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Posted: September 26, 2013

Chef Laura: Double negatives equal double trouble

"No problem" really is a problem

Laura Cook Newman

There are some innocuous phrases business people tend to use.  These disposable words range from neutral to annoying:

  1.  So basically….
  2. At the end of the day….
  3. Think outside the box.
  4. Let’s flesh* that (idea) out.

*Also heard as “flush,” which is exactly what I want to do with this wordsmith gem.

But have you ever made a request to a service provider or asked a coworker for a favor and they reply, “No problem!”? 

Well, I’m here to tell you it is a problem.

“No problem!” seems harmless enough – even downright cheery.  Kind of like “No worries” to the Aussies or “Fuggedaboutit” to Al Pacino.

When we say “No problem,” what we mean is that the request potentially is a problem and we’re not really interested in doing this favor.  But we are forced to comply; hence, “No problem” nonchalantly rolls off the tongue. 

Saying something negative: “no”, plus another negative: “problem”, equals a positive in the English language.  However, as service providers, we shouldn’t initiate something negative – that’s usually the customer’s job.

That’s the reason, when I managed restaurants, I trained my employees to eliminate this response, both with customers and each other.

Sports psychologist Bob Rotella warns that these seemingly harmless double negatives can have adverse affects.  He urges golf coaches to stop voicing advice like, “Don’t go left” when their divot-digging disciple approaches the tee.

“Left” is the last word the golfer hears.  Even though they want to hit straight down the fairway, their brain whispers “left.”  Inevitably they hook their Titleist onto the beach.  When I hear a customer service person quip “No problem!” I think of my well-meaning, yet subliminally harmful, golf buddies. 

Solution?  Choose one of these “No problem” alternatives instead:

  1.  Yes
  2. Certainly
  3. My pleasure
  4. Right away
  5. Let me take care of that for you
  6. You’re welcome
  7. I will find out for you

So basically, at the end of the day, think outside the box, and flesh out some phrases in your business vocabulary that are useless or potentially negative. Then, flush those down the loo. No problem!

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at www.ThreeHotsAndaCot.net

Enjoy this article? Sign up to get ColoradoBiz Exclusives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not represent ColoradoBiz magazine. Comments on articles will be removed if they include personal attacks.

Readers Respond

This article was "not bad" - Oops! By Pater Familias on 2013 09 30
i often use my pleasure - but when I look back on how I've used it, sometimes it really is NOT MY PLEASURE.... LOL By Ta Tee on 2013 09 28
Another great phrase that is under utilized far too much... THANK YOU. By SM on 2013 09 26
"My Pleasure" #3 on the list. It's an oldie but a goodie. As for a substitution for "flesh it out", I've caught myself saying "Let me noodle over that a bit" which is probably equally annoying, but food metaphors always appeal to me, go figure. Abe, sounds like you've been spending time down south. Kind of strange that they wouldn't have sweet tea there, right? Here's the recipe (I think): 8 parts sugar, 1 part tea. Stir and enjoy! By Chef Laura on 2013 09 26
This is a great piece and nails something I hadn't really thought about. Just as there are words that create a positive response—"free," "new," "easy," and so on—there are negative words, and "no" and "problem" must be near the top of the pile. It had not occurred to me that any positive intent behind this phrase could be outweighed by the negativity of the words themselves. Bravo Chef Laura. I do agree with NN, however, that if something is presented as a difficult situation, the words "no problem" or "that's not a problem" can be the antidote that dissolves the issue. Finally, what do people recommend in place of "flesh that out?" By David Houghton on 2013 09 26
Of equal import in this discussion but overlooked thus far is the tone of voice used while saying any of these phrases. 80% of all communication is non verbal (tone of voice is considered non verbal). I'm betting if the waitress that helped Rosanne had delivered it at a lower octave or lengthened the delivery she would not have been as impressed. By RC on 2013 09 26
Great article about a subject more people are talking about. A phrase I like is one I heard from a waitress this past spring. I thanked her for something and she replied, "my pleasure." It impressed me and I wrote a feedback note to her manager. By Rosanne Gain on 2013 09 26
Interesting take on communicating. I'm all for direct speech. I'd like to add that using double negatives is often confusing to English language learners or others who aren't exactly fluent. Anyone who has studied a foreign language understands that the placement of negatives in a sentence varies considerably in other languages and sometimes two negative words are required to mean "not" (as in "ne [verb] pas" in French). So the double negative=positive translation may not come through to that population. By Cindy Wolf on 2013 09 26
You know what gets my britches in a bunch? I ask the cute waitress "Do you have any sweet tea?" She smiles, winks, and replies "We sure don't". Argh. She got my hopes up with "we sure" then squashed them, flushed them, with the negative "don't". Say what you mean and mean what you say. By Abe Froman on 2013 09 26
When I was a new DSR, freshly hired into the world of foodservice sales from my kitchen manager job, I had a customer tell me "I'll be right with you" when I stopped in to see if I could make him a new customer. I said "No problem!" without thinking. His reply was a muttered "It better not be a problem". What was intended as an innocuous reply certainly was not taken that way, and this has driven me to avoid that phrase and cringe when I hear it in a professional setting. It really does not mean what people seem to think it does. By TP on 2013 09 26
You're welcome is such a good phrase and I don't think it's used often enough. It's like the whip cream on top of the warm pie, it adds deliciousness! By Annie Wilkes on 2013 09 26
I take exception with your statement "we shouldn’t initiate something negative – that’s usually the customer’s job". In my experience dealing with my customers, this can be a very effective way to neutralize the issue. If you acknowledge a perceived negative before they bring it up AND then address it (i.e. show them it isn't an issue) you can easily overcome the matter. When a person verbalizes a (negative) thought, they have added more weight to it then if they were simply thinking it, so if you can avoid having them saying it in the first place you are better off. By NN on 2013 09 26
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