Thursday, December 9, 2010

A little "no problem" problem

The Ridger’s recent  post on the “no problem” curmudgeons reminds me that I finally had my own "no problem" revelation not long ago. After years of wondering (privately and publicly) why people get so cheesed off at the phrase, I finally heard it used in a way that sounded inappropriate even to me, the language libertine.

I was paying the receptionist after a massage, and when she handed me the receipt, I said "Thank you." She replied: "No problem."

Now, I don't even blink at "no problem" in other situations. I ask for a new fork and the waiter brings it; I say "thanks" and he says "no problem." I ask the mechanic, "Can I leave the car overnight?" and he says, "No problem." I’ve always assumed the complainers were objecting to this response, which seems completely normal (if casual) to me.

But these interactions were different from the one at the massage place. I asked the waiter or mechanic for something, got it, and thanked him. In those cases, “no problem” (as The Ridger notes) is no more rude, contentwise, than the time-honored “it was nothing” or “don’t mention it.”

In the transaction at the cash register, though, no service was requested or granted. My “thank you” for the receipt was just part of the minimum  ritual – you hand me a receipt, I acknowledge it. In response, either a return “thank you” or “you're welcome” or even a cheery “mmm-hmm” would have been normal, but "no problem" sounded distinctly odd. It seemed to say "yes, I did you a service," when that wasn't the case.

So maybe the “no problem” problem is more subtle than I’d thought. For me, it seems, some “thank you”s can be answered with "no problem" and some can't. Is this true for (some of) the people who object to "no problem," or is theirs a blanket condemnation? And does the distinction exist in other languages that use the equivalent of "no problem, it was nothing" as a response to "thank you"? 

Or have I just been thinking about this non-problem for too long?

46 comments:

Anonymous said...

The distinction you pose is not part of my idiolect. As far as I am aware, 'no problem' is always (semantically) appropriate as a response to 'thank you'. :)

The Book Nut said...

I myself am a "No Problem" user. I am conscious of it though, because my grandfather once chided me for using it saying that it indicates that a "problem" might have existed but was somehow avoided. I didn't agree with his logic so have not tried to change my ways.

I would however, use "You're Welcome" in the situation you described. Now that you say it, I do reserve "no problem" for times that I have done something for someone. It does seem to be the appropriate circumstance for it.

nuclearheadache said...

"Hey, it's no problem. The register is right here, and all I had to do was push two buttons. I'm not even on my lunch break!"

I guess it all comes down to where you draw the line on whether someone's performed a "service" for you or not. Do they have to walk five miles in the rain, or can they just hand you a fork? Besides, doesn't saying, "Thank you" imply that a service has been rendered?

Of course there's also the fact that people often speak without thinking. I don't how many times people have wished me "Happy Birthday", and I've come back with something dumb like, "You too."

The Ridger, FCD said...

Actually, if you try to analyze it, doesn't "You're welcome to the receipt" seem odd, too?

It's all fairly ritualistic, when you get down to it.

tudza said...

Yeah, people seem to be thinking too much on this judging from your post. I understand the point, but to be at all troubled by this is a waste of time.

Caren Gittleman said...

to tell you the truth...I don't have a problem with no problem! And your post? "No problem!!!"

:)

Kayleigh said...

I'll admit that I often finish a sale with no problem when the customer says thank you, either that or no worries. We're a little more casual at the store I work in in Australia and sometimes your welcome seems too stuffy.

Ø said...

This "no problem" wouldn't bother me any more than the average one -- which is to say it wouldn't bother me at all unless I was in a very peevish mood. Usually I agree with most everything you write, but not this time.

Alexia said...

Just another form of phatic communion - the actual words don't matter.
I wouldn't use it myself, but it doesn't annoy me :)

I enjoy your posts

Kay L. Davies said...

I'd have to say "let it go" because pondering the problem is causing trouble for you, not for anyone else. Worrying about whether you should worry about it is... well, if it had a shape, it would be circular.
I love your blog, adore the title.
-- K

Jen said...

In Romanian I feel the distinction is the same as in English. I wouldn't mind it if someone told me "no problem" in the situation you described, but a more appropriate answer would be "cu placere" ("with pleasure") for exactly the reasons you mentioned.

Sean said...

Surely this is a situation where the "no problem" response is probably most appropriate? The receptionist must have done something for you to have thanked them, that something being so small that it wasn't a problem. Whereas with the mechanic, if they reply "no problem" then perhaps you should be asking them why then have they just charged you so much? As for the waiter bringing the fork, I feel this should fall into the "moderate problem" response category.

And whilst on the topic of responses, one that irks me is "it was the least I could do". Really? Well thanks very much for the effort, I'll bear that in mind next time I do something for you!

David said...

"No problem" may not make sense here, but does "You're welcome"? Did you ask for the receipt, or did she just provide it as a matter of habit and/or policy? "You're welcome to ask for a receipt" makes sense, but "you're welcome to accept the receipt I hand you because I always hand people receipts" doesn't.

Thanking people who "obey" our requests seems to provide a logical opportunity to use "you're welcome" (to ask again should similar circumstances arise); thanking people who have given us gifts or provided pleasant surprises seems to open the door to "even though you didn't ask for this, I was happy (or at least not put too far out) to provide it."

The giving of the receipt was, in other words, "no problem."

Cantahamster said...

nuclear headache expresses my view of just how too casual that sounds. At a cash register, I think it's a "Thank you." "Thank YOU" situation--'you're welcome' doesn't really even come into it, let alone 'no problem'.
The minor social debt we are in to each other is mutual.

I work in retail, and it can be tough to train people to see it my way. I also wish, when a customer makes some minor general complaint, that my co-worker would not say, "I don't blame you." The customer did not intend to put herself under Elizabeth's judgment even that far.

For the waiter finding you a fresh fork, I'd vote for a 'you're welcome' minimally expressed by a nod and murmur, as, 'you should expect nothing less, and I'm sorry you had to ask.'

soperman said...

In that situation (and yes, I have been in that exact situation, though likely with a different massuese) the "thank you" and "no problem" are for the massage. The exchange of money and a receipt are simply formalities which need no verbal acknowledgement.

Gary S said...

I'm generally not comfortable with "no problem." I use "My pleasure" instead.

LC said...

Aha! I think Kayleigh has best articulated today's casual culture. And the language libertine expressed precisely why "No problem" bothers me and sometimes it doesn't. It evidently is because I am too stuffy! I actually enjoy those rituals of courtesy. A cashier hands me a receipt with a smile, or at least with the absence of a scowl. I say "thank you"; the cashier responds "You're welcome" or "You're welcomed if the cashier is also stuffy! Our business transaction is concluded presumably to our mutual satisfaction. Both have gained something.

And tudza, your point that people are thinking too much about this and getting in a twist about it is a waste of time is totally off-base. The entire blogosphere is about people writing about, ranting about, agreeing and disagreeing about things they are interested in. I happen to be interested in the nuances of language and the changes that are always in progress.

Richard Hershberger said...

"Or have I just been thinking about this non-problem for too long?"

That would be it.

What you have is a variant of the etymological fallacy. This use of "no problem" is equivalent to the traditionalists' preferred "you're welcome". (And what exactly does "you're welcome mean, anyway?) It is an idiomatic formula. Like any idiom, trying to analyze it as if it were composed of smaller semantic units misses the point.

The expression didn't start out as an idiom, but it long ago crossed that line. Treating it as if it hadn't is like looking at a word's Latin roots and claiming to derive from this the word's One True Meaning.

Graham Strong said...

If your "thank you" was part of the minimum ritual, why can't the "no problem" be the same? In this case, I would think it's even more appropriate: a casual response to a casual thank you. Not to mention, it actually was no problem.

The "You're welcome", in turn, would be more appropriate when a more discernible service had been performed.

My two cents...

~Graham

Jan said...

Thanks, everyone. I don't mean to sound obsessive (still less etymologically fallacious!); it's just that after years (literally) of telling people to get over it, I was surprised to hear an example of "no problem" that I didn't quite like. (It wasn't the masseuse, btw, but the cashier; it could have been the supermarket, but there, the cashier would just smile and the bagger would say "have a nice day.") Essentially, I'm with cantahamster; ideally, it's a "thank you"/"thank YOU" situation.
But I'll get used to this wrinkle too; I just hadn't realized it was (for me) a wrinkle.

Ø said...

No problem, Jan. I'm sure I speak for all of us.

John Lawler said...

So in your pragmatic idiolect, as I understand what you've said, No problem would be appropriate in a situation where you'd asked the cashier for a receipt, and then thanked them when they gave it to you? That's a very fine distinction you make there. I think I'd probably make it too.

I might add that, in Mexican Spanish, at least, No (hay) problema '(There is) no problem' is every bit as common as in English, and gets used as a standard disclaimer for not requiring an apology or display of gratitude.

Mate said...

Kayliegh nailed it.in Straya no worries is a common response and no problem seems part of our "Americanization."

Sean said...

No problem.

Leslie said...

I have always wanted to tell the person who gave me an expected service and after my saying 'thank you' says 'no problem' - 'right, I'm paying you for this service; its your job.'

Edith Ann said...

I'm with Gary S here--

All of these phrases are but a few words. How much nicer it sounds to hear "my pleasure" after I thank someone.

Must everything be so casual?

Gavrillo said...

My first introduction to the phrase "no problem" was on a trip to Jamaica back in the 80's. I remember feeling their use of the words was completely different than today's response to to a thank you. Would anyone care to comment on the "no problem" attitude of Jamaicans?

No Problem said...

Yo. You gotta problem with me?

Shaun Clarkson said...

I think it's safe to say that in the UK in most circumstances thank you is the end of the interaction and doesn't get a response. Not that we never say you're welcome, but it's not normal. I remember a comic writer commenting on a meal in America between connecting flights (LAX I think) and how distracting the 'thank you' 'you're welcome' interchanges became when the staff said it every single time they did anything.

Jan said...

John Lawler -- yes, exactly; if I had asked for the receipt (say, in a situation where it's not automatically handed over -- taxi, parking garage), and then had thanked the payee, I would have been fine with a "no problem" response. Yes, it's a fine distinction -- one I was surprised to discover myself making. But I guess I shouldn't be; it's clear from these and from previous rounds of "no problem" debate that we simply can't help minutely parsing the words and intentions of others in these transactions.

Sophie said...

So a waiter and mechanic does you a service but a lowly check out assistant doesn't help you out at all by serving you at the till? Especially since they probably went to fetch the item in question you were purchasing because you were too lazy to go and get it yourself? (I'm making reference to entertainment stores in particular here, however, supermarket check out assistants are just as important).

William Avery said...

I still remember with affection an old English shopkeeper who used to say 'much obliged' in this situation.

Callithrix said...

I haven't seen earlier debates about 'no problem' so I'm sure I'm treading bloodied ground. 'No problem' as a response to thank you offends me every time. It just strikes me as an insult, or insolence, or indolence: "Don't bother to thank me, because what I have done was no problem for me (otherwise I probably wouldn't have done it for you)."

I will reveal my general curmudgeonliness by saying that I'm equally offended by 'mm-hmm' or 'sure'. To me they are signs that someone cannot be bothered to maintain the pretence that they care to be polite, because they really don't care.

S_Werndorf said...

Going over the situation in my head I can't say it sounds particularly odd. I have a tendency to say "No worries.", a slightly more casual Southern California variant (though I believe a poster above said Australians say it as well?).

That being said, I can imagine situations where saying either wouldn't quite feel appropriate. I'd say it depends on the situation, but also on how finicky the people involved are.

Anonymous said...

To my ear, "no problem" shares with "mmm-hmm" a ritual acknowledgment of the "thank you" combined with an unwillingness to take credit for performing a service. "No problem" doesn't even have the "it" of "it was nothing."

Ø said...

It's easy to overanalyze these things: also lacking an "it" is the Spanish de nada, which I believe is a respectable polite form.

Kristal said...

Although I love the blog and normally agree with you, I found your logic in this post a little counterintuitive. I was thinking of the situation like Sean. However, after reading Cantahamster's comments, I think any response but "thank YOU" isn't quite fitting.

Keep blogging!

Truth Ferret said...

Well, Bob's your uncle. I just wrote a blog about my pet peeve phrases and a friend sent me here to find your take on "no problem." Pop over and read my take, if you care to journey near the Truth Ferret. I promise I won't bite (I appreciate your humor, too much.)

Escorts said...

It's all fairly ritualistic, when you get down to it....

Anu said...

'no problem' seems to be a better solution than 'no mention' or 'mention not' which is what we hear over here!

Joel C Anatoli said...

I never thought about this. It seems like I've been abusing 'no problem' too much

Katie said...

My grandparents always get upset when someone says, "No problem." They always want to respond, "I didn't expect it to cause you a problem!" It irks them, so I've tried to remove it from my vocabulary. Sometimes I wish the rest of the world would to the same. "You're welcome" seems a whole lot more considerate.

<>< Katie

Anonymous said...

I was a waiter for years and we were trained not to say "no problem" because it implies that there might be a problem which we are negating (snake oil salesmen that we are). We were taught to say "absolutely" or "my pleasure".

Rick D said...

Me: "Thank you."
Cashier: "No problem."
Me: "Ah, good. I'm so very glad it wasn't."
Cashier: "Huh?"

Hmm... said...

Hmm - seems to me the customer should receive the thanks.

Hmm... said...

Seems to me it is the customer who should receive the thank you.