Expats doing business in Turkey will find themselves in a unique and dynamic business environment. With the country straddling Asia and Europe across the Bosphorus and sitting within reach of the Middle East, Turkey is a melting pot of Western, Eastern and Arabic influences.
Doing business in Turkey is not overly complicated. However, expats need to have a good grasp of the local business environment and the country’s unique cultural and social dynamics.
Turkey has a large and well-educated population. 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.
In the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Survey, Turkey was placed 33rd out of 190 countries surveyed. The country scored well for factors such as protecting minority investors (21st), registering property (27th) and enforcing contracts (24th), but low in resolving insolvency (120th).
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 ensure that they keep their shoulders, arms and legs covered at all times.
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). Most women will also shake hands with business associates, although some Muslim women may not shake hands. If unsure, wait for a woman to initiate greetings.
Language of business
Turkish is the official language of business, although English is widely spoken by Turkish businesspeople. Other languages spoken in Turkey include Kurdish and Arabic. It may be useful for expats to learn a few key phrases of Turkish as this will be highly appreciated. However, interpreters are also plentiful in Turkish business circles.
Business hours are usually Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm, with lunch generally between 12pm and 1pm. Muslims may break for prayer five times a day and leave the office early on a Friday for afternoon prayers. Many Turks take vacation during July and August. This should be considered when arranging meetings and appointments.
Conservative attitudes are still common in Turkey, although Turkish businessmen are generally respectful of women.
Gift-giving is not an established practice in Turkish business circles. If giving gifts, be mindful of the Muslim culture. Gifts of alcohol or pork products should be avoided.
Business culture in Turkey
Family is very 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 very personal. The key to doing business in Turkey is, therefore, in building strong and long-lasting personal relationships with Turkish associates.
Courtesy and respect are important. 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 important 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. 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, usually 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, only moving 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 in 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 are required to fast 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 very 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 associates stand very 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