You want to read this blog? Not a problem. You don't? Not a problem.
You want to go on strike? No problemo. These days it appears nothing is
a problem. That seems unlikely though, given the plethora of problems we face
This is why, as a dedicated member of the LAPD (Language Abuse Patrol
Department), I hereby relinquish my blog today to blow the whistle on a
phrase that has infiltrated our society, impacting how we think, how we
talk, and how we think about how we talk. Luckily, we can change this
The phrase "Not a problem" is heard with great
frequency in Southern California, the land that gave birth to such
memorable entries into our lexicon as "Far out," "Hang ten," and "For
sure." You will laugh at my picking on this phrase. "But it's so
innocuous," you'll say. "Aren't there more intolerable and toxic
phrases you can pick on, like entire episodes of 'The Sopranos'?"
This may not seem of import, relative to your preoccupation with
seemingly bigger concerns like fires and global warming, or my concerns
about the now stalled negotiations for the
reality show I had hoped to start work on entitled "Dancing with the
Candidates." But hear me out, as the effect on all our lives is
Here is the phrase in question contextualized to best illustrates why it so annoys
and concerns me. I call the waiter or waitress over to my table.
Me (played by himself): "May I please have some more water?"
Waitperson (played by Jessica Simpson): "Not a problem."
Frankly, I don't give a hoot whether it is a problem or not. And why
would bringing me some water be a problem? Is there no water in this
city? Is the water very heavy? Bringing me water, by the way, is part
of your job. If your job is a problem, I do not want to
know about that either but I do recommend you find work that makes you
happier, or at least work that is less problematic to you.
I learned a long time ago, when my writing career was tanking and I
worked in public relations, that one should never use the word "not" or
"no" because it puts the listener in a negative frame of mind and,
worse, makes the listener think negatively about the nay-sayer. Never a
positive thing in PR, or in life.
The problem here is we have turned into a society that thinks of the
problem first rather than the solution. In the so-called hospitality
and service fields especially, this is not a good thing. (Whoops, I just
wrote "not" so now you are going to associate me with negativity. I am
willing to take the bullet for this cause, though.)
A more appropriate response from my waiter could have been,
"It would be my pleasure." The even more enlightened selflessly
hospitable being, the hospitality bodhisattva, might see my water
glass near empty and step forward, asking, "May I pour you some more
water?" And while they were at it, offer: "Is there anything else I
can get you?"
My longtime friend and hotel mentor Stan Bromley, the legendary former
Four Seasons Hotels general manager who now oversees Meadowood, a
gorgeous 90-room hotel in Napa Valley, teaches his staff to "maintain
sufficiently inquiring minds," meaning anticipate guests' needs before
they even think they need them. When I first heard him use that line, neither he nor I knew he
was quoting directly from the Buddha who suggested the "inquiring mind"
will see and hear things no one else does. Stan is no holy man, though
he is one helluva good hotel man. His mindfulness makes him an
Offering to refill a customer's glass before he or she even notices
it's empty is a good example of "mindful talking." It comes under the
heading of "Right Speech"
in the Buddhist equivalent to the Ten Commandments, the Eightfold Path,
which is an eight-point moral compassion of "right" behaviors like
right view, right action, right livelihood, etc. "Not a problem"
would probably qualify as "idle chatter...pointless talk that lacks
purpose or depth" -- definitely not "right speech." It's interesting
that the Ten Commandments tell us
what we shalt "not" do; the Eightfold Path offers positive guidance.
This is one of the many reasons Buddhism makes sense to me.
"Not a problem" is a mindless linguistic tick that I
believe subconsciously puts people in a negative frame of mind. All the
LAPD is asking is that you pay a little more attention to what you say,
say it, what its impact might be. In other words: say what you mean,
and preferably with good intention.
Otherwise, imagine how you'd feel if "Not a problem" was the answer to
one of your own questions.
"Barbie, will you marry me?"
"Ken, do you mind if I have an affair...with your boss...?"
"President Bush, how do you feel about the health care problem?"
I am sure have your own lazy linguistic pet peeves, and I invite you to
share them in the
space provided below. Is that a problem?
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