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The Word

The un-welcome

What’s the problem with ‘no problem’?

By Erin McKean
November 29, 2009

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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.

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?”

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.

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.”

“No problem” has, of course, been joined by other unwelcome responses to “thank you.” There are the variants “no prob” and “no problemo/a,” as well as “anytime,” “no biggie,” “no worries,” and “don’t worry about it.” (Although most folks seem to have no trouble with the courtly “think nothing of it” or “it’s my pleasure.”)

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.

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.

Perhaps the “no problem” of service workers is a way to reclaim some measure of power - “no problem,” after all, does remind the customer that her request is technically within the power of the employee to grant or refuse. It’s subtle reminder of the control workers often do have over a customer’s experience - especially in the face of the customer who is always, or perhaps simply needs to be, right.

E-mail Erin McKean at erin@wordnik.com. For past columns, go to www.boston.com/ideas.