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Culture

As is customary in Mediterranean countries, Lebanese communities place a great deal of importance on family, hospitality, and deep cultural ties to the local food and language. It is not uncommon to be invited to someone’s home or shown a level of generosity that an outsider may not be accustomed to. The important thing for outsiders to understand, is that while this show of generosity is genuine, one must learn when to say “when”. Part of integrating into society and learning the various forms of etiquette involve practicing the nuanced understanding of balance (i.e. how much to give and how much to take). Generally, a newcomer might notice the locals giving a lot more than the are taking-and this is the balanace that is typical. One may find themselves having to refuse politely multiple times in a row, and this is not taken offensively-the point is just to make sure that you are satisfied. You may also notice that receiving gifts or offerings is accompanied by ample "thank you's" in order to express deep gratitude. this is also not uncommon for individuals who are meeting each other for the first time.

On the topic of introducing oneself and greeting others, there are a few important insights to take into consideration. The first is on the topic of introducing oneself. It is most common to introduce oneself with a handshake. Men and women also shake hands, but usually a man waits for the women to put her hand out first because in some communities it is not customary for men and women who don’t know each other to shake hands. As for women who wear veils (known in Arabic as a hijab), it is customary for a man to substitute a handshake by putting his hand over his heart when greeting. The same might apply to women greeting men in the sense that there are also men who have the cultural or spiritual practice of refraining from shaking the hand of someone of the opposite sex. Usually there is some sort of slight nuanced cue in both cases whether a handshake is appropriate or not, and if a man who practices abstaining form handshakes, and he sees that you are not from Lebanon, then he may quickly put his hand over his heart in order to avoid any etiquette blunders. Although, if any etiquette blunders happen, there’s no need to worry—most people leave a lot of space and mercy for the new learner.
Beyond the handshake is the kiss on the cheek. This one is sometimes difficult even for Lebanese to navigate, not because of any social appropriateness per se, but rather because there are a lot of unasked questions that come into play. In many cases, one just does their best to feel it out and go with the flow. A very general rule of thumb for greeting good friends is three kisses on the cheek back and forth upon seeing each other (usually left-right-left), and possibly one kiss on the left cheek when saying goodbye. Don’t worry, there will be awkward moments—it’s okay.

The last insight for greetings, and arguably the most important one, is to always acknowledge someone when they walk into a room—even if you’re in the middle of work or deep in thought in this regard, a friendly "hi" will suffice; but, to remain silent can come off as awkward or a bit strange. Being social to the degree of a friendly "hello" will make a very positive difference in your work environment.

On the topic of things to avoid, it's advisable to not inquire about the religion of someone you don't know well. This is not because it's offensive per se, but rather because it is a custom that has developed due to historical reasons. Lebanon boasts 18 officially recognized religions, and is incredibly diverse in term of its communities; however, during the 15-year civil war (1975-1990), political divisions took on religious façades. Further details on these events can be found in the above-mentioned reading suggestions. In essence, religion generally a subject that most would rather keep private (even if the government does run on a confessional system). On a positive note, as you make friends, don’t be surprised if you get invited to eid el-adha festivities, iftar or a Christmas dinner!
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