Don Curlee: The problem with the word ‘problem'
Nowhere are troublesome circumstances and difficult prospects treated as problems more than in agriculture, at least in conversation.
The word "problem" has become a crutch in agriculture and in society in general, apparently anywhere and everywhere the English language is used. Anybody can test it easily by just counting the word's use in a minute-long conversation. Careful, because the overuser might be Mr. Me.
Admittedly, most meetings for farmers, so popular in the winter season, deal with issues that are troublesome for those who till the soil. Subjects deal with insect pests, disease, poor returns, sluggish markets, narrow margins, burdensome regulations, unreasonable demands and unresponsive legislators. The lists are endless.
So, going in, the speakers and listeners are conditioned to frame the issues as problematic. However, that doesn't excuse innumerable mentions of the word "problem" itself by the presenters who are there, after all, to offer solutions.
Listening for years in these meetings has heightened a desire to hear matters presented in more positive terms. After all, addressing subjects as problems predisposes you to begin your assessment from a negative point of view. Positive solutions are not likely to follow.
Without splitting hairs about the definition of the word "problem," it can be assumed that situations broadly labeled as such are usually little more than challenges, requests for direction or clear indications that the current approach isn't working.
Many times the circumstance we perceive as a problem is really a set of issues saying we need to reassess our approach. The "check engine" light on the car's dashboard is a helpful indicator telling us that something under the hood needs attention.
Yet, we usually say we've got a problem.
A great agriculture industry in a great state like California offers a bunch of "check engine" lights, new ones every day. However, they are not all problems. On the contrary, many of them are actually opportunities, challenges to improve, escape the rut, do better, improve, move ahead.
Weaning ourselves from constant use of the word "problem" is a worthy goal, but it won't be easy. It will be just as difficult as kicking the cigarette habit. The clear air in meeting rooms these days indicates that most people have accomplished that, so why not take the next step and clear the word "problem" out of our vocabularies?
Listening to conversations around you, even those you're involved in, to detect how often the word "problem" crops up can be revealing. When you get a sense of just how much it interferes with the real words that should have been used, you are likely to want to rid your conversation of it wherever possible.
To a great extent, the commitment to avoid the word is similar to clearing profanity out of our conversations. Now that is an even greater challenge for many; absolutely no way to express true thoughts without some choice swear words for emphasis, or so we think.
It ain't easy, as they say. And maybe it's something that challenges only a few folks here and there. Most have plenty to deal with without trying to restructure their entire vocabularies and the way they express themselves.
But then for others it might be fun to clean up the verbal message board, make more positive statements, accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative as that old Johnny Mercer song suggested. It might give us and our proud agriculture a new outlook.
And when someone notices our new, positive persona, and says something about it, practically apologizing for perceiving it, what do we say in return? That's right, "No problem."
CONTACT Don Curlee at email@example.com