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Syntax Training | Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

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July 03, 2012

Comments

Darin Ramsey

I've been preaching this one for years. "Not a problem" (or the similar "no trouble") seem to imply that it could have been a problem or trouble, but fortunately didn't turn out that way. Most of the times that I mention this, people react with some combination of confusion and eyerolls, so I may be out on my own limb. I'll try your reasoning instead; maybe I can at least end the confusion!

Onorina

I, too, have a problem with 'no problem.' Sadly, in the past, I did respond with this silly phrase - until I became more aware of its true meaning. Thank you for posting the phrases: they will be a useful reference.

Seyey Cunioci

What if it is a problem and you take it kindly as a courtesy. Isn't it important to delimit things?

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Thank you for commenting, Darin, Onorina, and Seyey.

Darin, I hope talking about "Not a problem" from the negative tone perspective will help you persuade people.

Onorina, I am glad you like the alternative phrases.

Seyey, using "Not a problem" focuses on the problem. I recommend focusing on a positive with a phrase such as "I am happy to help."

Lynn

RJ

"No problem" is a problem for me too. I often hear this while conducting a retail transaction. I thank the cashier and get a "no problem" in response. My brain immediately jumps to "Well, I hope it's not a problem since it is after all your job." So the negative begets another negative response in my head and it sours the transaction a tiny bit.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Thanks for your comment, RJ. It illustrates where words with a negative feeling can take us.

Lynn

Rebecca Kroegel

im terrible for saying that and should really make a more conscious effort to not say it!

Jacob

Thank you for the information. How about the phrase 'don't worry'? Is it cool?

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Rebecca. Now that you are aware of the tone, I am sure you can get in the habit of using a positive phrase.

Good luck!

Lynn

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Jacob. "Don't worry" has the same problem as "Not a problem." It includes two negatives: "Don't" and "worry."

I am glad you asked.

Lynn

Jacob

Thank you.
I am glad you commented on it.

Jacob

Phil Hershkowitz

Hi Lynn,

I agree with you that a positive response is more pleasant however I would point out that in Spanish "de nada" while commonly interpreted as "You're welcome" literally means "Of nothing" or "For nothing".

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Good point, Phil. Thanks for making it.

Lynn

J. Randolph Radney

I think perhaps focusing upon the negative is missing a possible point in the "not a problem" response: Have you ever heard of litotes? The example from Spanish is good, but there are also examples from related dialects of English. For example, in Aussie vernacular, 'no worries' is quite common. Also in Canada, I've been told there is no higher praise for a junior hockey player than to be told on the conclusion of his shift that he did 'not too bad'.
Clearly something beyond negativity is behind the use of 'not' and 'problem'.
Perhaps instead of correcting common and popular use, we should try to understand it.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hello, J. Randolph Radney. Interesting comment!

My focus is on what works well in business communication. I believe positive words communicate more positively than negative ones.

Thanks for stopping by.

Lynn

LesterSmith

Great topic! In general, I'd certainly agree that the list of recommended phrases is good. My personal favorite has long been, "My pleasure!" But like Phil, I started thinking about "de nada" and "no problema" or "sin problema." The former, in particular, has a sense of "It was nothing." In many cultures, downplaying one's action is the proper response to praise; and thanks is a form of praise. So I'm beginning to think that just as "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," so too any perceived problem with "No problem."

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Thanks for dropping by, Lester. I always enjoy your comments.

I do appreciate the references to Spanish, but I find I still strongly prefer positive phrasing in business English. "My pleasure" comes across much more positively to me than "Not a problem." However, I will keep thinking about your "eye of the beholder" idea.

Lynn

Martin

Lynn,

I was looking for ways to improve my positive communication and stumbled across this. I work in engineering and construction and have a background in education, the issue I have with replacing not a problem with the phrases mentioned is that it tends to sound like the person saying the positive version is taking something away from the other person..... In education you are constantly trying to build people up and not make the student feel as though your efforts are a burden in order to get the best results, the positive phrases have a tendency to leave a feeling of I owe you something, which in the case I highlight would be on the student. Perhaps I just need to be a bit more ruthless in business and start using these phrases, my issue is they leave me feeling arrogant, which I naturally am not....

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Martin. I do not see how the phrases I suggest "take something away from the other person." And I do not see their relationship with being "ruthless in business." Yikes! That is not my intention at all.

Why not try using a few of the phrases and see how people respond?

Lynn

Idara

I too am guilty of this, sometimes I say it when I did something for someone that I really didn't have any pleasure/happiness in doing.
I'm happy to have learned something new in my quest for being a better person to relate with.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Idara, thank you for stopping by to comment.

Lynn

Sue Gallant

As a teen-aged cashier in the 1970s, I was instructed to say, "Thank you for shopping at XYZ" to each customer at the end of the transaction - because they could have chosen to shop elsewhere.

Some employees are confused because the customer has already thanked THEM - but a customer's good manners shouldn't deter their own.

The cashier ALWAYS says "thank you" to each customer - conveying appreciation on behalf of the COMPANY and encouraging further business in the future.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Sue. I like the idea of expressing thanks. The challenge of saying thanks repeatedly is to make it sincere. If I am in line at a store and I hear the cashier say "Thank you for shoppping at XYZ" to each person, it sounds like a task rather than a sincere sentiment. I believe varying the words works well.

I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

Lynn

Alice dL

Today I wrote my future brother-in-law, thank him for helping us with the affidavit of support. After a few minutes I received a response, "not a problem".
I am not good in english, but I feel sad after reading it. It sounds negative. And so I search for the meaning and found this! Now I understand. Thank you for posting this.
God bless.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hello, Alice. I am very happy that you feel better after learning more about the phrase "no problem."

Lynn

Vera

Thanks Lynn. I thought "Not a problem" was same as " no problem " before I read your article. Thank you so much.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Vera. I hope I did not confuse you. "No problem" and "Not a problem" can mean the same thing, depending on their use.

Lynn

AZ

Hi, Lynn.
I read your note (and its comments). I found it interesting. Actually I searched the net for what the difference is between phrases "no problem" and "not a problem". Fortunately, I haven't ever been told "not a problem" instead of "you're welcome" (or its equivalents). I thought "not a problem" is a short phrase for "it's not a problem" to respond someone who asks a special request (that isn't so easy for you to accept, but you politely do.) For example: A: May we meet right now?? B: Not a problem! (i.e, Yes, we can.)
But, "no problem", as many dictionaries say, is a way of responding to "thank you". (Of course, some of these dictionaries point out to another meaning like "not a problem", too.)
I'm really interested in understanding real meaning(s) of such fixed expressions; but I wonder if I could have them altogether in a great book.

P.S: I'm an ESL student (intermediate to higher level); my grammar and vocabulary are not too bad (for everyday conversation), but I feel I lack understanding of fixed expressions. (right words in right situations.) For example, although I know "thanks" is more informal than "thank you"; but I just found out an interesting (and ridiculous) convention between university professors and students (at least in the US in my field of study). Professors might use either "thanks" or "thank you" as they like, but students should use "thank you"; and if you, as a student, say "thanks" (e.g. at the end of email) it can be considered as an offence!!

Ali

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Ali, you have learned how amazing and complicated language is. Thank you for sharing your observations.

Yes, "Thanks" is an informal version of "Thank you." Students should probably say "Thank you" to professors unless they have close or informal relationships with them.

Good luck!

Lynn

AZ

Hi, Lynn.
Yes. I was wondering if you could kindly introduce me a valuable resource (preferably a book) to learn common fixed expressions (both formal and informal)?
Thank you
Ali

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Ali, I am not aware of such a book. You may have more success searching online for websites on the topic. Websites would be more current and evolving.

Lynn

Charles Pilgrim

Hello
Still on the "Not a problem" topic......
It's one of my pet hates. I was telephoned, today, by an insurance salesman who asked me various questions. Each time I replied, his response was "Not a problem".
In all, he asked about 30 questions and more than half of his responses were that phrase. Usually, it didn't just grate because I dislike it; it grated because it was thoroughly inappropriate.
"Not a problem" seems to be taking over in restaurants and cafes as well.
"Could I have a cup of tea, please?"
"No problem!"
"I know it's not a problem, this is a cafe. You serve tea. Why don't you just say nothing and give me a cup of tea as requested. You could say 'Certainly' or 'Coming right up' or 'Take a seat and I'll bring it over' or just 'Yes'."
"Not a problem" should really be used, I think, when you are doing someone a favour/going the extra mile, but don't mind doing so. "No problem" is literally what it says and is appropriate when what you are doing is effortless or simply what is expected of you.
It's not as simple as being an informal version of "Not a problem". It's more subtle than that. "No problem" is very like the Spanish phrase "De nada" or the Caribean phrase "Small thing". Effectively, they all mean "It is nothing".

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hello, Charles. Thanks for your detailed comment. For the insurance salesperson you talked with, using "Not a problem" must be an unconscious habit. But being stuck in a verbal rut does not sell products.

Thanks for your ideas about the difference between "not a problem" and "no problem." I still recommend taking a positive approach, something like "I would be happy to."

Lynn

Hugh

When someone else says "You are welcome", it is about the other person, who is likely a customer or at least a person of interest. When someone says “Not a Problem” it is about them, saying they weren’t inconvenienced. This emotionally excludes the other person in the dialogue. We all like to feel that we are part of the verbal transaction.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hugh, interesting point! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Lynn

Tony

Re: "Not a problem" , Knowing the person can make all the difference of this phrase. I feel like when coming from the younger generation it has negative connotations.
When I ask for them to do something and say Thank you and they reply Not a Problem.I get the sense that what I just asked them to do is in fact a problem. Especially when reading body language with it.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Interesting observation, Tony. Your comment complements my observation about the phrase.

Lynn

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