At Michigan State University, the Word ‘but’ Is a Trigger

Students walk between classes on the Locust Walk on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pa., September 25, 2017. (Charles Mostoller/Reuters)
This, and other ridiculous suggestions, are harming student employees’ ability to communicate comfortably and effectively.

Michigan State University instructed student employees to avoid using words and phrases including “but,” “I apologize,” and “no problem” — because apparently, they’re “triggers.”

The students received these instructions during a mandatory hour-long training, titled “Inclusive and Culturally Sensitive Service to Residents & Guests,” in August, according to an article in Campus Reform.

The training told students that they should replace the apparent “triggers” with “calmers.” For example, “but” should be replaced with “and,” “I apologize” should be replaced with “I am truly sorry,” and “no problem” should be replaced with “you’re welcome, it was my pleasure.”

“If I’m saying ‘no problem,’ that’s leading a customer to believe that they could be a problem or they could be an inconvenience to you and we’re just assuring them that they’re not,” Sheena Ballbach, MSU facilities manager and host of the training, reportedly said.

Among the other “triggers” were the phrase “it’s our policy” (which apparently should be replaced with “here’s what we can do”), “you should have” (which apparently should be replaced with “what others have found helpful”), and “the only thing we can do” (which apparently should be replaced with “the best option would be”).

Now, I write about political correctness for a living, but (oops!) I still have to say that this story was one that I had to read over multiple times to make sure it was actually true. I mean, how on earth is the phrase “no problem” offensive? Ballbach’s suggestion that saying “no problem” might actually make people think that they are a problem makes absolutely no sense based on what words mean. It clearly means the opposite, because putting the word “no” in front of “problem” makes it the opposite.

Speaking of what words mean, it’s completely ridiculous to say that you can simply replace the word “but” with “and.” They are totally different words; they mean totally different things. Do things sometimes come after the word “but” that might bum you out? Sure! For example: “I love you, but I don’t want to be with you anymore.” That hurts. The thing is, though, approximately zero people would say that the word “but” was the part of the sentence that hurt them, and about the same number of people would probably say that the sentence “I love you, and I don’t want to be with you anymore” would make them feel any better. The only difference it would make is that it would make less sense.

As for banning “it’s our policy”? That, to me, seems like it is taking away a very valuable tool from these student workers. Oftentimes, a customer will want to know why an employee cannot accommodate a certain request and informing that customer that his or her request is simply against policy is often the best way to convey that reality without creating any hard feelings. It’s the same sort of thing for “the only thing we can do.” If it’s true that there’s only one thing that you can do, why can’t you just say that? Replacing it with “the best option would be” is not only not any better, but it is also factually incorrect because it implies that there are other options when there aren’t.

Now, when it comes to the phrase “you should have,” I do understand how that can sometimes be a tough thing to hear. After all, no one likes regrets. The truth is, though, if a person should have done something another way, the best option really is to let them know where they made their mistake so they don’t do it in the future.

Finally, I highly doubt that anyone would actually ever be triggered by the phrase “I apologize.” Is it maybe more heartfelt to say “I am truly sorry”? Possibly — but only if you really, truly mean it. If it’s awkward for you to say “I am truly sorry,” and it sounds rehearsed, then you’re going to sound fake — and that’s much worse than simply saying “I apologize” if that’s what feels more comfortable.

In fact, these student employees’ ability to communicate comfortably and effectively is at risk with all of these suggestions. After all, although I’ve never heard of anyone actually being upset at the conjunction “but,” I have heard of people being upset because they felt as though someone was treating them insincerely. So, although the goal of this training was undoubtedly to teach these students how to provide the best possible service, these suggestions might actually make their service worse. After all, the best service is genuine service, and if they are just parroting these phrases — and being distracted by whether or not they’d used an innocent word such as “but” — then they will likely be less sincere and focused than they would have been had they not had this training at all.


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