politics and culture — January 15, 2019 at 4:56 pm

The Problem With “No Problem”

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Over the last few years, I’ve noticed more and more people responding to “thank you” with “no problem” instead of “you’re welcome.” 

I’ve spotted it mostly in retail situations. After thanking the barista for preparing my latte, he’ll answer with a nonchalant “no problem.” As does the cashier at the convenience store after my having purchased, let’s say, a bag of Doritos.   

I’m not much of a grammar nazi, but this has started to bother me. 

See, when someone says “no problem,” it implies that there could have been a problem. He or she, however, doesn’t consider it such, or has decided to overlook it. 

This is a perfectly good use of the phase in situations when we’re asking for a favor. 

“Could you please pass the salt?”  

“Do you mind moving over just a bit?”  

“Could you hold my bag for a moment as I try to find my keys?”  

In cases like this, responding with “no problem” is, well, no problem.

But in retail transactions it’s different. You’ve purchased your coffee and show your appreciation by saying “thank you.” If the barista responds with “you’re welcome,” he’s in effect saying “you are welcome to the effort and skill I have just provided you.” Built into this little exchange is an equality of status. You appreciate the barista; the barista appreciates you appreciating him, and indicates that he has given of himself freely.  

But if he responds with “no problem,” in effect he’s saying the transaction was a potential imposition. Preparing your latte could have been problematic. But he has evaluated the situation and deemed it less than problematic, or still considers it problematic but has decided to let it pass. 

Here the equality of status within the “thank you/you’re welcome” exchange has morphed, however subtly, into one of dominance and submission. You, as the customer, are placed in an inferior position: you are asking for a favor; the barista has deigned to accede to your request.  

Of course no one is thinking about this consciously. But these dynamics are indeed built into the language we use.  

Perhaps it’s an unconscious attempt by service workers earning minimum wage to assert their dignity. 

Or maybe it’s just one of countless examples of English undergoing its perpetual evolution, signifying little more than the obvious truth that things change.  

In any case, it irritates me.  

But that’s my problem. 

 

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