Etiquette and Social Norms in Lebanese Communities: A Mini Guide

While the population of the Lebanese diaspora is estimated to comprise of 4 to 13 million people, the current population of the country of Lebanon constitutes approximately a mere 6 million. Lebanese immigration began in the middle of the 19th century and has often been motivated by escape from political instability in the country, such as from the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-89. ¹

Many Lebanese people have settled in Canada and the United States, ² so you are bound to meet someone of Lebanese origin at some point -- whether at school, work or a social gathering. If you haven't yet, allow me to introduce myself: Hi, I'm Rebecca and I'm a first-generation Lebanese-Canadian (though in a sense I might be considered second-generation since I was born in Lebanon but emigrated to Canada with my parents when I was only two years old). I'm here to teach you a little bit about the customs and social courtesies of Lebanese communities in case you ever happen to attend a Lebanese cultural event, visit a Lebanese person at their home or even visit the country of Lebanon. (Have I said Lebanese enough times?)

Keep in mind that some of these norms may not apply in certain contexts. This advice is coming from a hybrid Western/Lebanese perspective, so the unspoken rules of social courtesy that I follow in my community may not be the same as those of the community you meet and interact with. Also, although many other Middle Eastern cultures share these customs, don't assume that they do or that they are identical in all communities. Consider this simply an anecdotal account of one unique experience of Lebanese culture, not a comprehensive study.

  1. 1. Hospitality

    If a Lebanese person invites you to their home, you should probably not eat before you go because they will most likely have a 10-course feast prepared for you in addition to dessert and Turkish coffee. Your meal will probably include mezze -- a selection of small appetizer dishes like hummus and tabouli -- and you can also expect to have your fortune read in the stain left behind in your coffee cup once you’ve finished drinking from it. Be warned that visits can last up to half a day, beginning in the afternoon and ending late at night. In fact, you will often see Lebanese people standing by the exit and getting ready to leave after a visit but continuing to converse with their host for another hour or so. When I was younger and my aunt and uncle would come over to my house and bring their kids along with them, we never had to hide or pretend to be sleeping like most kids do when their parents said it was time to leave because we knew that we would have at least one more hour to hang out as they continued to talk with my parents at the door.

  2. 2. Greetings

    The typical Lebanese greeting between family and friends is very similar to the French bise. It involves "air kissing" someone on the cheek 3 times and switching cheeks after every kiss. It can be awkward because you never actually know which cheek the other person is going to aim for first, which has historically led to many an accidental kiss on the mouth. Hugging isn’t really a thing, at least from my experience. Once when I was visiting my family in Lebanon a few years ago, I hugged my cousin and she practically reeled back because it made her so uncomfortable. It made me realize how strangely intimate hugging really is; I mean, you’re showing platonic affection for someone by pressing your body against theirs. It’s pretty weird when you come to think about it.

  3. 3. Gift-Giving and Picking up the Check

    When a Lebanese person visits you they will probably come with a small gift as a gesture of thanks for welcoming them into your home. Don't accept the gift immediately though, it's customary to first lovingly scold the person with lines like "You shouldn't have!" and "Don't be so formal, we're friends!" (Funny story, actually: Once, my neighbor was nice enough to mow our lawn, so my mom gave him a gift card as thanks. She later complained to me that he had “accepted the gift immediately and without protest”). It's also common for Lebanese people to take turns paying the entire table’s bill when they eat out together as opposed to each person paying for their own meal. Lebanese people will often fight to the death over wanting to pay the check (although we are admittedly quite… thrifty, so secretly no one actually wants to pay, but we do so anyway because we love each other). It was quite a culture shock for my parents when they learned about contrasting Western practices like bringing your own booze to a party. (Not that Lebanese culture is perfect either, but I think our deep-rooted value of generosity is something we get right).

  4. 4. Partying

    If you've ever attended a local Lebanese festival you're already aware that we know how to party. We will sing along to every song, dramatic facial expressions and gestures included. We will dance the traditional dabke dance to the beat of never-ending Arabic songs. Some of us will venture to the edges of the dabke circle to show off our more advanced moves (if you know, you know). Our parties begin late and end only when the sun begins to rise (much like our visits). I haven’t even mentioned the even greater extravagance of our weddings, where hundreds of people will be in attendance, a zaffeh or troupe of folkloric dancers in traditional costumes will start off the celebration with rehearsed dance performances and sometimes, even fireworks will be ignited. We even treat everyday life like a party, by, for example, breaking into song and dance at random moments (people who hate musicals because they think it’s unrealistic for people to randomly start singing about their life have simply never met a Lebanese person). During visits, we often play this game where we will sing a song, and then sing another using the first letter of the last word in the initial song and so on until we run out of songs (or our throats get too sore).

I am incredibly proud to be both Canadian and Lebanese. Although I don’t agree with all aspects of either culture, I am grateful to have experienced both and to be able to select which elements of each I want to incorporate into my personal lifestyle and philosophies.

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Bibliography

¹ De Bel-Air, Françoise. “Migration Profile: Lebanon.” Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies Policy Brief, no. 12 (2017): 1-2. Accessed October 4, 2019. https://cadmus.eui.eu/bitstream/handle/1814/46504/RSCAS_PB_2017_12_MPC.pdf?sequence=1.

² Ibid.