I’ve often said that learning a country’s language gives you insight into the way people think. In Japanese, for example, the culture of deference and self-deprecation is expressed in the frequent use of the many phrases that mean I’m sorry/excuse me/I made a mistake, etc. In the Turkish language there’s no better example of the language/culture correlation than the word “özel”, which means both “private” and “special”. This tells you right away that privacy is not the default condition it is for many Western cultures, but rather something unusual, a “special” case.
What do I mean by this? Well, in the U.S. it is assumed that you wouldn’t tell a perfect stranger your business, or ask her to watch your child. (“Would you watch my luggage for a few minutes”, sure, but a child? Never.) In Turkey, everyone is family. It’s right there in the language; strangers call each other Aunt, Uncle, big sister or big brother. And why wouldn’t you tell your big sister how much you paid for your apartment, or ask your Aunt to watch your child while you go shopping?
Of course there’s something warm and friendly about all this openness. I do like the fact that people just drop by to say hello; it makes me feel like I’m on a TV sitcom. I didn’t even mind when a little girl came to my door asking for help with her math homework, even though I hate math (and I’m not always so crazy about children). But sometimes this over-familiarity can get a bit awkward. My German friend Gabi told me a couple of Turkish friends once came over unannounced and wanted to cook dinner in her apartment. Gabi prefers to go out for dinner, and was (understandably) annoyed that they hadn’t called before showing up. She also told me about the time a guy she was dating brought two other guys with him to stay at her apartment for the weekend. Her landlord has looked at her funny ever since.
I wrote about my experience with a Turkish family I’d just met who expected me to stay overnight after dinner even though their apartment was just around the corner from mine. I suppose they assumed I didn’t want to be alone, although I’d made it clear I’d moved here on my own and had been living alone for quite some time. But when they called the next morning and asked when I’d be arriving for breakfast, and continued to call for days after I declined, I found this behavior a bit too stalker-like for my comfort.
And it’s not just foreign women who feel this intrusion. An Englishman told me an anecdote about his Turkish wife conversing with her friends while he was in the room. He’d been in Turkey long enough to have picked up a bit of the language, and could follow along if not participate fluently in the discussion. He knew they were talking about him, and when one of the friends asked his wife whether or not he was circumcised he felt that was an over-the-line invasion of privacy warranting his interrupting with a “sana ne?” (what’s it to you?).
So yes, although it seems most everything is everyone’s business, Turkish does have a way of saying “this isn’t any of your business, is it?”. Of course, the expression “sana ne?” is considered a bit rude, and should be reserved for “special” occasions.