x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Ask Ali: How to handle being the bearer of bad news

Ali Al Saloom offers advice on living and working in the UAE.

Dear Ali: A friend of mine has recently lost a family member but did not tell me about it until a week later. Why does it take that long and how should I handle the situation if I am the bearer of bad news? JH, Al Ain

Dear JH: I am very sorry for what happened to your friend. You're right, it does take a long time for us to bear bad news and, believe me, we as Arabs have quite a hard time with such matters. In our culture, we like to believe that if something is meant to happen then everything will eventually reveal itself, God willing. Often, if we sense something is not right then we prefer to gently give indirect hints that there is a problem or something bad is happening, rather than talking about it directly. This can happen when considering the right timing to let family members know if someone in the family has passed away.

This behaviour has a lot to do with our communication style. Each culture has a different communication style. Our culture tends to focus on a low context, which means the emphasis is placed on the way you say something instead of what you are saying. Now, if you happen to be the bearer of bad news then I would recommend you deal with it in a polite way so that you stay gentle and avoid becoming emotional or aggressive about it, because in our culture, saying no or refusing something is also regarded as a sign of being impolite but of course it depends on the context.

Dear Ali: Is it okay if I also say inshallah even though I am not Muslim? And what is the difference between inshallah and mashallah? SH, Al Ain

Dear SH: What a beautiful question! Yes it is absolutely okay for you to say insh'allah or masha'llah as a non-Muslim as long as you use it in a proper manner by being sincere about it, and with good intentions.

Inshallah literally means "on God willing", and since we Muslims believe nothing happens without the will of God, we like to use this expression whenever we talk about something that refers to the future or our future plans. In many American cities I've heard a lot of senior citizens use the term "Lord willing", so you see, it's not really just Muslims who use it but many other people from different cultures and faiths.

Mashallah, on the other hand, literally means: "What God has willed." It can also be interpreted as "As much God wishes". This is an expression that we commonly use whenever we hear, read or see something that is mainly good, beautiful and successful, for example a newborn baby.

However, it can be said that the original meaning of the blessing "inshallah" has changed a lot. What happens nowadays is that you hear a lot of Muslims who say it often but don't really mean it or their tone of voice indicates that it's just a phrase. For non-Muslims who receive inshallah as a response when they, for example, ask their Muslim friends about meeting up the next day, it seems quite irritating for them because they might not know what it means and they often don't know if they should interpret such an answer as a yes or a no. Therefore, it is always good to make sure to have good intentions when saying these blessings no matter if you are a Muslim or a non-Muslim. And I also hope those who don't appreciate this term in our culture don't judge the word or the culture nor our religion, as those who abuse the word in the wrong way are responsible for their actions and shouldn't be seen as representing the rest of those who respect the term and use it properly.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow www.ask-ali.com to ask him a question and to find his guidebooks to the UAE, priced at Dh50.