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.