My problem with “Not a problem.”

Okay, here’s my ugly yuppie Seinfeld-esque rant masquerading as linguistic criticism: It drives me nuts when restaurant servers respond to your every routine request with, “Not a problem.” Like this:

SERVER: What would you like to drink?
ME: I’d like a glass of water, please.
SERVER: Not a problem.
INSIDE MY HEAD: Huh? A glass of water must be the most routine request in the course of your day. I would be astonished if serving one DID present a problem for you. It sounds like you’re just barely keeping it between the lines today.
{server brings water}
SERVER: Are you ready to order?
ME: Actually, I think we need just a couple more minutes.
SERVER: Not a problem.
INSIDE MY HEAD: I didn’t ask if you could change my tire in the parking lot or drop to your knees and

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deliver a crowning baby. Find a quiet corner and take some deep breaths and try to cope with this slight deviation from your expected routine.
{comes back}
ME: Okay, we’re all set, finally. I’d like the burger with Swiss and a side salad.
SERVER: What kind of dressing?
ME: Ranch, please.
SERVER: Not a problem.
INSIDE MY HEAD: {imagines server going back to the kitchen. To chef, alarmed: “Please don’t be upset, chef; this one is out there. There’s this customer who has a request, and I’m not sure we can meet it. He wants ranch dressing on his salad. Is that all right? If it’s not, I’ll go out there and tell him we can’t get that crazy.”}

See, when a server says “Not a problem” to a routine request, it makes me think they’re saying, “Ugg, it’s such a pain in the ass to get you a glass of water,” or, “Why aren’t you ready to order, already,” or “I’m not very capable and already stressed out and talking myself down from the ledge right here at your table.” That said, there is a time when it would be appropriate to respond with, “Not a problem,” which is after the diner makes some mortifying error that places the server in a position of having to clean up a mess or perform some other feat of grace and therefore compels the diner to shower the server with apologies: 4-year-old grabs waitress’ boobs, I squirt mustard on her apron, my inept work with my knife sends half a baked sweet potato flying, and server makes a diving catch. Basically, any time you would say, “It’s not a big deal,” or “Don’t worry, this happens all the time. We’ll take care of it.”

It’s another case of choosing to say something much more complex than what’s needed, of trying to fancy up unnecessarily what should just be a routine communication. If it’s truly not a problem, choose a simple, apt, direct way to say it: “Certainly,” “Take your time,” “Got it,” and I’ll remember you at tip time.

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