One thing about Americans that they may or may not be aware of is that they are on a tight schedule. They’ve got every hour of every day planned, to the point that they have to schedule rest, or they won’t do it. It’s not unusual to make plans 3 weeks in advance for that one-hour time slot that just opened up, because your nail appointment-Pilates class-kid’s soccer practice just got cancelled. I used to live like this as a college student, too. All of my days and activities were planned to the hour and, oftentimes, even to the minute. I’d jet from one thing to the next, checking the clock and saying, “I’ve got to run.”
Then, I moved to Turkey.
Turkey is a collective culture with an extremely high emphasis on relationships. However, it is not easy to establish meaningful connections immediately with people. Turks are notoriously suspicious of each other and they find many westerners too trusting. I don’t blame them, considering their culture teaches lying is only “wrong” if you get caught (insert shame and honor culture analysis here); so, trust doesn’t come easy. But, if you can break past that initial wall then you’ve got a friend for life.
What does this mean for your schedule? It means that when you are making plans to meet with your friend for a “quick” cup of coffee, that actually means spending three hours at a cafe together. Don’t get me wrong, I love this togetherness. However, in my early expat days when I didn’t know any better, I tried to schedule my life like an American, but I was living among Turks in Turkey. They don’t schedule like me! It’s unheard of to have coffee or tea for ONE hour. It’s also unheard of to plan social hangouts more than a few days in advance. What feels like “last minute” to an American is the norm for many Turks. I really struggled to learn to adapt to this and at times I still struggle, but I want to share some tips and principles that continue to help me adapt to another culture’s value of time and let go of my strict “time management.” While some are specific to life in Turkey, I think these can be generally helpful to expats anywhere!
This is very self-explanatory. The more flexible you can be with your schedule and expectations, the more content you will be. If your friend says five o’clock, it could really mean six o’clock. This would be absolutely unacceptable in the US. Ironically, I’ve heard Turks complain about other Turks doing this, but it still happens a lot. Something I do to pass the time, if I am waiting in a cafe, is to read a book or work from my computer. So, try to be prepared for tardy friends if doing something productive in the meantime is important to you!
Set your expectations according to the culture you are in, not the culture you are from
It’s easy to get angry when someone does something that “everyone” knows is rude, inconsiderate, or just plain thoughtless. But wait, who is everyone? It’s unfair to hold someone from another culture accountable to your own culture’s values. I’m not saying you can’t get internally upset, that’d be futile- you are who you are. However, if you can adjust your expectations to what is typical in the culture you are in, then you are likely to be less frustrated when things don’t go the way you’re used to. Now I know that when I meet a friend for coffee, we will probably be together for hours. I try not to do anything very social or draining before meeting with friends, since I know I’ll be speaking in my second language the whole time. Give yourself some R&R! Then venture out to socialize for hours.
Adjust your own behavior
I may feel justified spending thirty minutes to one hour with a friend, telling myself “this is how we do it in America, I am American, and I’ve got things to do!” Right? Wrong. This would make me the inconsiderate American, and I definitely don’t want that. Part of assimilating to a new culture is adopting their values, even if those values challenge you. This comes down to some fundamental questions, such as, what do you hope to accomplish living abroad? Does caring well for other people matter to you? I am not saying be a martyr and please people all the time. I am saying, if it’s normal for people to hang out for hours then others will expect that from you, too. You may not have to heed this for every social occasion, but there should be good patterns. Or else, your friends (or family, if you’re like me and married to someone from your host culture) may get the impression they aren’t that important to you.
*Host culture: The culture acculturating individuals move to.
Overestimate any meeting so you don’t overbook yourself
If you expect to spend two or three hours with a friend and that’s your limit, then feel free to plan something else for the time after that. Then, if it finishes early, you’ve got some free time on your hands! It is a much better feeling than realizing you’re super late to your next event/activity.
Expect people to stay at your home until late hours of the night (no matter what time they arrive)
Up to now, I’ve been referencing hanging out with friends outside of your home. Turkish hospitality is unique and warrants a blog post of its own, but I’m going to mention something important here. No matter what time someone comes over to your house, they will likely stay until late into the night. If they are relatives, sometimes they even stay the night. Surprise! Don’t ever plan to do something “after your guests leave.” You will fall into bed and sleep after they leave. I’ve known many an expat to live this reality.
Confirm your plans with friends
People will cancel at the last minute or forget, so remind them your meeting place and time and confirm you’re still meeting. Nothing ruins your day like taking the bus for an hour just for your new friend not to show up.
Even when hosts insist you stay longer, at a certain point, it is okay to finally leave.
A host will never say that you need to leave, even if they want you to. On the contrary, they will insist you stay! You may stay for one more glass of çay (black tea) or some watermelon, but when they insist a second time it’s perfectly acceptable to make your way out. Note, this will likely be after the 4-5 hours that you’ve spent at their home having dinner, having tea, talking, having dessert, eating mixed nuts, and then having some more tea.
This may be the most important principle of all. In Turkey, family values and friendships are extremely important, and this comes with some significant expectations. Close friends are not many in number, but the few that people have are loyal and remain close for their whole lives. They don’t see life in “seasons” like Americans do. As Americans, we have our high school friends, our sports friends, our college friends, our work friends, our (insert hobby here) friends, and we accept that life changes, people move, and relationships change. No reason not to pursue friendships for a season, right? This doesn’t mean we don’t love our friends from every season, it just means our expectations change. In Turkey, when they make a true friend, that is a close friend for life. It’s also not usual for Turks to have 1,002 things they squeeze into their day, so they have more time for relationships. I think Americans could learn from their example about how to use their time outside of work. Set aside quality time for your friends and family, because relationships matter. Make those relationships a priority and let that show itself in the way you use your time.
I am an American and a planner at heart, so this cultural characteristic of Turkey is actually something that I still struggle with. However, I have found that these tips really work for me. What does “time management” mean for the culture you live in? Does it even exist?
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Definition of host culture by IGI Global at https://www.igi-global.com/dictionary/communicating-electronically-when-too-far/13251