Lebanese may be a mad bunch but they are still much loved

I am sure you have all seen the rash of "how they see us - how our mother sees us - how we see ourselves" montages in social media. Lebanon has not escaped the treatment. But how do western business leaders see us, asks Michael Karam.

Food has always been one of Lebanon's main attractions. Joseph Eid / AFP
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I am sure you have all seen the rash of "how they see us", "how our mother sees us", "how we see ourselves" montages on the social media.

Lebanon has not escaped the treatment. One montage, the "how world sees us", has hysterical, bearded men brandishing AK 47s while "how the Arab world sees us" has supermodel skiers in bikinis. At least the clichés are balanced even if they are yawningly predictable.

But how do western business leaders see us? I asked a German executive based in Dubai and a British architect, both female and both of whom visit Beirut on a regular basis, what it was like for Europeans, and women in particular, to work with us wild and wacky Lebanese.

"To be fair, I have been coming here for so long that [my Lebanese associates] have stopped trying so hard," said the German.

"But at first it was difficult."

Difficult? "Well, things have calmed down but when the Lebanese first meet you, they have to make an impression and more than often it's in a restaurant rather than the boardroom." Ah yes, those legendary lunches. She is not the first neophyte to carefully navigate endless mezze dishes only to be ambushed by an unexpected main course, during which any flagging is met with looks of genuine surprise. "Who can work after that?" the architect exclaimed, clutching her belly and suddenly looking exhausted. "And its not as if you guys eat lean cuisine either," she added. "It's wave after wave of dead farm animals on skewers." Well, we make great tabouleh, but point taken.

Maybe the food is indirectly, maybe even unconsciously, linked to spontaneous, not to mention unsettling, comments about one's body. "I still can't get over how people will tell me quite openly, and often in front of complete strangers, that I have either put on weight or look too thin," the German said. "And funnily enough, it's the women who do it the most. "

Then there is misplaced formality, as the architect pointed out. "They have no problem telling me I'm fat, but it's always Mrs Jones this and Mrs Jones that. Never Annabel. I found that very odd."

But what about the work itself? The architect said she was surprised by the bluntness of many Lebanese clients. "If they didn't like an idea they will just say 'I don't like it' and may even throw my proposal back at me, which I must confess I found a bit unnerving," she said. "In the UK, the client will normally be non-committal and then gently trash the idea in a polite email."

Both women are as one in their irritation of the cheerful indifference to mobile-phone etiquette. "I came over from London at short notice to give a presentation and people were constantly taking calls and even leaving the room to carry on a conversation," the architect said. "Naturally, I paused. I mean they had flown me over at their expense. Surely they wanted to hear what I had to say, but I lost them.

"Once one person had taken a call, it was an opportunity for others to check texts or return missed calls and it snowballed. If it had been my first trip I might have packed up my stuff and walked out. Now I'm used to it and I must admit things are better but they aren't 'there' yet."

On the plus side, both said service in Lebanon was first class and people always seemed to be able to fix something up at the last minute, or know the right person to call.

"In that respect the Lebanese are very enterprising," said the Briton.

"I wouldn't have been coming here for so long if I didn't love them," said the German.

"They are mad, but I love them."

Michael Karam is associate editor-in-chief of Executive, a Lebanese regional business magazine