Cultural Etiquette -- Turkey
June 4, 2014 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Someone I work with is Turkish and in Turkey for the summer. He asked me to let him know if I would like something from Turkey. I do! But do I take him up on it?

I work with a huge population of people originally from outside the US. Many of these people will bring me back a knick knack or sweet treat from their travels and I am always appreciative!

But I have never before been asked if I would like something and to specify what that something may be. I am far less familiar with Turkish culture than I'd like. So I don't know if this is something I should politely deflect as "it's very kind of you! Please do!" Or do I ignore it as a general nicety, or do I specify the thing I am interested in?
posted by zizzle to Human Relations (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would say something like, "I'm not as familiar with Turkish culture as I'd like to be! I love sweets of all kinds, I'd love to sample your favorite Turkish treat."

This way, he can decide how to introduce you to something Turkish, that he's enthusiastic about, and it can be as cheap as the price of a candy bar. Easy to get, easy to transport, cheap.

Next time you go away, offer to bring him something.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:00 AM on June 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

Maybe too simple of an answer, but Turkish Delight is really good. If you do want a "sweet treat" ask him for a few examples and then be like, that sounds good, if you see some of that and get a chance to bring it back, that would be great!
posted by sweetkid at 8:17 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I personally collect souvenir spoons for this very reason :-) Maybe not the most polite to request a very specific often hard-to-find item, but usually I reserve this for close friends and family. So for a co-worker, I also like the idea of asking for some kind of sweet treat to try, and then making sure to return the gesture the next time you take a trip.
posted by Shadow Boxer at 8:24 AM on June 4, 2014

My answer is always SAFFRON. Much less expensive over there and so great to cook with when scarcity isn't so much of an issue. Otherwise, "I like snack food from other places, thanks so much for offering" is an open-ended way of answering that question that isn't too specific and doesn't seem grabby.
posted by jessamyn at 8:35 AM on June 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: He bought me Turkish Delight before! It was a huge box. I put it out for everyone to eat with a note about what it was. It was gone pretty fast.

I also never take trips.......and I am in a support position to faculty, so I'm not sure it's appropriate for me to give gifts to him.....even though it's common practice for faculty to give things to support personnel at this institution.
posted by zizzle at 8:41 AM on June 4, 2014

Response by poster: I also do know what I WOULD like....but I'm not sure if specifically saying that is what I would like would be appropriate, either.
posted by zizzle at 8:42 AM on June 4, 2014

Turkish people (it's been my experience) absolutely LOVE to show off their cuisine. If he asked you, then he's sincere. Let him know that you'd love to take him up on his offer and leave it to his discretion.

Turkish Delight is to die for, and Baklava from Turkey is heavenly.
posted by patheral at 8:44 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Didn't see your second follow up. Again, if he asked you, then he sincerely wants to know. If your item isn't too expensive, then something along the lines of, "I'd love to try [item] if it's not too much trouble." is completely appropriate.

I had quite a few Turkish colleagues who went back to Turkey for the summer and they were more than happy to bring back stuff for me so long as it wasn't too big or too expensive. Again, he asked, so there's no harm in answering.
posted by patheral at 8:47 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you want something specific, could you offer to pay for it? Something like "So kind of you to offer! If you have a chance, I'd love it if you could pick up some XX for me. I'd be very happy to reimburse you if you let me know how much it comes to! Of course, if you're not near an XX store or if you don't get the opportunity, then that's no problem at all."
posted by cider at 9:04 AM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you want something specific, could you offer to pay for it? Something like "So kind of you to offer! If you have a chance, I'd love it if you could pick up some XX for me. I'd be very happy to reimburse you if you let me know how much it comes to! Of course, if you're not near an XX store or if you don't get the opportunity, then that's no problem at all."

Tread very carefully with this route. If someone offered to bring you back something from their country, and you offer to pay for it then you run a strong risk of offending them and ruining a friendship. Walk softly.
posted by patheral at 9:29 AM on June 4, 2014

Best answer: Ask for something uniquely Turkish, and also not terribly expensive. I would recommend a peshtemal, a light cotton towel of a certain design. It will please his Turkish pride, and if you don't like using it (they are not for everyone) they make nice table covers, or you can discreetly give it away -- they are very trendy right now.
posted by seasparrow at 9:50 AM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

From my few months living in Turkey, I would parse this as part of the hospitality culture. Turks are very giving, and quick to offer to take you places or to find you things. The threshold most Turks have for knowing or liking someone enough to do them a favor, or to be their host, is much lower than many Americans are used to. The flip side is a more rapid deepening of the mutual obligation between you. You don't necessarily need to reciprocate with a gift, though that's one way to instantiate your end of the now-closer relationship.

I've also encountered a Rule of Three in Turkish hospitality, though I'm not enough of an expert on Turkish culture to know exactly how to apply it in this case. The "rule" goes like this: say you've been invited to a Turkish person's house. After you take off your shoes and put on slippers, they ask if you'd like anything to drink. The proper response is "no", even if you're thirsty. Their proper counter-response is to offer again, perhaps after a small delay. You're still supposed to refuse. Supposedly only on the third offer do you accept.

So on the one hand, Turks are generally quick to go out of their way to help people out (for instance, by picking something up for a friend on a visit home). It's not impolite to take them up on it. On the other hand, if I were you I might bring up the subject of their going home without mentioning their offer, and see if they offer a second time. I might coyly refuse in that conversation ("oh, you don't have to do that", but not too strong), and allow them to reiterate their offer ("no, really, it's no big deal") before I took them up on it ("well, actually I do love Turkish ___, maybe...?").

If you have a specific item in mind, I wouldn't say that naming it is in itself a problem. However, how you phrase your request depends greatly on the expense and difficulty of getting and transporting that item. If you want something costly, it's not out of order to offer to pay (and then again invoke the treacherous Rule of Three dance). If it's something small (e.g. a nazar or oya) then I'd still offer to pay, but I would let them win that 'argument' so they can play the host by buying it for me as a gift. In either event I would be taking on a social debt.
posted by daveliepmann at 9:54 AM on June 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

A good friend of mine married a man from Turkey and we attended their wedding last year. From my knowledge of him and our time with his family, I would say that Turkish culture is in general extremely genuine and also very generous. The people we met loved to share aspects of their culture with us and were so happy to have us there. While I might have the same qualms about saying yes to a similar offer from an American, I think in this case I would take his offer at face value and happily accept. If he asked you what you would like, I would assume it is because he wants to make sure you enjoy his gift.
posted by horses, of courses at 9:55 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

So what thing do you want? It's easier for us to say if it's appropriate or not if we know what you want to ask him for.
posted by Omnomnom at 10:12 AM on June 4, 2014

Response by poster: I really like artisan yarns and accessory garments. The peshtemal would be right up my alley of interests and love! Plus something I would absolutely use!
posted by zizzle at 10:29 AM on June 4, 2014

I had a Turkish flatmate for a couple of years, and met loads of Turks in London as a result. They are very very generous hosts, and love sharing their culture and customs. I loved her cooking, it was so delicious. My first suggestion would be sweets, like the above mentioned Turkish Delights or baklva but might also ask for an Nazar. The bright blue stones are seen as tourist items, but I've seen lots of Turkish expats have them around their houses, or used as key rings, parts of jewellery, etc.

Agree about the dancing around favours ritual.
posted by slyrabbit at 4:08 PM on June 4, 2014

Lived in Turkey for two years--they're absolutely serious about wanting to do something for you besides the candy. Fun things that are not costly are puzzle boxes, single glass candle lamps, brass and copper figurines, hand painted objects, carved wood, ceramic tiles, ebru (hand marbled paper), small kilim bags or mini-carpets, small (18"x10" woven silk coverings, and lace crafts--many of the small village pazars had old women sitting in the shade tatting or finger-weaving items for a lira or two.

Offer to send some money with them for these things. They may or may not take it. If you would like something larger like a camel saddle or a kilim carpet, ask them first how much room they have to carry things, them second, if they'd be willing to bring it back, and lastly give them the amount you want to spend. Also ask them if they're able to bring back what you request--not sure about the import issues, as we were traveling with the civil service and our shipping was paid for and non-restricted. If they don't know, you'll have to research that.

While we were there, friends and acquaintances gave me variously: a gold horse pendant, a goat hair braided tent rope, handmade kites, a unique horse shoe and an antique stirrup, handmade head scarves, a ceramic dove and hand thrown plates, lots of different (and beautiful) nazars, a lovely set of gold rimmed Turkish tea glasses, and different textiles--towels, a large spread, a floor pillow, and a silk table runner. They are amazingly generous people and justifiably proud of what their culture produces.

With regard to your friends asking you want you want, they are serious. Turkey is an ask, not guess culture. They are not offended if you ask for what you're interested in. If they give a soft click of the tongue and toss their head back, it's a pretty emphatic no, even if they soften it verbally. ;)

Lastly, remember that it is a reciprocal culture. They do you a favor, and you will do them a favor--and believe me, they will ask. Often you can derail the asking by taking them to dinner or buying them some small thing in return. If you're worried about the type of favor, politely say no, or stick with small things like taffy and nazar trinkets. The vast majority of the Turkish people 99.9% were very open, honest, and kind, but occasionally there would be one or two that would try to maneuver us into buying things illegally on the AF base. You can pretty well tell who that will be, and it's doubtful your friends are like that, but still....
posted by BlueHorse at 7:54 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

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