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.