How to Say No in Turkish
A nice article in the Paris Review about the experience of learning Turkish as an English speaker - enjoy!
Very true. While in Turkey I had a hard time grasping how to say things that are so common in English, but are rarely said in the same way for Turkish. "No" is one of those things. There is the direct translation of "no" (hayır) which is too strong to use in most cases, and all the other options are informal and so not appropriate to strangers.
If someone asks whether I want something but I do not, in America I just say "No it's ok," "no thank you." These do not translate to Turkish. You can not say "hayır," it is not the right response despite its misleading translation. "yok" is closer in meaning, but it is more informal and usually used between people who know each other. You might get away with saying "teşekkür ederim" with the right tone of voice, which can be the closest thing to saying "no thank you," but it is hard to pull off if the language is unfamiliar - since you have to get both the words and the body language right to be understood correctly, it has to come naturally or it will be understood to mean "yes, thank you!"
So I found myself carefully explaining my feelings on every question to which my American response would be "no." If someone asked: "çay istiyormusun?" I respond "çay istemiyorum, teşekkür ederim." Of course, if a friend is constantly insisting then you can be informal "yok canım," "gerek yok" :)
Hayir is alright to use and is not aggressive, but if you are concerned about coming off as aggressive you can say "Hayir, sağol." Sağol ultimately means "be healthy" but it's equivalent to a very polite thank you. I've heard one should use "Hayir, sağolun" in formal situations but I have yet to hear this in Turkey.
Other alternatives: When it comes to food you can also say: "Hayir, ama elinize sağlık" (formal)"-- (No, but bless your hands/No but health to your hands) "Lazim del" will also suffice. It means "Not necessary."