Friday, October 3, 2014

Quid, Me Anxius Sum?

Ever since America started exporting jobs, we've been hearing how we're going to become a "service-oriented" economy, selling each other things instead of manufacturing things. The things we'll sell each other, and the services we'll be providing to each other will have to replace the prosperity we once enjoyed as the manufacturing engine of the world. 

In the spirit of service, here's a word of advice to all whose job it is to serve us something, or to service something we have that needs servicing. The transaction of providing, and receiving remuneration for, a service, is a capital exchange, subject to all the conditions of competition, reasonable expectation, and courtesy that govern all business activity in the world of commerce. 

When you sell something to someone, or provide them with a service, you are their servant. If you patronize a business, or a service, you are doing them a favor, something for which they should be grateful. This gratitude may be expressed in various ways. 

Traditionally, it's been considered proper, when providing something, or taking payment, or answering a question, to say thank-you, or to signify one's gratitude in some other way. My pleasure, or we appreciate your business or come back soon also seem appropriate.

Increasingly, these days, I'm hearing the phrase "Not a problem," or "No problem" when I'm paying for, or asking for something. 

There are theories going around about how this phrase went viral, but like a lot of such phrases or words, no one seems to know or care what it's really supposed to signify, or why it's preferable to the other more generic transactional replies. 

My theory is that it's a key to the mood of our culture, one in which guilt, and fear of confrontation, on the one hand, or selfishness and indignation, on the other hand, are indirectly being expressed.

In America today, we seem to feel a need to head off difficulty and confrontation. Saying "no problem" may be a way of telling the customer that what they are asking for does not create any such difficulty, or that providing a response, of whatever kind, to a request or a question, costs the server no effort or annoyance. 

There's also the implication that the person responding to a request for something should need to reassure the customer that he is not being indisposed or offended, as if the mere act of having to provide some service is really just a bit presumptuous or unfair. 

There's something condescending about it too. It's like saying "you can't ruffle our feathers that easily" or "you don't need to feel uncomfortable about asking for that."

The idea is that "everything is okay" and comfortable and politically correct.

But the unfortunate impression is that the speaker--the one providing the service--isn't really showing appreciation or gratitude, or being courteous. Because telling someone that their request is being fulfilled without effort or difficulty isn't being courteous. It's being weirdly inappropriate, and even rude.

Back in the day, Mad Magazine was a satiric, albeit sophomoric, humor magazine aimed at kids and teenagers. Its cartoons and gags and caricatures were the nutty, idiotic, sick side of American rebelliousness and free-wheeling nonsensical hijinks. Its mascot was a freckle-faced, big-eared little nerd named Alfred E. Neuman, whose portrait appeared on countless Mad covers, accompanied by the phrase, "What, Me Worry?" (The Latin for which is this blog's title.) 

Neuman's anxiety about the innocent pleasure of immature amusement seemed a badge of honor in the 1950's, when it was invented. Some of my best friends got a lot of ghoulish merriment out of it. Though we all quickly outgrew it, it was a necessary stage in the development of full-fledged American adult mediocrity. We probably should have recognized it for the stupid indulgence it was, and grown up quicker. But this was the complacent 50's and there were few alternatives to corny humor then. 


Somehow, in my mind, "No problem" equates with "What, me worry?" 

Most of the people who use the phrase probably don't know why they are saying it, but those who wonder may think it's a panacea or a shield against complication or crisis, the elixir against the infection of misunderstanding. 

Everything is alright, everything is under control, we're on top of it, we're ahead of the curve, we're handling it, we're dealing with it, we're not in denial, we understand, we get it, we care, we've thought about this, we have a plan, there's nothing to worry about, relax, chill out, wait patiently until you are called, it's NO PROBLEM!!!  

No comments: