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‘Not a Problem’ is kind of a problem

‘Not a Problem’ is kind of a problem

by Joseph KisselAugust 17, 2016

I’m a linguaphile who enjoys spotting new trends in language.

One that I’ve noticed on the local level going back about a year is “not a problem,” specifically in the context of the service industry.

Now before I go any further I want to state that I find worth and dignity in all work, and would go so far to say at least every worker in a full-time position should be paid a living wage relative to where they live.

That said, I’d like to think in the service industry, where choice is usually rampant — I would get mostly great service.

So it just befuddles me a bit when I make a reasonable request and get met with “not a problem.”

It shouldn’t be a problem — I don’t think anybody’s trying to be a jerk about it — but it is a problem.

I first recognized this trend — which is pretty much a millennial thing; and maybe part of the entitlement issues this generation is getting a rep for from what I read — during an evening out at a nice restaurant.

To every request my male server responded amicably in a bro sort of way, “Not a problem.”

Repetition is a trigger for me, so after the second instance, I took notice. He must have said it six or seven times during the course of the dinner.

I would like a drink. How about a tall Sapporo? “Not a problem.”

I need a napkin. May I have one? “Not a problem.”

OK. I get it. It’s not a problem for you.

But what if it was? From a customer-service standpoint “not a problem” seems like an odd response.

When exactly does something in that arena become “a problem?”

I know it’s “just an expression” but in certain circles it seems to be suddenly everywhere.

So why does it seem to be twentysomethings propelling its use, which by the way, I’ve noticed I’ve already succumbed to using.

The seeming benefit of the phrase is that it gives the person being imposed upon — even if it’s in the course of paid work — the implied power to refuse or at least makes a fuss. The phrase seems to give them some power in a customer-service relationship in which they really have none.

Those jobs generally kind of suck — I know and shockingly from relatively recent personal experience — which is another reason I think they should pay more than they do.

It’s one of the worst things about being in customer service.

The idea that some dude or lady is going to lay out their hot mess of a bad day on you because they can’t afford therapy but can afford a value meal.

Nasty people, and if a phrase like “not a problem” could take away their power, I’d be all for it.

But the legitimate folks, asking for a legitimate service that they are legitimately paying for — even if it deviates from the script a tiny bit — shouldn’t have to feel like what they are asking for is contingent upon the employee’s approval.

Would it be a problem if I paid less? Probably.

So does it make me some kind of a crotchety reactionary elitist snob petty dictator if I want that kind of service — which is pretty much what we’ve always had — or are these young men and women not being trained correctly or just left to their own generational devices?

One place that I’ve noticed where there’s plenty of millennials working without ever saying “not a problem” is, believe it or not, Starbucks. (Please, please, please come back to Lockport …  Although, I’ve been enjoying Scripts coffee and cafe quite a bit lately … And their young servers are very pleasant and customer-service oriented.)

My attention is grabbed not because I think Starbucks employees are unrepresentative of millennials in general, but because it appears they are highly trained, assiduously employing a kind of feel-good, customer centric corporate vocabulary. If that comes off as creepy and corporate, it could also be because they are also decent humans.

Like many things about the corporate world that’s been emerging steadily since the mid-1970s, there’s the good, the bad and the appalling.

“Not a problem” does not seem to be part of the corporate lexicon.

And as the consumer who has the power to take their resources elsewhere, that’s definitely not a problem.

About The Author
Joseph Kissel
Joseph Kissel is a journalist, editor and photographer. He is also the Vice President of the New York Coalition for Open Government, a non-partisan, non-profit group that advocates for transparency and the public's right to freedom of information.