An erstwhile reader of my column has just advised me about a piece he just read in the Wall Street Journal about the use of the phrase “No problem” in place of “Thank you.” This man remembered that I had written about this same custom myself few years back, and so I had, as I saw when I went hunting for it on the web. “No problem,” one young waitress had told me back then when I thanked her for bringing my order. “No problem,”’ the young barista had said after I thanked him for my decaf latte.
Now happy as I was to hear that it was ‘no problem’ for these young people to have done what they did, the fact remains that the transactions that brought us together in those two instances were, in fact, commercial transactions, in which one party offered a good or a service in exchange for pay from the other party. Thus, as far as I have always understood, the notion of a problem doesn’t enter into it.
Consider, by contrast, another part of our common life, that of the daily commute. It’s darn hard to spend two or more hours on the road to get back and forth to your job week in and week out. It’s hard to have to stand out in the elements in wet or cold or sizzling-hot weather waiting for the bus that will get you there and back again. Ask any random group of adults what time they have to GET UP in the morning in order to get themselves and their family members fed and dressed and out the door to work or school and what you learn will back up the statistics: Americans are among the hardest working people on the planet. And yet you rarely hear them using the word ‘problem’ about what it takes for them to get to their jobs, so I have to ask: what’s with this ‘no problem’ phrase that has become the norm among so many younger people?
I don’t mean to be grouchy here. It’s just that ‘No problem’ is the wrong response to ‘Thank you’ and don’t we all know that? Don’t we all remember the right response, the one we were all taught as kids? The right response to ‘Thank you’ is ‘You’re welcome.’ In Italy and Spain they say, ‘It’s nothing’ in response to a ‘Thank you.’ In Germany they use the word for, ‘Please,’ which, handily enough, also means ‘Thank you’, ‘Care to have a seat?’ ‘After you,’ and a host of other things as well.
In English we sometimes say, ‘Don’t mention it’ when someone says ‘Thank you,’ which, come to think of it, feels a lot like ‘It’s nothing.’ So too, the German word ‘Bitte’ serves to say “You’re welcome,” as well as standing in for ‘Please’, Thank you’, ‘Care to have a seat?’ and ‘After you.’
‘You’re welcome’ means ‘You are welcome to my help’, or, in these instances, ‘I am happy to be the one providing you with your coffee/ dinner. No matter if the person is not all THAT happy; we say ‘Thank you,’ ‘Please’ and ‘You’re welcome’ because it is courteous to do so; because it oils the social machinery.
But enough beefing from me on a lovely October morning. Let me save my complaints for the next weekday morning when some postal clerk, who knows at a glance that I can name the entire cast of the Howdy Doody Show, tries calling me ‘Young lady’!