Sunday, October 18, 2015

Looking for Answers to Questions

Many years ago, the singer/songwriter/author/entrepreneur Jimmy Buffett wrote a wonderful ballad that he still performs to this day. It’s entitled “He Went to Paris” and is considered by many Buffett fans as one of his best songs. I like it for many reasons, but I will focus on just one. The song sets up today’s topic by its very first verse: “He went to Paris, looking for answers to questions that bothered him so.” I could stop writing right now and feel complete, but I can’t because I need to convey to you why those words are relevant to us.

How many times during a week do you go to a business, store, or restaurant and you have questions about a product, price, or menu—about anything? And how many times at work or at home do you interact with a co-worker, significant other, or a child and have even more questions? Let’s keep it simple and round up; we’ll go with a thousand times. During these one thousand interactions, you have questions that are clearly bothering you in the sense that you’re looking for answers, sooner rather than later.

Now, look at the following set of three questions that you could ask someone along with some possible answers that could be given to you. Pick your preferred answer and we’ll continue in a moment.

Q. I notice that the shirt is not available in a medium size; could you order one for me?
A. Absolutely!  B. No problem!  C. Not a problem!  D. Yes ma’am, we can.

Q. I really want that hamburger on toast instead of the bun. Can you do that?
A.  Not a problem!  B. I can absolutely do that.  C. That is absolutely not a problem.  D. Yes sir.

Q. Hey (insert co-worker’s name here), thanks for making that fresh pot of coffee.
A. No problem!  B. Not a problem.  C. You are absolutely welcome.  D. You are welcome.

For me, my favorite answer to all three questions was the last choice. Was “D” your favorite choice as well? If not, then that’s ok, and I respect your choice. For those of you who chose “D”, I would like to explore why we chose it. I can think of several reasons: It is a clean and definitive affirmative response with no room for confusion; it doesn’t tempt us to ask an awkward follow-up question; it’s traditional; it’s polite; and it’s not one of the other three answers.

Combining answer “D” with the other choices could work almost as well while taking some of the abrasiveness away from the other choices. Consider these acceptable responses:

- Yes ma’am. That would be no problem.

- Yes sir. Fortunately, that would be no problem because we have some fresh bread on hand.

- That is absolutely impossible for me to do because we have no bread.

- You’re welcome. It is not a problem for me to do that.

So we see that the words themselves aren’t the problem, and there are countless uses of the words “absolutely” and “problem” that are just fine. It becomes problematic when the person at whom the phrase is used thinks the answer is curt, rude, unclear, or unprofessional. The answer may, in turn, make the person feel awkward, confused, or disrespected. If we want to communicate successfully and make others feel special, using the right words will help.

When we ask questions of others, usually we have compelling reasons to do so. We need to determine—without doubt—an answer. Like Jimmy Buffett wrote, we have a question that is bothering us to some degree and we want someone to answer it. In recent years, language has gotten relaxed and sometimes we get relaxed answers from others. In general, I think this is a great trend and makes for a better world. Sometimes, however, we need to speak up and call out those phrases or words that are annoying, bothersome, unclear, just-plain-wrong, or open ended. The answers I write about today are grouped into two categories that I wish did not exist: “No Problem” (and its variations) and “Absolutely” (and its variations).

Do I want to ban these words? No. I’d just prefer them not used in certain circumstances, such as shown in the three questions posed above. It makes good business and personal sense by not avoiding this grammar issue and instead addressing it head on. By formally training our workers and staff on how to properly answer customers’ questions, businesses would make customer experiences so much better. Similarly, if we hint to a relative that their answer is ambiguous or, in essence, a non-answer, then we will help them make some improvements that will be of great benefit across many areas of their life. They may even appreciate our suggestions at some point. How about that?

Now back to our two categories. Are the people who use these responses terrible people who should be shunned? Absolutely not! (Ouch. This is another usage that can be decreased.) I meant to say “No, of course not.” In fact, my hunch is that those who use these phrases are people who have inherent enthusiasm, excitement, and friendliness; the last thing we want to do is dampen those fine attributes. The world needs more people just like this who want to make others feel good and have fantastic experiences. Just this past week, for example, I read a quote from an enthusiastic senior executive in a restaurant chain who stated in a major business magazine: “We have absolutely seen increased consumer demand for pork.” She got her point across to the readers, but my point is that the word “absolutely” in this context is probably not needed; and if you’re going to use a strong-sounding word, why not say something like this: “We have seen substantial (or unbelievable, or record-shattering, or previously unseen) increased consumer demand for pork.” Or, just leave out the word; the sentence will be just fine.

I ask my readers to help out those around you when appropriate, and make a suggestion here or a constructive comment there. You could even look puzzled at hazy answers; this may prompt the person to offer an alternative and better answer. All of this will go a long way in getting clear, definitive, and positive answers to the questions that are bothering you so.

Please bookmark my blog, thank you for your time, and I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.

Randall Ponder, Baton Rouge, Louisiana USA      @randallponder

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