The problem with telling a customer, “no problem”

It was as good a lunch as one could remember. If Virginia Woolf is known for saying, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” I would like to go on record as saying that the same is true for lunching well. Anyone who works nights will tell you the same thing.

My server was perfunctory at best, which, when it comes down to it, is fine with me. I’m not the type who needs to be entertained. I don’t need a bartender or server to tell me jokes, laugh at mine, juggle, answer 8 million questions or even be particularly pleasant. All I need is someone to get my order right, know something about the restaurant’s products and be timely. In fact, there are times when those other behaviors can be quite annoying.

When I got up to leave, I placed my napkin next to my plate (not wadded up in a ball on top of it) and my silverware in such a fashion that whole enterprise could be lifted in one easy motion. Sometimes it’s easy to tell when a person is used to dining out just by what he or she does or doesn’t do.

“Thank you very much,” I said, just like I always do.

“No problem,” my server said.

No problem? Well I certainly hope not.

Language is power, they say. And in the service equation, it can mean everything. A server or bartender can easily set the tone for an entire evening just by the words he or she chooses to say. And that tone can be dulcet or derisive.

Here are a few things I hear from service people all the time along with at least one possible meaning being conveyed:

• “Can I get you something?”

Can you? That still remains to be seen. But the odds are good. Probably better than good. I might even say that they are excellent. Most people don’t go into a restaurant for nothing, but thanks very much for asking nonetheless. “May I get you something?” or even “How may I help you?” are two options that take just as much time to say, but convey an entirely different meaning.

• “Is everything OK?”

OK? Sure it’s OK, as in barely passible, a C- or D+ on the scale. Even average or ordinary is a step up from OK. Is that really what you are shooting for? Somehow I doubt it. “Is everything perfect?” takes just as much time to say, and relays an interest in perfection, not mediocrity.

• “Are you still working on that?”

Working on it? You mean like gnawing the limb of a carcass? I hear that can take some time, and can be — how shall I put it — work. Suffice it to say conjuring up that imagery while dining doesn’t really set the right mood, now does it? How about “Are you still enjoying that?” or even simply, “Are you finished with that?” When one is gnawing the limb off of a carcass (because that is what we are doing when we eat a chicken leg, lamb shank or any other meat product), one probably shouldn’t be reminded of that fact.

• The aforementioned “No problem.”

I assume that the basic parts of your job are “no problem.” Isn’t that what you are getting paid for? Nothing makes a customer more uneasy than the suggestion that even the most basic of his or her requests might be a “problem.” Now I understand problem customers, believe me, but even a problem customer is still a customer.

It’s only if their behavior begins to effect other customers, breaks the law or become egregiously unreasonable has a line been crossed. Up until then the “no problem” should remain unspoken.

A better way to go is “No, thank you” or even “My pleasure.” Either leaves the customer — your guest — with the impression that you actually value him or her not a problem to overcome.

All of which leaves me with these thoughts, all in the words of others:

• “Your words become your actions,” Mahatma Gandhi said.

• “Language is wine upon the lips” wrote Virginia Woolf.

• “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite,” spoke C.S. Lewis.

• “No problem” — random servers everywhere.