I was having lunch with one of my dear friends, a brilliant lawyer with a spirited appreciation of the perfection — and perversions — of the English language.
“Thank you,” he said to the waitress as he finished his order and handed her the menu.
“No problem,” she answered, smiled and left.
My friend started fidgeting with his utensils. “I just can’t stand that,” he half spoke to himself.
“‘No problem.’ Why couldn’t she just say, ‘You’re welcome.’ Who asked if she had a problem?”
The server came back a moment later. “More water?” she asked me.
She poured, and I parroted a thank-you.
“No worries,” she said, scooping up the pitcher, smiling and leaving.
Now I have a problem with that.
My friend was right: English pleasantries have taken unwitting existential twists, where simple courtesy exchanges can change the dynamics of a simple meal and leave you with heartburn.
Back at the restaurant, did my friend really want to know our server had no problem being thanked? Was there something in her background that made her want me to worry she felt burdened by carrying a pitcher of water?
Are we, the world of customers, ironically, the obsequious ones, awaiting approval from those who serve us?
A number of years back, Erin McKean, who considers herself a “Dictionary Evangelist” and was editor in chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2e, wrote a newspaper column musing on the misuse of such courtesy responses as “no problem.”
“Many especially dislike hearing ‘no problem’ in commercial transactions and from folks in customer service jobs, since, as the customer is always right, nothing a customer could ask for could ever be ‘a problem,’” she said.
“Perhaps the ‘no problem’ of service workers is a way to reclaim some measure of power — ‘no problem,’ after all, does remind the customer that her request is technically within the power of the employee to grant or refuse.”
Problem is, such disruptions of the tried-and-true, give-and-take dynamic between customers and servers can make a dining experience a dyspeptic one. Is it possible to ruin an appetite by ruining protocol?
Who would think ordering chicken soup could be at the base of a possible problem? Chili, maybe, but certainly not chicken soup.
Recently I had the misfortune to be served a horrible meal at a local restaurant by a server who had to reheat the soup three times. When I called to complain afterward that my wife and I had gotten ill from the meal, the manager on the other end of the line greeted my opening line of “I rarely make a call like this, but …” with a “no problem.”
Ah, but, my dear man, you don’t understand. There is a problem.
Of course, he wasn’t denying it, but the cosmic force of contemporary language may just have compelled him to say the phrase at the most inopportune moment.
It reminded me of the times I hear uncool people say, “That’s really cool,” or “how uncool,” hoping the word itself will rub off on them, even as they are defusing the word’s impact and forever putting a chill in its connotation.
As for the restaurant manager, whose mishandling of my dilemma was indeed a problem: Before he ultimately proved he wasn’t going to resolve the issue, I actually trusted him to make an effort to do so. “I’ll call corporate and get them on top of this. And then, I promise, I’ll get back to you and let you know what’s happening,” he reassured.
I almost felt ashamed of complaining, as legitimate as the gripe was. So how else could I respond to his earnestness?
“No worries,” I blurted.
I shook my head as I hung up the phone.
“That,” I said, mentally kicking myself, “was not cool. Not cool at all.”
Michael Elkin is features editor of the Jewish Exponent and an award-winning playwright. He can be reached at michaelelkin60 @gmail.com.MORE IN Perspective
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