The problem with ‘No Problem.’

There’s an interesting column over at The Boston Globe about people who have a problem with people who say no problem instead of you’re welcome after being thanked for something. This is an issue close to my heart as I have used the phrase no problem for, quite literally, decades and I can prove it as well. I’m in my early 40’s now and somewhere in my boxes of old memorabilia — I don’t have it handy, but could dig it up if called upon to do so — there lies a caricature someone drew of me back in my early 20’s during my time as a Desktop Publishing Coordinator for the Kinko’s Copies in Auburn Hills. It depicts me in full DTP regalia behind my counter with the Mac I used to do my job and a prominent speech balloon over my head reads, “No problem!” I’m quite sure that wasn’t the start of my usage of the phrase, but it was distinct enough at the time to catch someone’s attention.

Little did I realize that I may have been punching many people’s pet peeve over the years:

The un-welcome – The Boston Globe.

There’s a certain kind of person – you may even be this kind of person – whose good will after receiving a favor and replying with “thank you” is completely wiped out when the response is not the traditional “you’re welcome,” but instead the breezier “no problem.”

As “no problem” has caught on and spread, replacing “you’re welcome” in situations ranging from casual personal encounters to business deals, the number, vigor, and shrillness of the complaints in etiquette columns and Internet forums has spread along with it.

I have, somehow, managed to miss all this bitching and moaning over the phrase as this is the first I’d ever heard that it was something people complained about. Or, for that matter, that the phrase was catching on. Figures I’d be a trend setter in pissing-people-off-without-meaning-to.

The reasons given – or unstated – are varied. Many especially dislike hearing “no problem” in commercial transactions and from folks in customer service jobs, since, as the customer is always right, nothing a customer could ask for could ever be “a problem.” “I assume my business is not a problem,” huffed one complainer on the message boards at the Visual Thesaurus. Others on the Internet have taken the same tack: “Why would it be a problem? It’s her job, isn’t it?” and “It better damn well NOT be a problem, because I just gave you my money.” Some dwell on the counterfactual: “I always wonder if the person would have helped me if they had known it would be a problem.” And from Twitter: “I know it’s no problem. You rang up my orange juice. How could that be a…problem?”

So herein lies the first problem people have with no problem. The idea that it should be taken, like the Bible, literally. As opposed to something polite to say in response to a thank you that was probably more perfunctory than heartfelt itself.

I don’t know about anyone else, but it’s very rare that I feel the various thank yous I get during the average day are in any way sincere. Every now and then you come across someone who realizes your no problem was a politeness doled out automatically in response to a thank you and they’ll stop and repeat, with emphasis, that they are sincere in their thanks. Which is always a nice thing to happen and will almost always be greeted, by me at least, by a sincere you’re welcome. I guess I reserve my welcomes for when I really mean it.

That said, the idea that the customer is always right is one that just doesn’t fly with me and the quickest way to get me to switch from a no problem to a fuck off is to start acting like the idea is a sacred truth.

Others think the problem of “no problem” is one of self-centeredness. In a comment on the blog for the public radio station WAMC in Albany, N.Y., one person with a no-problem problem wrote: “When you say [no problem], you are describing or assessing how you feel about the favor or task that you are being thanked for instead of acknowledging the social nicety of a ‘thank you’ with a statement that in turn acknowledges what was just said to you in a relational context.” (Whew!) In other, fewer words: If you say “no problem,” you’re talking about yourself. If you say “you’re welcome,” the focus is still on the favoree, where it evidently belongs.

Yeah, that’ll earn you a hearty fuck you if that’s how you feel about it. Perhaps it is a bit self-centered — I’m a blogger, we tend to be self-centered — but interaction is a two-way street and I’m not sure I see how my feelings on the favor being asked of me are irrelevant.

If I am just doing my job then no thanks are expected or required. They’re nice when sincere, but if you’re just engaging in the previously mentioned “social niceties” as opposed to expressing an honest feeling of thanks, then you can keep it to yourself and I’d be just fine with that. I’m not much for social niceties that aren’t sincere. It’s a game I’m not interested in playing.

Others just think “no problem” is unnecessarily negative, dwelling as it does on the problem, and not the just-proffered solution. “You’re welcome,” has two generally positive words, compared with the doubly negative “no problem.”

These folks are thinking about it entirely too fucking much and need to get a hobby. I suppose I could see the argument that the words no problem are both negative terms, but the phase as a whole is a positive when you think about it. And I bet you I can come up with a dozen ways to say you’re welcome that wouldn’t make you feel all that warm and fuzzy.

If you are not a person for whom a cheery “no problem” or “anytime” is an affront, you may think that those who are affronted are overthinking this – or are overly touchy, or, at the very least, are blessed with an abundance of free time. You might even sense that responses like “sure,” “anytime,” or “no problem” – as well as “you’re welcome” itself – are what linguists call phatic communications, words that don’t really convey information so much as they perform a social role. In other words, “you’re welcome” doesn’t mean “you are welcome (to ask me to do this again)” and “no problem” doesn’t mean that there would have been a problem if you weren’t so darn nice. They only mean that the speaker has acknowledged your thanks.

Yes, I would definitely be one of those people. And, yes, that’s pretty much how I view the phrase.

Then again, those who do take offense may be picking up on subtle nuances of the thanker-thankee relationship. Dr. Albert Katz, a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, has studied this question and has found that these replies can convey more than mere politeness – they may also be used to show or assert social dominance. In his study, he found that open-ended responses like “anytime” were used less often when the favor performed was difficult – reducing the risk that the hearer would take that “anytime” literally, and come back again. But men, especially, were more likely to use responses like “anytime,” even for high-difficulty favors, when the person receiving the favor was also male. (Women were somewhat less likely to use responses like “anytime” for high-difficulty favors.) Katz speculated that men were displaying dominance behavior – proving that they had the resources to perform costly favors – as a way to assert their alpha-male status.

Right, because I am such an Alpha Male. Hell, it’s all I can do to keep from pissing all over your leg when I’m talking to you as a means of identifying not only my superiority over you, but that I consider you an object that I now own by having left my mark upon you.

My wife would laugh uncontrollably if you were to suggest that idea to her. Not just because of the mental image of my urinating on your leg, but because of the idea of me being an Alpha anything.

So in conclusion: If you’re one of the people who gets their panties all in a twist over people like me responding with a chirpy no problem when you toss a thank you my way all you have to do is let me know and I’ll be sure to modify my response to a chirpy fuck you instead. Of course I’ll mean that in the nicest way possible.

22 thoughts on “The problem with ‘No Problem.’

  1. I suppose the Aussie “No Worries” could be taken as an attempt to calm the fears of an insecure person who thinks others believe them ungrateful, and therefore must continually espouse gratitude.

    Or not.

  2. It makes me remember that in first year Spanish you are taught the proper response to “Gracias” is “De nada.” “De nada” literally translates as “It’s nothing.” “You’re welcome” is certainly the traditional response to “Thank you” but languages do evolve. How long has “okay” been pert of the English languasge?

  3. Of course what the people that get all worked up over “No problem!” are ignoring is that you just did them a favor or they wouldn’t be thanking you in the first place. You should be able to respond to “Thank you.” with “Fuck a turtle! Aaargh!” and they should still consider themselves to have gotten the better end of the transaction.

  4. Wow. What a bunch of uppity jackasses. I use “No problem” regularly, interspersed with “No big deal,” “No big” (which I stole from Buffy), and, yes, even “You’re welcome.” Don’t these assholes realize that language isn’t always about direct information transmission? And that being offended by this piddly shit makes them worthless sad sacks? I guess not.

  5. I must confess that when I first heard you use that response I wondered how a problem for me couldn’t be a problem for you. But then further thinking dictated that you meant you are welcome so I started mentally substituting the your welcome for no problem and have never had a problem with it since. What!

  6. Idiocy. But, to nitpick, saying “No Problem” would be correct in some cases, such as in response to a hearty, meaningful “Thank you so very much for taking care of this issue for me!!” when it’s an easy fix for me. ESPECIALLY with computer issues – non-techs tend to give heartfelt thanks for fixing what was – to them – a major time consuming issue, but to me was a very simple and fast fix. So, LITERALLY, it was “no problem”, meaning “It was no problem for me to fix it, I am very happy that I could help you, and would be happy to help you with any other problems”.

    I use both “You’re welcome” and “No problem” interchangeably. If the task was an annoyance, I’m more likely say “You’re welcome” as a way to end the conversation.

  7. I had heard about this phenomenon a few years back and ever since then, I have been conscious of my use of the phrase. When I say it, I imagine, in the back of my head, what the receiver must be thinking. I wonder how many people I’ve pissed off. Oh well.

  8. Person A says “Thank you (so very much. You’ve done me a great service. I am in your debt. I owe you a return favour.)”
    Person B replies, “No problem”, “No worries”, “Don’t mention it”, “No bother at all”, “Think nothing of it”, “My pleasure” (it was no great effort. I expect no recompense from you. I release you from any obligation)

    To me, “You’re welcome” is the phrase that doesn’t quite make sense and does not immediately assure the person that he owes me a favour.

    I don’t know where these navel-gazers get off becoming irritated or spouting alpha male theories. They need to read more classic novels from 100 years ago, or, if that’s too strenuous, watch some oldie goldie movies. Particularly from Britain.

  9. This isn’t overanalyzed enough. The fault clearly lies with people who insist on a subservient and transparently hollow reply to a perfunctory acknowledgment of a job done according to expectations.

    In practice, both “thank you” and “you’re welcome” (in all its variations) runs the gamut from “I’m really really grateful” to a social convention to “fuck you”. If you really are thankful, then you’ll take the reply in its intended spirit. Otherwise, to give a damn justifies the “no problem”.

  10. I agree with you Les. But I think there are some people, young techs like myself, that might benefit from watching what we say to certain people. I don’t always mind what I say necessarily. Usually I’m myself. But I try to be a little more vigilant when networking with important folks or talking to an interviewer.

    I don’t really like the idea, but I’m at a point in my career where my technical knowledge and experience aren’t completely trusted off the bat. I have to earn everything. And burning a bridge over something like this seems easily avoidable.

  11. The use of “thank you” has devolved into a mere platitude in public. It’s sort of like when the waitress walks by your table and asks “how is everything?” She really couldn’t care less – it’s a rhetorical question. The checkout cashiers at the store may say “thank you” or “have a nice day” but it’s just a perfunctory response they are trained to say. Here in Minnesota, they usually just say “here you go” which is another way of saying “you spent your money, now get the fuck out of here.”

    In any case, I don’t give it much thought. I don’t expect sincerity from people who don’t even know me. A “thank you” from a loved one or a boss or a client has far more value to me.

  12. I have no problem with “no problem”. Other languages use their translation of “it’s nothing” in response to a thank you and I just figure that no problem is the English equivalent. I use a mix of no problem, you’re welcome and you are MOST welcome. I’ve realized that my response is somewhat dependent on the sincerity of the thank you. If it is just an automatic then they get the no problem. If it more sincere, you’re welcome and if someone is effusive with thanks then they get the you are MOST welcome.

  13. I think what gets me annoyed is that these people seem to have a set expectation about what kind of response they deserve. They assume that simply because they said thank you they should get nothing less than a you’re welcome regardless of my feelings on the topic. I just don’t work that way.

  14. Makes you wonder if a sad bunch of nitpickers like that ever heard the British English “not at all”…

  15. Gee. All this time I thought I was being disarmingly-friendly and casual. I always say “no problem”.

    Whats funny is all the arguments against using “no problem” and its insincerity/inapplicability could be applied to “You’re Welcome”. Again, the person did whatever-task because, as the complainers said, they were paid to. Well, duh, then you’re not “welcome” to it either.

    This is a matter of uncreative, psychologically-conservative dimwits who have to complain about anything unconventional, and insert their egos in for good measure. Like grammar nazis who still call you stupid for splitting infinitives. Get a LIFE people!

  16. “You’re welcome” can be said with a lot of venom. “No problem” can be said to indicate; “It’s my job and I’m glad to do it!” I think some people just need to have something to complain about.

    Remember Lenny Bruce’s bit on “Fuck You!” as best wishes.

  17. Pingback: Unblogged Bits for Wednesday, 02 December 2009 | ***Dave Does the Blog

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