It wasn’t my idea. In fact, I had been so oblivious to the phrase that I would spit it out like a spent sunflower seed. This time, though, haphazardly saying ‘no problem’ as a response would land me on a change in trajectory.  During a positive meeting with Bluebird Coffee Company* owner/operators Delene Patterson and her husband Ponciano Montoya were sharing about their training strategy. “As part of our goal to make Bluebird a positive, friendly part of our customers’ day, we ask our staff never to say ‘no problem’.  Thanking our guests expresses the gratitude we feel for their support and makes it clear we enjoy making and serving them wonderful coffee. Why imply anything negative is happening?” Delene says.

“It should never be a problem to serve someone,” Ponciano added.

This conversation stopped me in my track. I had been using the phrase to reply to our customer’s needs.  “Can I add decaf to the order?” a customer would ask. “No problem,” I would reply. “Can I please have cream in this coffee?” “No problem, we’ll get that right up for you.” I was saying this phrase without really thinking about what it meant.

This was further solidified in the article A Case Against the Phrase ‘No Problem’  by Alva Noe (2015). He goes on to say that the phrase ‘no problem’ connotes that a person’s request is a problem and by replying  ‘no problem’ one is granting forgiveness, inferring that the request actually is an inconvenience. Thus, ‘you’re welcome’ has been replaced by the sterile and impersonal phrase ‘no problem’.

Those of us who roast and serve coffee all work in the hospitality industry. We exchange a great cup of coffee and a warm human interaction for money. Our livelihood depends on this transaction, and if you take the warm human interaction out of the equation you end up with a shallow transaction. In America, one can get a cup of coffee almost anywhere. This is especially true of cheap commodity coffee (see my article on the price of cheap).

Most of us are not in the commodity coffee industry. We’re in the specialty coffee industry and looking to make the coffee world a better place. We are grateful and thankful for the opportunity to enjoy outstanding coffee and to work in the economy of sharing this incredible coffee. We are thankful for every person that we serve. Sure, there’ll be times when a person’s request may be more challenging than usual. Yet, we must not forget that it is our privilege and honor to grant this request. This attitude produces gratitude and compassion; which will inevitably come back to bless us in the long run. This is why the words we say matter as much as the quality we put into making the coffee.

Bluebird has challenged me to practice the same intentionality in how I speak to people as in how I prepare a Chemex. Are we perfect? No!  Perfection is a mirage in the desert. We strive for intentionality. We aim for mindfulness. It is as the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Every thought you produce, anything you say, any action you do, it bears your signature.”

Let us practice mindfulness. Let us practice gratitude. Let us practice compassion.

*Visit Bluebird Coffee in Bend, Oregon for fantastic coffee and out-of-this-world customer service!

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