You meet someone for the first time and want to make a good impression. What are good subjects of conversation to bring up?
To make a good impression, you will need to follow these rules: smile, say “Marhaba” (hello) and give a firm handshake. It may sometimes be appropriate to kiss the other person’s cheek (three times), a French tradition that was passed on during the colonial period of 1919-1944. These rules do not apply to a person of the opposite sex dressed according to the Islamic dress code (a headscarf for women, a beard for men). In that case, simply greet the person with a nod of your head and saying “Salaam” (peace).
The most common way to break the ice is to ask questions about the other person’s home town (it is easy to identify people’s faith by their place of origin, so people may be cautious with their words when speaking with someone of a different faith). Faiths are different denominations of religions. There are 17 faiths in Lebanon that share power through a negotiated quota system under which the President of the Republic must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Chief Whip of Parliament a Shia Muslim, and so on.
Humour is always welcome, even the first time you meet. The Lebanese are by no means formal.
They like to make a good impression through generosity (for example, paying the bill at a restaurant). It is common for them to want to treat you the first time you meet. The best way to respond is to thank the other person and politely decline (justifying yourself by explaining that you don’t want to trouble them). In general, that person will probably insist, in which case it would be awkward to continue to refuse.
When visiting the Lebanese in their homes for the first time, it is customary to bring flowers. If you are invited over for a meal, bring them baklava (Lebanese pastries) as is traditional.
Avoid talking about religion the first time you meet someone. This is a very delicate subject in Lebanon. Many people believe that religious differences were the cause of the civil war from 1975 to 1990. If the subject comes up, people tend to handle it with a great deal of tact. You will only discover their real opinions once you have become good friends.
Politics occupy the thoughts of every Lebanese person. Once you have exhausted all other subjects of conversation, you can turn to politics. You will be impressed by people’s general knowledge of international affairs. You will rarely see Lebanese people who are not up to date on world, regional and local politics. Be careful though: you might find yourself engaged in very lengthy discussions indeed!