Social graces in Lebanon

dogs in Lebanon

eat nicely, kids

As a newcomer in a foreign culture, the last thing you want is to make some major gaffe that shocks the social sensibilities of your host country.

In France I soon learnt to keep my hands on the table rather than my lap at dinner and to wait for the hostess to start for each course before tucking in. However, it’s not unheard of to rest one’s elbows on the table with good friends in a French brasserie, something which would have some English hosts raising eyebrows.

Social etiquette and class distinctions differ from one place to another, sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in subtle ways which sneak up on you and pull the rug out from under your feet just when you thought you had perfected the book-on-your-head walk or local equivalent. I mean, who knew that one was always supposed to put an uneven number of cheeses on the cheeseboard?

So what are the rules for the gentlefolk of Lebanon? And what are considered indications of true class? They’re quite different from anywhere I’ve lived before, it seems, since eating with your fingers out of communal dishes is a perfectly normal custom, and talking about the digestive process with company is not unusual – or is that just the company I keep?

Such things are hard to define, the very essence of a class system being exclusive by nature. Otherwise it would be too easy to play the game. And it is getting even harder to define as certain pleasures and privileges become accessible to new groups of society.

In Britain, ever since plumbers began earning more than professors, the deeply entrenched class system has taken some serious knocks. Still it has refused a graceful decline, and any Brit worth his salt can find a million minor reasons why someone living in the same row as theirs might have the same income level, but not the same social standing.

In France, so much social protocol is associated to food and eating. If one has an education, one does not drink Coke at mealtimes – or any other carbonated drinks for that matter, save Perrier. French guests wait to be seated or served, and never think of mopping up sauce with bread, using their fork with the right hand or raising knife to mouth.

In Britain, however, judgements will fly over the way one speaks, especially the accent, and the way one greets others. As a result, the French find the English uncouth because they have fewer table manners, while the English find the French rude because waiters, shop assistants and basically the entire service sector fails to reach British standards of civility.

Here in Lebanon I have also heard many remarks about “backcountry” accents – because in a country half the size of Wales there’s still room for regional accents. Of course there’s the added complexity of multiple languages to play with too, and this can certainly be a snob factor – proficiency in the intricacies of literary Arabic for Muslims and impeccable French for Christians. Even the Achrafiens catch themselves from time to time with a self-deprecatory chuckle, remembering that “in Paris, even the dustbin men speak French.”

So perhaps for the Lebanese class is judged more by how people talk than how they eat. But hospitality and gifting are also etiquette minefields. So far the only golden standard I have found is: always exceed expectations. It is a difficult rule to apply and one that seems more linked to income bracket than to traditional class distinctions. The Lebanese speak of a proliferation of nouveaux riches, as the customary Levantine lavishness climbs to new heights.

So is it still important to avoid appearing brash, a trait which would mean the undoing of any social-climber in the French perception of refinement? Or does that not matter so long as you serve up three types of meat and five side dishes, sandwiched between soup and dessert, and insist your guests stay at least two hours longer than you wanted them to?

How do the Lebanese really view class? What are the perceived offences of the lower classes? Are they happy to dismiss such old-fashioned elitist concepts in favour of a more American meritocratic ideal? Or is that a joke in a country of corruption and wasta?

In the meantime, what terrible faux-pas am I making as a foreigner here? What is making my hosts wince and my guests squirm? I don’t yet know. They are too polite to tell me. I no doubt have plenty of cringing to do when I find out.

10 Responses to “Social graces in Lebanon”

  1. [...] Georgia Paterson Dargham: So what are the rules for the gentlefolk of Lebanon? And what are considered indications of true class? They’re quite different from anywhere I’ve lived before [...]

  2. mary ann says:

    I used to worry about this, but I’ve stopped. For one thing, no matter how much you want to know and follow the rules, gracious and well-meaning Lebanese are forever allowing you to break them. I also know that I wouldn’t expect a foreigner in my country (the US) to be culturally American.

    Plus, I’m a slow learner. It took me a few years to learn that I should leave my flip-flops at home, and another few to actually DO IT.

  3. Maria says:

    You are right on! I have no answers either, and coming from a country where being “polite” is essential, this drives me insane! I think you are right, exceeding expectations is a good rule of thumb in Lebanon. Great post!

  4. mj says:

    On the table or out of it, there is one thing that’s completely “3ib” for a woman: whistling. Never ever whistle in public, not even in private, your neighbor might hear you :)! Personally, I love whistling, I do it instinctively whenever I don’t find my voice to be in place. However, my long years in three Arab countries have made me forget about it almost all of the time (actually, I still do it when I think nobody is watching. I’ve decided to enjoy my skills while I still can. After all, if I continue to live in this country, I will undoubtedly end up pumping my old lips with silicone or botox or whatever. Can you still whistle properly after that? I doubt it).
    Why the horror about an apparently innocent practice? I’ve overhead comments, like it amounts to “call the devil”. The comments were made by Muslims, although I guess it is not appreciated to hear a girl -not to say a grown up woman-, whistling among Christians either. Allez savoir…

  5. mj says:

    On the other hand, there are things considered rude in other places that are normal, and even convenient, in this society. One of them is the way you interact with people of the other gender: whatever the age, you can slightly deviate the direction of your eyes when talking to a man, (a bit like somebody reading on a prompter while reading the news) unless of course you have or want an intimate relationship with him. In the beginning I always had the feeling that people here never actually look you in the eyes, which in my culture induces luck of trust. It didn’t take long to know that it was actually considered improper (or that it sent signals I didn’t think I was sending, as I rapidly discovered).
    I also learnt to wear my nose imperceptibly higher than I would do back in Europe. It assures you a safe distance from about anyone, and don’t worry, it won’t scare people away.

  6. mj says:

    Lack of trust, that is.

  7. ian alexander says:

    Dear Ginger, nothing you didnt know, gaffe and sail on.
    humanity beats class like roses beat grass with no sound of a fight – they are after all in different leagues. and as we also know chewing the class cud makes your teeth green and babies cross-eyed.

  8. Lindsey says:

    This post made me smile– I’ve experienced similar feelings in moving to Jordan. Having lived with an Arab family for a few months, I’ve found that being clean is pretty much the most important thing to excel at; in fact, I discovered recently that my host mom brags to her friends that I make my bed and don’t smell bad. It’s also things like walking barefoot into the bathroom and then the rest of the house that makes Jordanians cringe. Oh, and no wet hair in public. As for food, you eat everything on your plate, and you’re not going anywhere until coffee has been served. Rule of thumb: invite 5 people, cook for 20.
    As for language, there’s some differences in the way Palestinians (or “city people”) and Bedouins pronounce “qaaf,” and there’s random words here and there that get used differently.
    But there’s no telling what faux-pas I’m committing aside from butchering the pronunciation of their language…

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