(Retrieved with permission from Culture Grams World Edition 2004: November 16, 2004)
Lebanon has been deeply influenced by its long association with the West. At the same time, traditional values and attitudes continue to be important, creating a unique society. Personal relationships are valued more than time schedules. Family ties and personal relationships are often much more important than political ideologies in determining loyalties. Most Lebanese desire to have a family, own a home, and pursue economic prosperity. Material success is becoming increasingly important, particularly among the younger generation. Power, education, and prestige are also highly admired.
Christians refer to themselves as Lebanese to avoid confusion between the words Arab and Muslim.
The Lebanese are determined to put past hatred behind them and move forward in the reconstruction process. The Lebanese are proud of their culture, heritage, and country. With an entrepreneurial spirit and a background in international finance, Lebanon is striving to restore its former status as a modern and progressive country.
Western-style clothing is the standard in Lebanese cities. Traditional, conservative Shi’i women wear a chador (long dress that covers the entire body) over their clothing. Other traditional Muslim women wear conservative clothing and a hijab (head cover). It is important to all people in Lebanon to be clean, neat, and stylish. Conservative suits and modest attire are most appropriate.
Customs and Courtesies:
Lebanese people take social amenities seriously. When one meets a stranger, acquaintance, or friend, it is important to exchange greetings, to inquire about the person’s health and family, and in general to make polite small talk before getting down to any specific business. Handshakes are common for both men and women. Upon meeting or parting, close friends and relatives often “kiss the air” as they brush both cheeks. Urban residents use this custom with either gender, but in rural areas, only members of the same sex might greet in this manner- unless the two people are related. Personal space is somewhat limited, and people may stand close in conversation.
Titles such as “doctor” or “professor” are used consistently where appropriate. In Arabic, these titles are commonly used with a person’s first name, but Lebanese are also accustomed to hearing titles in English and French. Friends use each other’s titles in meetings and act more formally than they would in other situations. The most common greeting is Marhaba (Hello), but urban dwellers also might use the French Bonjour (Good day), Salut (Hello), an English Hi, or the Arabic Keef halik? (How are you?) for women or Keef halak? for men.
The Lebanese signify “yes” with one downward nod and “no” with an upward movement of the head or raised eyebrows, sometimes accompanied by tongue clicking. One can also express “no” by shaking the index finger from side to side, palm facing out. Pointing or beckoning with the index finger is impolite. To beckon to another person, one waves all fingers with the palm facing down. For many, it is offensive to pass or receive objects with the left hand. The right hand or both hands are preferred. People may cross the legs at the knee, but crossing an ankle over a knee risks offending any person toward whom the bottom of the foot points. One points the soles of the shoes or feet down toward the earth and not at another person. Eye contact is important. Men never curse in front of women. Public displays of affection, even between married couples, are not acceptable.
Hospitality is a prized tradition in Lebanon. People feel honored to have guests in their homes, and they also enjoy visiting others. Relatives and close friends visit each other often and without prior arrangement. The formalities of calling ahead do not apply to people who are very close. Hosts usually serve tea or coffee to guests. Etiquette requires that such an offer be accepted. If invited to a meal, guests might bring flowers, a plant, a special dessert, or something for the home.
Guests invited for lunch generally do not leave until after 4 pm, and dinner guests are expected to stay the entire evening. It is extremely impolite to leave immediately after eating. If a person has been visiting all evening and is about to leave but another person comes to visit, it would be an insult to the newly arrived person for the first person to leave. Even if the new guest is visiting only the host, the previous guest stays to talk for a few minutes to show he or she is not leaving just because the new person arrived. Arguments about local and national politics are inappropriate, and the Lebanese do not ask about a person’s religion. That would be considered an attempt to categorize or prejudge someone.
Whenever possible, the family eats meal (especially the main meal) together. Mealtime is an important time for family discussion. At the end of the meal, diners often praise the person’s hands (usually the mother’s) that prepared the food. Unspoken rules of hospitality require the host to make guests feel completely welcome. Offering food is one way to do this, and Lebanese hosts are insistent that their guests eat- even if guests refuse the food initially. Because it is often customary to refuse an offer a few times before accepting it, the host assumes the offer will eventually be accepted.
Western eating utensils are usually used for eating European food or rice dishes. Lebanese tend to eat European foods part of the week and Middle Eastern foods the rest of the week. Except for rice, Middle Eastern foods are eaten with either the right hand, broken pieces of bread, or lettuce. Bread and lettuce serve as scoops. For example, tabboule- a popular salad made with parsley, minced onions, diced tomatoes, and other vegetables- is eaten with a lettuce scoop. Lettuce is not part of the salad. Meals served on formal occasions often consist of many courses and may last several hours.