Is ‘Inshallah” a Red Flag?
I have seen many Western business people involved in business in the Middle East feel uncomfortable when hearing, the often loosely thrown phrase, ‘Inshallah’.
In 2013 I was in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, working on a project sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government and executed by a European consulting firm. The European project manager was concerned about the project's progress and dependencies. The sponsor did not always have answers to the consultant’s inquiries and would often reply by saying ‘Inshallah’. To the consultant, the sponsor seemed unwilling, or unable, to commit to a specific time constraint.
The sponsor knew that failure to meet that obligation would be deemed unprofessional and un-Arab. Muslims, and Arabs in general, are careful with their words and think twice before confirming the unknown.
Word craft was, and still is, a double-edged sword in the Middle East, because a person can be rewarded or punished based on what they say. Consequently, Arabs have perfected the art of verbal suave. However, to an outsider, it has little to no charm.
It is not a Middle Eastern thing... Louis XIV of France was a man of very few words. His infamous "I shall see" was one of several extremely short phrases that he would apply to all manner of requests. His advisers and court had to adjust in order to understand what he might be thinking. Much like Louis XIV, Middle Easterners play the politics game pretty well and unless you are capable of picking up on what’s not being said, you will have a hard time!
Inshallah, literally: ‘God willing’, is a common reply that is thrown around rather loosely, or strategically, by nearly all Muslim inhabitants of the Middle East. While space does not allow me to discuss the right or wrong of ‘Inshallah’, the essence of it is closely tied to Islamic teachings that uphold the future in the will of the creator. In other words, some Muslims believe that humans have no control over what might happen in the future.
How do I know what my business partner means when they reply ‘Inshallah”?
Middle Easterners are careful not to lose face (aren’t we all?). The risk of appearing unreliable is mitigated by slipping ‘Inshallah’ to uncertain situations. I would encourage professionals and business people to read between the lines and translate the social cues of their Muslim business partners.
The good news is, it can be a positive or a negative innuendo, depending on several factors.
Body language and non-verbal communication are two aspects that can assist you in weighing your judgment. Does your counterpart seem sympathetic or not bothered? Are they smiling out of frustration or in anticipation? Are they maintaining eye contact or avoiding it? Are you in a formal meeting with multiple attendees or is it a one-on-one?
Where you cannot speak face to face, I recommend the use of email so that you can both fall back on it as a reminder. While many executives are cautious with their promises, friendly gatekeepers can give you a less formal assessment about what is happening under the hood…
Try to investigate reasons behind your counterpart’s uncertainty. Is it purely bureaucratic or is it because they do not have an answer for you and it seems useless to say “I do not know”. Use project tracking tools and try to work together to get a commitment on time, even if it is verbal. I also suggest you agree on a timeframe with a generous margin and include financial penalties for lateness.
The reason your business partner may have replied with ‘Inshallah’ goes back to my first point previously addressed: everything is in God’s control and if it is meant to happen, it will. In some cases, the answer is beyond their capabilities and control. There is no need to strain the communication and demand a solid yes or no.