Headmaster’s Notebook — No Problem

We held our second set of community conversations this week.  In lieu of convocation we met in groups of eight to share a meal and a story (no more than three minutes long) that guides us in our lives.  There were several compelling ones in my group: stories about life without the internet (it is possible, apparently), about making mistakes so that we learn how not to make mistakes, about learning another life, about being a friend, even about silence.

My own story came from many years ago when I was about the age of the students in my group.  I was in the car with my father on the way to our home in Pomfret, Connecticut.  I had agreed to help him with some work on the property (our house was on an old farm that needed fairly constant attention), and he thanked me for taking the time.

“No problem,” I said.

And that’s really where the story begins.  After a fairly long pause Dad said something complimentary, the kind of thing you might say if you have to deliver bad news ultimately, but you don’t want to start that way.

“Ben,” he said, “I’m quite proud of the young man you are becoming …”

Uh-oh.

“You work hard, and you are thoughtful and kind.”

Now I’m really in trouble.  I was racking my brain to remember what I might have done to provoke this particular preamble.

“Which is why you should never respond to an expression of thanks the way you just did.”

What?  Phew … I think.  But now I’m just confused.

“‘No problem,’” he said, “suggests to the person who is thanking you that you were only helpful because it was not a ‘problem’ to be so.  You offered assistance not because someone else required it but because it was easy for you or convenient for you to help.”

I never thought of that.

“Better to say, ‘It’s my pleasure’ or ‘happy to help’ because those statements deliver a very different message,” Dad said.  “Such expressions indicate that you are being helpful because you want to be—not for you but for someone else.”

Huh.  Should’ve noticed that …

My father was not in my experience—or at least in my growing up—a stickler when it came to diction.  He was a brilliant orator and a great communicator, but he wasn’t one to grill his boys on the finer points of language.  Other than forbidding the use of profanity—which seemed reasonable to us—he let my brothers and me find our way when it came to vocabulary.

But “no problem” was apparently not something he could abide.  And disappointing my father … well, that wasn’t something I could abide.  “Okay,” I said that day in the car, smiling and looking Dad in the eye like he also taught us, “I’m happy to help.”

As I write it is almost exactly forty one years since that exchange, and “no problem” has not escaped my lips since.  Those seemingly little lessons we learn from our parents sometimes aren’t so little.