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The friendly American in me struggled with this seemingly bizarre fact: Turks do not smile.  Growing up in a small town, I was trained to make eye-contact and smile at everyone I pass. However, when I moved to Istanbul, I quickly learned that this only brought unwanted attention from men, and skeptical looks from women. It boggled my mind, how could a country with such an emphasis on hospitality,  with such deep bonds between friends and family, be so closed-off to the people they encounter on the streets? Well, a recent op-ed piece in the Turkish Daily News attempts to explain this mystery. He asserts the following:

1.) “Turkey is a ‘transitional society’, one that is in the critical middle of a long transformation from a traditional (rural, agrarian and communal) to a modern (urban) nation. So, traditional mores are eroding, whereas new ones are not fully matured”

2.) The political climate is incredibly divisive and promotes significant levels of distrust between parties, people and government as a whole. This distrust spreads to the unfamiliar. Problems within the country are blamed on “enemies within and without”. In the absence of a true democracy, there is a lack of openness.

2.) Despite the rapid urbanization of Turkey, Turks still identify their hometown as their father’s place of birth. Very few people are from Istanbul, however this growing metropolis has become home to a diverse group of people from all over the country. In a ‘colossal city’ like Istanbul, there are too much that is unknown and unfamiliar. You no longer know or trust your neighbor. These neighborhood and local bonds are no longer relevant or possible in large urban environments.

While this is not necessarily unique to Turkey, it is interesting to contemplate how the political climate impacts social bonds and interactions in a place I call ‘home’.

istiklal caddesi

The Significance of a Smile

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