Andrew Vine: Do us all a favour and ditch this lazy '˜no problem'

IT BEING the time of year for making resolutions, how about a collective determination to stamp out the single most irritating thing to be heard in everyday life?

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Yes, I’m talking about the utterly infuriating convention of getting the reply “No problem” or “No worries” to virtually every single request, whether it be in shops, pubs or dealing with call centres.

This is the verbal equivalent of Japanese knotweed, an alien invader that has taken root in the language and strangled the life out of our native conversation, smothering traditional courtesy.

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Uprooting it is going to prove fiendishly difficult, but for the sake of restoring some sense to exchanges which are increasingly reduced to absurdity, it has to be worth trying.

Far from it being “no problem” constantly hearing this most annoying of verbal tics, it is very much a problem.

It’s lazy, meaningless, 
shallow and, worst of all, insincere. And when it’s part of customer service, it carries the implication that somebody behind a counter or taking an order is doing us all a favour, instead of just doing what they’re paid for.

If it’s meant to be charming, it isn’t. If it’s meant to convey how laid-back the service is, it doesn’t.

“No problem” might sound right in automaton-like American customer service, and “No worries” probably fits the chatter around a sun-soaked Aussie barbecue, but neither belongs here.

They have become the one-size-fits-all responses from what can seem like almost everybody who deals with the public. While doing Christmas shopping, I must have heard one or the other dozens of times from shop assistants every time I said: “Thank you.”

And please, man with hipster beard behind the bar, don’t tell me it’s not a problem when I ask for a pint of bitter. I know it isn’t. It’s a pub. This is what you do, sell beer.

Just how prevalent the “no problem” epidemic has become hit me when I renewed my car insurance a couple of weeks ago.

The conversation with the insurer’s call centre took on an air of the surreal. Could I confirm my policy number? Yes. “No problem”, came the reply. Ditto my confirmation of address and postcode and undertaking that there had been no accidents or claims.

It was the same response to every single question I answered. Until the end, when I read over my debit card details to pay the premium. “Not a problem,” he said, presumably just to vary the routine.

Enough was enough. “Do 
you realise,” I asked, in a friendly manner, “that you’ve replied ‘no problem’ to absolutely everything I’ve said? Why on earth should my postcode or bank details be any sort of problem?”

His bewilderment at being asked spoke eloquently about how deeply this glib, throwaway response has become ingrained in so many people.

At the end of the call, when he asked if there was anything else I needed that day, and I said there wasn’t, inevitably he replied: “No problem.”

There wasn’t the slightest trace of irony in his voice, and I obviously hadn’t made the least impression on him. He must mechanically say this scores, if not hundreds, of times every day without thinking.

But I’m going to start, albeit very politely, pulling people up whenever they utter the dreaded words.

Turns out I’ll be in good company, having read a few days ago that the late and very distinguished playwright Harold Pinter used to do just that. Not long before his death in 2008, when meeting a friend at a Dublin hotel, their drinks order was greeted by the waitress with “No problem”.

Pinter’s response was “I wasn’t anticipating one”. Well said, sir. You spoke for the many of us who groan inwardly every time the words are uttered. As pithy in its way as anything that master of dramatic tension ever wrote, and a small blow for restoring sanity to everyday life.

We need to bin “No problem” and “No worries” in 2018, and get back to the traditional exchanges of compliments across the counter, the bar or over the phone.

The simple “Thank you” deserves to reclaim its place as the classic, timeless, proper response to customers, whether they are ordering a round of drinks or going through questions with call centres.

And if staff want to go a step further in being polite, a return to “You’re welcome” or “That’s quite all right” would be music to my ears.

How much more courteous and pleasant that would be to hear, so I’ll be pushing back, ever so gently against the redundant response that has become the default for so many people.

I’m perfectly well aware that it will result in me being regarded as, at best, eccentric, and at worst, weird, by a legion of shop assistants and bar staff, but so be it. I’ve no problem with that at all.