Words have power. The art of effective communication is dictated by our choice of words and phrases, in any given situation. Often, we unconsciously fall prey to old standby phrases, without considering the aftermath. One such phrase is, “What’s your problem?”
At first glance, such a phrase might seem harmless and well-intended, and simply a question posed to quickly get to the bottom of a query or complaint. But is it rude to ask in such a way?
The use of the phrase “What’s your problem?” is rude because it insinuates that the person you are addressing must have a problem and that you are not interested in helping them or that they should simply get over whatever is bothering them.
The dilemma with using this phrase is it directly refers to another person by using the pronoun, ‘your’, which makes it personal and confrontational.
Why You Should Refrain from Using ‘What’s Your Problem’
By asking someone, “What’s your problem?” you are insinuating that the problem lies with the person as opposed to the situation, being discussed. This particular phrase might come across as a threat in some cases. In other instances, it comes across as disapproval, or irritation on your part.
There is an infinite number of scenarios where the phrase “What’s your problem?” can turn into a full-blown argument. Asking someone this question, whether it is a client, a friend, a family member, or a colleague, will often come across as though you are spoiling for a fight. Let us have a look at this pesky phrase, in various settings, to put it into context.
When Not to Use the Phrase ‘What’s Your Problem’
If you are a shop owner and a client returns an item they are not satisfied with, it is highly advisable to think before asking them, “What’s your problem?”
The client will most certainly feel offended, as it comes across as aggressive and it alludes to the fact that the problem is with the client, as opposed to the item they purchased and wish to exchange or return.
A better approach would be to say:
“What seems to be the problem?”
If it concerns a clothing item or shoes, for example, you might ask, do you need a different size or color, as opposed to, what’s your problem.
By shifting the focus from the client to the object in question, you stand a better chance of resolving the issue without an argument.
Remember the saying, “The customer is always right?” This phrase was first coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker, and Marshall Field. All three of these men were successful retailers. This phrase became a trading slogan, worldwide, which exemplified a company’s keenness and capacity to put the customer first.
It implies that the company is customer-focused and that the success of its business is directly related to its customer’s satisfaction and happiness.
If you are a restaurant owner, you are no stranger to customer complaints and dishes being returned to the kitchen, for what might seem unjustified reasons to a waiter or waitress. Would you want them to respond by confronting your customer with a question such as “What’s your problem?”
Probably not, if you hope to see that customer again and those sitting nearby any time soon. It would be as impolite as directly confronting them by saying “Nobody cares”.
If you run an office-based business, with staff reporting to you and you are not content with the performance of an employee, you had better consider what your objective is before affronting the topic.
By asking someone what their problem is, not much will be resolved.
If you want to get to the bottom of an issue, you’ll need to show a little more empathy by asking a different question. The idea is that if you want to bring the best out in a person, whether you want to set the stage for reconciliation or better performance, you had best take on a different approach and avoid making it a personal accusation by asking them the dreaded question.
The same stands true for friends and family members, including children. No matter how bad a situation is, even when you know that it warrants such a question, there is a high probability it will backlash on you and you will most certainly not get the results you desire.
Perhaps it’s worth pausing and reflecting on what it is you are hoping to achieve in a conversation, before lashing out. No matter how appropriate it may seem at the time, to address it by using the phrase, what’s your problem, it probably isn’t.
If you stop to think about it, you are not looking for an answer to the question, you are simply making an accusation, or expressing your dislike for a person’s behavior, with such a statement.
If your partner or roommate always leaves the seat up on the toilet, and one day, after years of asking them not to, you lash out with, “What’s your problem?”, they might simply answer, “I don’t have a problem, you do”.
After all, the chances are they don’t appreciate finding the seat down most of the time. It’s all a matter of perspective. Addressing any personal issue with this unpopular phrase will only create more grief and will not motivate a person to change their ways or to stop doing what’s bothering them.
When addressing children, whether you are a teacher or a parent, if the child repeatedly does not complete their homework, it is best to consider using phrases that will engage and motivate them to change their behavior patterns.
Of course, you could try asking, what’s your problem, with a smile, and that in itself will change the delivery. What might have been perceived as an attack turns into an offer to help them with their problem.
If a person is not feeling well, it is ill-advised to use this phrase, as it will come across as crass and insensitive. You might consider asking, what’s wrong, as opposed to, what’s your problem?
Whether you are addressing a close friend or family member, or whether you are addressing a stranger that might have inadvertently bumped into you or crossed the line in front of you, it is always best to not be aggressive or confrontational, regardless of who is right or wrong.
The line, “What’s your problem?” was delivered by Tom Cruise to Val Kilmer, in the 1986 movie Top Gun. These three simple words set the tone for fierce competition and rivalry between these two characters for the entire movie.
Unless you want a battle on your hands, steer clear of accusatory and confrontational or disapproving phrases and/or questions such as this.
What To Say In Place Of ‘What’s Your Problem’
We have established that the phrase, in question, is inappropriate in most cases and is considered rude and insensitive. A viable solution is to replace the pronoun ‘your’ with the article ‘the’ and the phrase comes across as less combative.
By using an article instead of the pronoun, ‘your’ you’ve taken the focus away from the person you are addressing. As a result, they will not feel personally challenged or threatened by you.
The word ‘problem’ in many instances should be avoided unless you are looking to create a problem. Here are some alternatives, which depending on the context they are used in, will give you better results:
“What is wrong?”
“What is bothering you?”
“Why did you do that?”
“How can I help you?”
“What is the problem?”
“Where is the problem?”
“Can I help you with anything?”
“Would you like some help?”
“Do you have any questions?”
“What can I do for you?”
Essentially, asking someone, “What’s your problem?” does not come across as a question, and you might as well have said, “You have a problem!”
Suffice it to say, that using such a phrase will lead to an argument.
If your objective is to resolve an issue, you will need to show interest, understanding, and a minimum of decor when addressing a person.
No matter what bothers, frustrates, or makes you angry, whether you think a better job could have been done or whether you are simply looking for an apology, always remember that you are dealing with a person on the other end.
In most instances, the phrase insinuates that the person you are talking to must have a problem, which causes them to think, feel or act in a way you disapprove. It is considered a passive-aggressive way of communicating.
You may tell yourself that you are expressing your concern, however, depending on the situation, the subtext strongly suggests that the person you are addressing has a problem, that you are not interested in resolving the issue, or that they should simply get over whatever bothers them.
Throughout your lifetime, you will likely interact with a wide range of people from different backgrounds as well as organizations and institutions. These can be small local businesses, government offices, or your children’s school.
In all of these instances, listening is a big part of good communication skills. When a person presents you with a problem or problematic situation, be it personal or impersonal, the only way to resolve it is to show some respect and avoid reacting without careful thought and consideration.
Communication is the key factor to constructive healthy relationships, both in the business world and in private life. Successful communication assists us in better understanding people and situations. Good communication skills help us conquer diversity, and build trust and respect.
Katie Holmes is a senior author at everyday-courtesy.com with over 15 years of experience in marketing and psychology. As a freelance consultant, she also supports companies and executives in overcoming communication challenges. Katie is a passionate digital nomad working on her first book on the art of communication.