Lebanon cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
Lebanese people are friendly and generous. They will greet you warmly, shaking your hand, maybe with their two hands. This will be accompanied by a “Marhaba” and “Ahlan wa sahlan”, and a kiss three times on your cheeks. They will ask you about your family and your reasons for coming to Lebanon (not necessarily out of curiosity). They will expect you to ask about their families in return. Lebanese often talk about politics (local and international). It’s best not to express which party or country you stand by in the first meeting. Religion is a sensitive topic so avoid it at first. They will invite you out and insist on paying the bill - do not to refuse, as it might lead them to think that you don’t like them.
Homosexuality is a taboo issue in Lebanon. Gay people are not out publicly, and any discussion concerning that topic should be avoided.
When meeting someone for the first time, a good discussion topic would be work or studies. People think it’s polite when others show interest in their lives. Asking about job or school details shows that you care and that you want to get to know the other person more. To make an even better impression, you could ask about what part of Lebanon they are from.
Lebanese stand close to each other when together, and touch each other (on the shoulder, back, or arm). This has no sexual meaning. They can be loud when talking. They may call you “Habibi” (my love), a term of endearment that is used very often. You must avoid prolonged eye contact with the elderly, and avoid winking as it is understood as a sexual invitation. When around Muslim people, avoid shaking hands unless they extend their hand first. Muslims don’t shake hands with the opposite sex. “No” is not signified by a shake of the head left and right, as in Canada; it is expressed by raising the eyebrows and making a “tsk” sound. Lebanese people might call you by using their hand with the palm downwards and all fingers curling towards them, but they will feel insulted if you beckon them using your index finger (this is considered rude, and has a sexual connotation).
Verbal communication varies depending on where you are in Lebanon. People living in the same area typically understand their own ways of communication. As long as you communicate in a polite way, it really doesn’t matter how you get your message across.
There are many non-verbal communication gestures that people use in Lebanon. They are usually well understood by all. Most of them are used when greeting another person, thanking them, or used in the place of the question “what?”. There are also gestures for saying “yes” or “no”. All gestures are mostly head and hand motions.
Display of emotion
Affection between opposite sexes should not be displayed in public (younger generations do so in clubs, universities, and enclosed places). On the other hand, affection between friends and family members is commonly public and often loud. Loudness can be interpreted (as happiness or anger) by an individual’s facial expressions and the tone of voice. Car accidents are a very common cause of loud fights, as driving is a very tricky thing in Lebanon – regularly, no respect is paid to traffic signs, or to the priority of passage.
Usually public displays of affection are not very acceptable. Couples do not tend to show much affection towards each other in public since it could be considered shameful. Anger is a little more acceptable and it is more common in public. However, this all depends on where you are and who is around you.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Deadlines and punctuality are not always respected in Lebanon, so be open-minded about time. Lebanese are well-known for their elegance - even men are well-groomed and well-dressed. They love designer clothes, and they care about their appearance and the impression they make. Suits and ties for men, and dresses or suits for women are normal in the workplace. Some colleagues will like to be addressed with their professional titles (Dr., Sir, Boss, etc.) or “Istez” (Mr.).
In different parts of Beirut, you will see different clothing styles - miniskirts, shorts, and sleeveless and backless tops on one side, and chador (head covering for women) and scarves on another.
Of course it depends on where you are working but generally, the workplace environment is serious. The workplaces tend to be very formal with the need to meet deadlines. They would expect you to be on time and be professional at work. Image and reputation is very important at the workplace. It also depends on the management.
Preferred managerial qualities
As Lebanon is considered one of the top countries with respect to education levels (especially in the Arab world), being educated will gain you a lot of respect and approval. Most Lebanese have high levels of education and they appreciate degrees, especially if they are earned from a Western country. Managers of a company have the final say in most business decisions and any other opinion expressed may be considered defiance or a threat to their position. Your communication skills are more appreciated than your performance, and many people are hired for their relationships with the manager. This is called “Wasta”. Westerners are more respected and looked up to than other non-Western people (even though the latter could be more educated). It is advisable to start any business meeting or business phone call with small talk about the family (any known sick relative, a newly married relative, or a new member of the family, etc.).
A manager is expected to be on top of everything. They are expected to know how to handle any type of situation or person. They are seen as leaders. Staff members are usually honest and to the point. You will know how your staff member views you based on how they treat you and speak to you.
Hierarchy and decision-making
In private companies, whether run by a single manager or a board of managers, the decision-taking depends usually on The Manager. This individual has the final word on all major decisions. Your suggestion may be taken into consideration, but that is only at the beginning. Going to your supervisor later on will not alter any decision already taken. He may or may not let your opinion or suggestions reach the upper level out of fear or out of jealousy. Fear because it might oppose the opinion of superiors and jealousy because it might please them and they might promote you in his/her place.
Unlike in multinational and international companies where vertical feedback is common, the private sector adheres to a more traditional hierarchical structure for decision-making.
Your superior or manager would usually make all the important decisions, unless they give you the power to make the decision yourself. It is acceptable and always expected for you to go to your supervisor or manager for feedback and answers. They would trust you and respect you for this.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
The Lebanese have equal opportunities in all jobs and, of course, in education. However, Lebanese women who are married to non-Lebanese are not permitted to pass citizenship to their kids. You would rarely find women in high ranked political positions.
With the present economic situation, almost every Lebanese house needs two incomes to function. The Lebanese class situation ranges from either poor or very wealthy. Lebanon has limited offerings in terms of welfare, healthcare, old age pension and for a life after retiring.
Lebanon is the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East. Some say that religious beliefs affect one’s chances of being hired in some places, and that people sometimes hire others from the same religion. Where you are from in Lebanon very often indicates your religious beliefs.
All Lebanese communities share the same ethnic roots except the Armenians, who fled their countries and came to Lebanon. In order to keep their identity, Armenians tend to live in the same areas and do business mostly with each other. Many international workers (non-Westerners) come to Lebanon for jobs. Many house helpers, nannies, janitors, people at gas stations and manual workers come from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Syria.
Gender, class, religion and ethnicity are sensitive subjects in Lebanon. Usually they try to avoid these subjects at the workplace. If discussions and arguments occur, it could cause a serious problem at work, since a lot of people are passionate about the subjects.
Gender: Usually, males are seen as more superior than women. Not all places of course but it is common. This just means a woman would have to work harder in the workplace to be more respected and sometimes to get higher positions.
Class is something determined by someone’s education, job, hometown, or money. Usually this has no impact because the colleagues in a workplace would be considered a similar class or close.
There is a lot of religious diversity in Lebanon. These include Muslim, Christian (Maronite Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Assyrian Church of the East), and ‘other’ religions. Religion and ethnicity are sensitive subjects and disrespect in the workplace is not tolerated which is widely understood in Lebanon.
The ice breaker for any business deal is done socially. Business is mixed with pleasure. Lebanese are known for the love of nightlife. They might invite you for dinner at their house or at a restaurant just to discuss a deal. Socialising might open you up to great business leads. On the other hand, business is also conducted on company grounds in a very formal manner.
It is not too important to establish a personal relationship with a colleague or client before getting to business. As long as you get the job done well, this type of relationship is not a concern or necessity. If you do happen to establish a personal relationship, they might worry you will not work as professionally.
Privileges and favouritism
Personal relationships and friendships might open doors for you with respect to business. Having connections would make your life in Lebanon easier. You can achieve a lot in a shorter period of time when you know the right people in the right places. On the other hand, you are advised to reject any request for favours that are unethical or illegal (such as, applying for a visa, or helping people emigrate, get hired abroad, or send their kids to study abroad, etc.).
This is very possible but not acceptable. It happens a lot in Lebanon. If a colleague or employee expects special privileges from you, the right thing to do would be to refuse in a respectful way.
Conflicts in the workplace
When in conflict with a colleague, either confront him or her privately and directly to clear the air or ask a third party to act as a bridge between you. To save any relationship with a colleague with which you might have a problem, avoid suddenly acting more formally after being more informal prior to the issue, as this would lead to gossip in the workplace.
Usually it is best to confront a colleague with any work-related problem directly and in private. Doing this publicly is seen as unprofessional.
Motivating local colleagues
With the present economic situation, the Lebanese are motivated to perform well on their jobs by a good salary. Other motivating factors are a higher position with associated prestige, a closer position to The Manager such as assistant manager or executive assistant, and a possibility of travelling abroad to gain more experience. However, the fear of failure in society and of disappointing the family could be motivating enough for a Lebanese to work hard. Some employees are motivated by their own set of values and code of ethics.
Usually pay and a promotion motivates local colleagues to perform well on the job. Security is also good motivation if their job situation is not very stable.
Recommended books, films & foods
It would be useful to build some knowledge about the three main religions in Lebanon: Islam, Druze and Christianity. Whether you like politics or not, it is also important to have an idea about the politicians in Lebanon.
Recommended reads are “Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War” by Robert Fisk , "Islam: A Short History," by Karen Armstrong, "From Beirut to Jerusalem," by Thomas Friedman, “Syria and Lebanon: International Relations and Diplomacy in the Middle East”.
Biographies of Hassan Nisrallah, Bachir Gemayel, Kamal Jumblat and Rafic Hariri will also help build understanding of the complicated Lebanese political landscape.
Watch “Caramel”, “Bosta”, Where Do We Go Now?”, “Lebanon”, “West Beirut”, and of course “The Prophet” written by Gibran Khalil Gibran.
“Under the Bombs”, “Ghadi”, “Around the Pink House”, “Blind Intersections”, “Little Wars” and many others will help you connect with Beirut.
The best music to listen to is that of the Rahbani group, whose music has won them international fame. Fairouz (a widely admired Lebanese singer) was married to one of the Rahbani members. Another famous music composer was the late Zaki Nassif. As for male singers that represent the Lebanese heritage, these include Wadih Alsafi and Nasri Shamseldine who are deceased, but whose music still lives on.
Last but not least, we come to Lebanese food. When ordering Mezza (a sampling of small dishes), it should include Tabbouleh, Fattoush, (both salads), Kebbeh, maqaneq and sujuq (Lebanese sausages but which are an Armenian specialty), hummus, baba ghannouj, moutabbal, tajen samak, frog legs, and grilled birds. Raw meat and liver is offered as well if you can eat them. Arak is the white, Lebanese alcoholic drink made from the best vineyards in Lebanon. Wine is famous too, not only locally but internationally as well – Ksara and Chateau Musard are the best for both drinks. Don't miss the wine tasting in these two places. After mezza, comes Mashawi which includes grilled filet mignon, chicken, and kofta. Sweets are a must, so leave a space for Ashta and honey, knefeh, nammoura, karabeej, sfouf and ma’amoul. Fruits usually come complimentary at restaurants. If you like fish, Mediterranean fish is a delicacy. And of course shawarma - in Lebanon these tasty dishes, as well as Falafel, are totally different from the ones you tasted outside Lebanon.
- Books: Khalil Gibran books.
- Films: Halla2 lawen (Where do we go now?), Old and new movies made in Lebanon.
- Television shows: Arabic soap operas and comedy shows.
- Music: Fairuz, Wadih El Safi, Sabah, Wael Kfoury, Elissa, Old Tarab Music
- Foods: Sud Restaurant, Phiniqia, Jammal Sur Mer, Provincia, Mhanna sur Mer, Sultan Ibrahim.
Lebanon is a rich country in terms of its historical monuments, as it was conquered by so many (Romans, Ottomans, etc.) You should:
- Go sightseeing – Baalbeck, Aanjar, Byblos, Sidon and Tyre are a must.
- Enjoy and explore the beautiful nature - skiing in the morning in Mzaar, Zaarour or Al Arz, and swimming in the afternoon at the beautiful coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
- Visit the museums (Wax Museum in Jbeil, Beirut Museum in Badaro).
- Go to the movies: Lebanese movie theatres are always up to date with international movies, and many film festivals take place throughout the year.
- Go clubbing- there are many, especially in Beirut, Kaslik and Batroun.
- Eat at different restaurants in various cities - Lebanese food is famous all around the world and the Lebanese have great pride in that. Ordering a Mezza to try all the Lebanese dishes is advisable; don’t forget to leave a space for the Lebanese sweets.
- In the spring and summer, try not to miss the music festivals in Baalbeck and Beiteddine, as well as many other smaller festivals in almost every village in Lebanon. Theatre plays, ballet and operas are rare but they do happen; look out especially for political stand-up comedy plays as they will teach you about the politics in a sarcastic way.
- Art exhibits are plentiful due to the increasing number of artists nowadays.
- Listen to the various radio stations; there is only one French (Radio Mont Liban) and one English (Radio One).
- Read the newspapers; again, there is one French (L’Orient Le Jour) and one English (Daily Star).
- Football and basketball matches are famous in Lebanon, but unfortunately, religious and political differences may turn them into wrestling matches; pay attention if you go to watch one.
- Skiing and swimming are very popular too (among the richer people, as they are both expensive sports). Tennis, horseback riding, and many other sports are available but again, sports clubs are for the rich.
- Go shopping, as all Lebanese enjoy it - especially in Downtown Beirut streets such as Verdun, Kaslik, Jounieh, Dbayeh, and in the famous ABC Department Store.
- Last but not least, enjoy a cup of coffee in the many coffee shops around the country, especially downtown Beirut – e.g. in “Nijmeh” Square opposite the Parliament
The best way to learn is to travel to the different areas in Lebanon. All areas have different things to offer. Trying different restaurants, visiting historical sites, attending live shows, going to festivals, and volunteer work can help teach you more about the culture and people.
Examples of places to visit are National Museum of Lebanon, towns and cities such as Byblos/Jbeil, Baalbak (town), and Tyre / Sour. Downtown Beirut, ABC Mall or City Mall, Hamra, Faraya, the Cedars, Mounir Restaurant, Al Balad Restaurant, Harrissa, Edde Sands Beach Resort are good to experience while in Lebanon.
There are no specific National Heroes, as the diverse political and religious groups consider their own leaders and martyrs (there are plenty) to be National Heroes. Some, however, who are agreed upon all over Lebanon include the famous author, Gibran Khalil Gibran and the famous singer Fairouz. There are many other well-known writers and singers, but these two individuals are known internationally.
From what I have seen, the National Heroes in Lebanon include the leaders of the political parties and the Lebanese Army.
Jean Kahwaji is an Army Commander, known for keeping the country in a safe state. The army played the major role of keeping Lebanon out of the current Syrian/Middle Eastern war. President Bechara El Khoury, Prime Minister Riad El Soleh and other cabinet members are the symbolic independence heroes. Emir Majid Arslan and Habib Abou Chahla are known to order to fight against the French occupation army and free the country.
Current political leaders are viewed as National Heroes but only by their own groups. To name a few, Saad El Hariri, son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafic El Hariri; Nabih Berri who is one of the Lebanese civil war leaders and current head of parliament since 1990; Samir Geagea, former civil war leader and prisoner for 11 years under the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, currently the Head of the Lebanese Forces political party; Michel Aoun, former army commander during the Lebanese civil war and former head of The Free Patriotic Movement; Walid Jumblatt, current leader of the mostly Druze Progressive Socialist Party and a former civil war leader.
Shared historical events with Canada
The most important factor shared between Canada and Lebanon is that almost every family has a relative who immigrated to Canada. Canada has been a safe shelter for many Lebanese through every war that has ravaged the country. Canada is loved and respected, so you will feel loved, respected and welcomed warmly and dearly.
During the Lebanese civil war, many Lebanese people migrated to Canada. Because of this, a lot of people living in Lebanon now have family members living in Canada. I believe this created a strong relation between Lebanon and Canada. Lebanese people see Canadians in a very positive way. There are no negative thoughts or ideas about Canadians as a people. Canadians are very well respected and liked in Lebanon.
Canadians are known to be well-mannered , polite, humane, and pet lovers (in Lebanon, pets are not as common as in Canada as it’s very expensive to own one and take care of it - only the rich can afford them). On the other hand, Canadians are regarded as strict and by the book. They do not skip steps in any project they are working on. They follow the system from A to Z even if skipping a few letters will spare some time and unneeded trouble. Lebanese are fast people and like to do things quickly.
Of course like all stereotypes of the Middle East, people think it is dangerous. Lebanon has safe and dangerous areas, you just have to know where to go and where to avoid. Many Canadians also think it is a Muslim country but in fact it is made up mostly of both Muslims and Christians, with other religious groups as well. The laws and lifestyles in Lebanon are much different than most Middle Eastern countries. Almost all are accepted.
About the cultural interpreters
SME was born in Kuwait when her parents were working there. She has two siblings, and grew up between Beirut and Kuwait City. She studied at the American University of Beirut to be a doctor but ended up with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sciences-Biology. She worked as a Science and Languages teacher in Lebanon. She then moved to Dubai and worked as a teacher there for 19 years. She came to Canada in 2012 and, ever since, she has been working in interpretation, tutoring, substituting for teachers and in retail at a jewellery store in Ottawa, Ontario.
I am Lebanese, born and raised in Canada. After graduation, I decided to move to Lebanon for a year before looking for a job here in Canada. I wanted a change and to experience working and living in Lebanon. I started applying to English teaching jobs online. I managed to get a couple of interviews and job offers, so I started looking for an apartment to rent. Out of three job offers I decided SABIS International School was the best one. Being a Canadian English native speaker, finding an English teaching job was not very difficult. I was a grade 2-3 English teacher. My first year was exciting and full of new experiences. I loved the life style, the beaches, the nightlife, the energy and people. Of course it wasn’t always fun and easy, I had difficult days, but I learned to get through them. Work life was a bit hectic, but I learned to manage. I struggled at first to get used to the people and the country’s life style, but it was easy to learn quickly with people around me always willing to help. I learned how to live on my own, deal with different kinds of people and situations, and I learned much more about my culture. I had such a good year that I decided to stay for two more. I experienced Lebanon in a whole different way than just a summer vacation. I never once regretted moving there, and I always encourage people who want to try it.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.