The New ‘No’

beachWhen in Jamaica on holiday, a smiling hotel front desk agent assured me in his local patois that an early check-in would be, “no problem, mon.”

I thought the phrase was charming. After all, in laid-back Montego Bay, wristwatches tend to be removed upon arrival. Time may not stand still on the island, but it certainly slows to a leisurely crawl. Everyone – locals and tourists alike – seem focused on slowing down and enjoying life, and, like other pursuits, the longer you practice this idle art, the better you get at it. After a while, you stop glancing at your naked wrist and wondering where you need to be. This is a land seemingly devoid of deadlines, a nation of the almost proudly unpunctual.

Outside Jamaica, the island-state’s charm has permeated the broader world’s culture. Think Jamaica, and you think Bob Marley, Reggae, jerk chicken, dreadlocks… and “no problem, mon.”

Outside Jamaica, though, phrases like “no problem” should be avoided. The essence of hospitality is that we want guests to feel comfortable. In the upscale segment especially, we want to provide a perfect experience in every aspect, and there’s no place for “no” or for problems. In the lexicon of luxury, ‘no problem’ is unacceptable. Upscale clients aren’t comforted or inspired by slang, profanity, or imprecise and negative language.

In the lexicon of luxury, “no problem” becomes “that would be my pleasure,” “of course,” or possibly, “allow me to take care of that for you.”

In a sense, we make “yes” the new “no” by adding qualifications and offering alternatives, stated in a positive way. List your most common “no” answers and create positive alternatives.  

By adopting more positive speech, we’re learning a new, cultured and positive manner of speech. We’re replacing negatives with positives, and offering gentle alternatives when necessary.

Even if you’re not working in the luxury market, refined language and manners are good business. In fact, most large cities in the U.S. and abroad are home to etiquette consultants and protocol schools whose business it is to impart greater civility and grace into our words and deeds.

Adopting the language of luxury is work, but it will ultimately enable you to be more effective.

Like Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl immortalized in George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, we can transform our speech and manners, re-learning basic life skills like walking and speaking, and acquire a new set of social skills.

As we migrate from relaxed, colloquial speech to a higher, more precise and more positive standard, we realize that there is a little bit of Eliza Doolittle in most of us.


Scott H. Lewis is managing director for the CIS region of Signature Europe. A former journalist and public relations counselor, he has provided crisis, public speaking and presentation training to senior executives across Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. He is the author of The Kindness Cure: 52 Weeks to a More Fulfilling Life.  An American, he has lived in Kyiv, Ukraine for more than a decade.

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