No problem? Sez who?

A few weeks ago, on one of my favorite TV programs, CBS’s “Sunday Morning,” the commentator Bill Flanagan deliciously lamented and skewered the younger generation’s annoying habit of answering reasonable requests with the expression, “No problem.”

He said that in almost every instance, there is no problem to begin with, so that an answer of “no problem” is inappropriate. What’s called for, he said, is an answer such as, “I’ll be happy to do that for you,” or, “Certainly.”

Well, I do have a problem, and it also has to do with choice in language.

I can best illustrate it by pointing to a Minnesota Public Radio program in its series of Q&A sessions with noted broadcast journalists. The featured guest was the NPR reporter Kelly McEvers, who has been covering the civil war in Syria.

I have no reason to doubt the courage or skill she has brought to that assignment. But I do recoil at the way she speaks: almost every sentence contains the word “like’,” as in the popular misusage regularly heard among high schoolers: “I was, like, surprised,” or, “I’m, like, what are you talking about?”

Further, she larded her sentences with “you know” –a crutch phrase that equates with “um.” And she used the qualifiers “sort of” and “kind of” as hedges, when no hedges were needed. If something is a fact, it’s not “kind of” a fact. Just state the fact.

For these lapses I blame not her, but rather her supervisors, who are failing to hold her (and, I presume, other on-air staffers) to a standard worthy of the pre-eminent American radio news operation. Her editors would never allow her written stories to contain these blemishes, nor can I imagine her ever writing THE stories in that way. But when it comes to speaking without a script, she suddenly morphs from professional journalist to Valley Girl.

People who speak in that way are creatures of a culture that has produced language slackers. Of course some people in every generation do master fundamentals and niceties.

I wrote to the NPR ombudsman, who replied that his office considers only concerns about ethics, but would forward my message to the NPR training officer. I thanked him for that, but urged him to send it first to the editors and producers who directly control the output of their first-line reporters.

If NPR’s news managers do not enforce strict standards for speech, they will undermine the network’s substance and image.

To my mind there’s no difference between hearing language slackers on NPR and seeing Jeff Daniels (lead actor in “The Newsroom”) accept his Emmy Award while chomping on chewing gum on camera.

It’s a problem — not “no problem.”

8 thoughts on “No problem? Sez who?

  1. Bunnie Watson says:

    Right on the money. I bus commute and often turn up the volume on my podcast to avoid hearing young airheads (sadly, usually female) carrying on vapid “Like, ya know” conversations.

  2. God love you Gary Gilson. You are one of the last defenders of proper use of our language. In addition to the ubiquitous “no problem”, there are so many other grammatical coarse rejoinders such as the dis missives: “Who cares?” or “No big deal!” As the athletes say (and their coaches too: “You know?”

  3. PM says:

    I generally agree with you, but with a caveat:

    i have no problem (purposeful) with the use of what was once slang in discourse. That doesn’t bother me at all.

    i do have a problem with thoughtless speech. Far too often people on radio and TV are afraid of a pause, a (needed) rest to collect and order their thoughts into a coherent comment. Thus, we get repetition of formulaic answers (listen to any sports coach or player interviewed following a game–masters of filling in time without actually saying anything), and the fillers–“like”, “you know”, “ummm”, etc.

    i prefer dead air.

  4. When the remote reporter finishes her segment with “Back to you guys.”
    Guys?! Guys?! WTF!!!!!!

    Good post. Smart people can sound stupid when they open their mouth.

  5. rob levine says:

    Not sure why you would expect such professionalism from a war-mongering network that relies on people such as Mara Liasson and Cokie Roberts.

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