Coffee, salt, and a culture of ‘we’

turkish coffee
My cup of Turkish coffee while on a walking tour of Istanbul

For generations, marriages in this and many other parts of the world were arranged.  There were very good reasons for this:  financial, political, practical  . . . Besides, why would you trust a twenty year old with such a huge decision??  In a society that values “we” over “me”, arranged marriages made sense.

Now that we are all under the collective delusion that love is the only valid justification for matrimonial bondage, things are different.  I’m in love.  It’s my decision.  Me me me.

Here in Turkey there is an interesting custom that has persisted from the era of arranged marriages and it involves two things that are quintessentially Turkish: coffee and family. This is how it goes.

Coffee, sugar, salt

When a young man and woman have decided that they would like to get married, the young man and his parents will pay a visit to the young woman’s family.  After the young man’s intentions are announced, the woman’s parents will address her:  “Is this what you want?”

The response is not, “Heck yes, obviously!!”.  Rather the young woman will bow her head and say, “If it pleases you, my parents.”  Even if the union is a foregone conclusion, there is an expression of deference, respect, and selflessness.  The same question is made of the young man in the presence of the woman’s family and he will respond in kind. This seemed humorous, even ludicrous, to my Westernized sensibilities when I first heard it.

Now comes the fun part.  The young woman will excuse herself to the kitchen to make everyone coffee while, as per tradition, the parents of the betrothed happily discuss the details.  Typically Turkish coffee is made sweet and everyone’s cup will get some sugar – except that of the young man she would like to marry.  Instead of sugar, he gets salt.

Yes, salt.

Customs have meaning

The message is clear:  marriage is not all pleasure and sweetness.  Reality check, young sultan: your new relationship will have plenty of salty days too.  But the real question, my fine Turkish friend, is how will you react?

And so the coffees are served and everyone covertly watches as the young man consumes his beverage. Will he squirm with every sip?  Will his face betray his tastebuds?  Or will he smile and declare it the most delicious coffee he has ever had? Everyone knows the custom so I’m sure there are more than a few giggles and jokes but the expectation is clear: bite your tongue and smile.  What is a little salt next to the prospect of marriage?

The man who told us this story was our walking tour guide last weekend.  Born, raised, and wed in Turkey.  His now-wife scooped not only salt into his cup but also a dollop of spice.  “She was definitely trying to tell me something,” he said with a sly grin.

This isn’t just a cute tradition. It says a lot about the culture here.  The fact that it is normal and expected to go to the parents for their approval shows that elders are valued.  There is an appreciation that a marriage is not just between two people – it affects entire families. Coming from a Western culture that places such a high value on individualism, it makes me think that there is an inherent risk of narrow-mindedness in our paradigm that I hadn’t really appreciated.  Some might even call it selfishness.  It’s oh so easy to go from “I know what’s best for me,” to a baleful lack of concern for others, even the ones you care about.

A Western contrast

 I can’t help but wonder at the dramatic and disappointing range of reactions we might expect from the average western young man upon sipping his salty brew – whining, belligerent protests interrupting an otherwise joyous occasion.  I have to admit, I didn’t even discuss the prospect of marriage with Lindsay’s parents before I proposed.

When I was in my twenties I thought I had most of the important stuff figured out – or at least that my naive opinion should carry as much weight as anyone else’s.  Our society perpetuates this self-centredness, emphasizing the importance of the individual, their rights, their goals, their dreams.  Success is defined by what you achieve for yourself. You can do it!  It’s empowering and lonely at the same time.

What would happen if we framed our decisions such that we prioritized “we” over “me”?  What would the world look like?

It took me a long time to see there were people around me, often older and wiser, who had been down similar paths, learned, and wanted to share their experiences.  They knew it would be of value.  All I had to do was stop my furious efforts at individual success for a few minutes and listen.  Too often I didn’t.  Better late than never.

Me vs. We

At forty-two, I’m not young nor am I old.  Perhaps that is why I can finally see the naive egotism of my youth and appreciate the richness that is often willingly shared by those older than me.  If someone in their sixties, seventies or eighties is willing to talk, we are fools not to listen.  I would never have admitted it then but ten or twenty years ago I would have often felt “too busy”.   That was an expression of my values:  I was preoccupied by my goals, devaluing the opportunities I had to connect with other, often older and wiser, people.  The result is that we all missed out.

That’s the salty coffee lesson.  It’s not all about me and whatever goal I have for myself.  No one should expect coddling for every little discomfort or injustice.  Sometimes – often – the best thing to do is shut up, smile and listen.  It is very likely that good things are happening right in front of you, good things that can all too easily be derailed by someone who thinks their situation is all that matters.

Salty coffee is going to happen – rough spots in our relationships, professional set-backs, the curveballs of life.  We can splutter and whine and feel sorry for ourselves or we can suck it up and see it for what it is: a test.  The way to pass the test is to realize there is always a bigger picture that includes people who want to support us when it matters and to be supported. 

We neither suffer nor succeed alone.


  1. Loving reading some of your stuff Matt! The differences (and similarities) between east vs. west mentality on marriage, family, and so much more is really fascinating to me. With Dad moving to Asia when I was 10, that now equals 20 years that Asia has been a big part of my life. Now, this is my 8th year living in Asia. I have had the honour of getting to know some Asian people and families very well. The me vs. we thing is a good way to put the difference. Sometimes, Asian families are forced to live all together for financial reasons and sometimes it is just tradition. Although, as a Westerner the idea of living with my parents still is….frightening, I admire how much they support each other as a family. Seniors homes? Why! Of course the family takes care of them……someone loses a job, not the end of the world cause the family will help. You are an adult now? Time to contribute to your parents by giving them monthly financial support. It’s a very different way of looking at things. Sometimes, I am envious of the strong support network they have in their family. Then other times, I am so thankful for my freedom! It’s so good to learn about other cultures and reflect on your own beliefs. Travel is so good for the soul. I am glad to hear that you guys have slowed down your travel… don’t get to the good stuff flitting around from place to place in my opinion. Keep enjoying and sharing what you are learning!

    1. This is such a great comment and contribution to the blog, Jennifer! Your experiences and perspective are so interesting and insightful . . . and balanced. Writing these blogs helps me process and understand our experiences. Given your experience, the feedback is validating.

      I hear your appreciation for both sides of the issue and I think you would agree that we don’t have to rigidly adhere to one or the other. There is a time and place for individualism and collectivism. Perhaps what the world needs most is people like you who have experienced both cultures and can bridge the gap.

      Thanks so much for the comment. We are very much hoping to catch up with you in Cambodia!

  2. What a wonderful tradition. Thank you for sharing. I didn’t know about the salt part, but am very familiar with turkish coffee. That is how my Czech relatives still make their coffee. No filters.
    Funny, Paul did ask my parents for permission before he proposed and the reaction was great. My dad apparently said, “So soon?” (we had been dating for 4 years since 2nd year undergrad) and my mom said, “But she cannot cook!”. Thanks mom. Well…he was no deterred and they were happy as they had always liked him, so here we are 17 years married, 22 together.

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