-giving is not an established practice in Turkish business circles, with Turks preferring to take business associates out for dinner instead. If giving gifts, avoid alcohol or pork products.
Conservative attitudes are still common in Turkey, although Turkish businessmen are generally respectful of women.
Business culture in Turkey
Family is important in Turkish culture, and this carries through to the nation’s business culture. Many businesses in Turkey are still family-run and -owned, and business is intimate. The key to doing business in Turkey is, therefore, in building strong and long-lasting personal relationships with Turkish associates.
Courtesy and respect are essential. When conducting meetings in Turkey, asking personal questions about family, and chatting about Turkish culture and football are good first steps before moving into any formal business discussions. Direct eye contact is also crucial, as Turks see this as a sign of respect.
Gestures are significant in Turkey, but may be confusing if expats aren't aware of their meaning. Nodding one’s head forward and down indicates 'yes', while 'no' is indicated by nodding one’s head up and back, usually with raised eyebrows. Shaking one’s head from side to side indicates that something is not understood.
Rank and authority are respected in Turkish business circles. Decisions are made from the top down, generally by the head of the family or company. Nevertheless, the opinions of the group are important, and those doing business in Turkey may find themselves having initial meetings with less senior associates first. They may only move on to meet higher-level executives or senior family members once a relationship and trust has been established. Decision-making can, therefore, be a slow process, and patience is required.
Religion and business
Although Turkey is a secular state, Islam is the dominant religion and has a strong influence over Turkish culture and business practices. This is evident in the frequent prayer times for Muslims, who will break five times a day to pray. Friday is traditionally the Islam holy day, and most men will attend Friday afternoon prayers. Expats doing business in Turkey should keep this in mind when arranging business meetings and appointments.
During the holy month of Ramazan (Ramadan), Muslims fast during daylight hours and refrain from smoking and drinking. Expats should respect the traditions and refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in front of Muslim associates during this time.
Dos and don’ts of business in Turkey
Do maintain eye contact when speaking to Turkish associates
Do remember that business can be extremely personal in Turkey, so building personal relationships is important to establishing lasting business connections
Do use both hands when handing over a business card or giving a gift
Don't be offended if a Turkish business associate stands close while conversing. Turks do not require as much personal space as some Westerners may be used to.
Do learn the significance of gestures when negotiating with Turkish associates as these may lead to confusion or miscommunication