Have a Problem with “No Problem”? Here’s the Solution.

by | March 1, 2016 |

Last week a manager in a major communications company contacted me in my role as a linguist. He wanted to consult with me on the phrase “No problem.” I was game, and we arranged a phone call.

He opened the call by saying, “I notice more and more these days when I say ‘Thank you’ to someone they respond not with ‘You’re welcome’ but rather with ‘No problem’.”

He said it bothered him, because it was as if the person was suggesting that whatever they had done for him was a problem somehow, because otherwise how did the whole problem thing come into the picture? He asked me, “Do you know what I’m talking about?”

I replied, “Completely. But the difference is, I don’t have a problem with it.”

You cannot tell a person’s age on the phone, but his very question puts him out of the Millennial category and even out of most of Gen-X. The response “You’re welcome” is common among Baby Boomers. Those in younger generations have reinterpreted thanking behavior.

For the younger generations the phrase you’re welcome is used to point out someone else’s rudeness. I’m driving along the highway, the driver next to me cuts me off in my lane, and I say, “You’re welcome!” The usage is sarcastic, and therefore not appropriate for genuine thanking interactions.

So, the younger generations say, “No problem”, “No worries”, “Sure”, “Happy to help” to point out that they were, indeed, not put out by whatever they just did for you.

Baby Boomers will make their lives easier if they understand that the younger generations are not suddenly becoming rude (and if you think they are, you have already drifted into old fart territory), but rather have a different rationale for their politeness strategies.

Boomers: I do you a favor. You thank me. I bring attention to the favor I’ve done by saying, “You’re welcome” (to that favor from me).

Gen-Xers and Millenials: I do you a favor. You thank me. I unburden you from the notion I’ve done anything other than the proper thing to do by saying, “Sure.”

I teach the History of English, among other things. On the first day of class I’ll put a sentence from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on the board/powerpoint. This one is from the year 899:

Sē wæs cyning ofer eall Ongelcyn būtan đæm dæle đe under Dena onwalde wæs.

What do you recognize? If I pronounce ofer as ‘over,’ you know the meaning. Otherwise, under is the only clearly recognizable word. Wæs looks like ‘was’ and, in fact, is.

The sentence translated is: He was king over all England except that part that was under the Danes’ control. (He = King Alfred)

Some of the words still exist in the language (eall = ‘all’) with change, and some are gone completely (onwalde = ‘control’, dative case). Overall, the sentence makes no sense to the modern speaker, and even some of the letters look funny, such as æ (the vowel sound in ‘bad’, known as ‘ash’) and đ (th, known as ‘thorn’).

So, what happened to the language during the course of these last 11 hundred years, with no one generation ever being communicatively cut off from the previous one?

Answer: the vagaries of history prompting microchanges in the speech of the incoming generation of speakers who make the language theirs. (The full answer takes an entire semester to elaborate.)

The shift in the use of the phrase you’re welcome and its replacement by other phrases is such a microchange. These changes are everywhere.

A couple of years ago my younger son used the phrase hone in on. I told him it was home in on (like a pigeon). He said, no, it’s hone in on. Perfect example of a microchange. Not enough to break communication, just enough to change the language downstream. The future is in favor of hone in on. The younger generation’s usages always win.

Another one? Literally. As in:

“I put my phone down for a few hours, and when I picked it back up, I literally had hundreds of texts waiting for me.”

You might say such a thing when you received a dozen texts in that time period. Literally no longer means ‘exactly, to the letter.’

Language change is inevitable. You can never beat ‘em. You can only join ‘em.

Note: My experience is the opposite of Alva Noë’s who weighed in on the issue on NPR. I don’t know how old he is, but he’s definitely not a Millennial and unlikely to be a mid-range Gen-Xer, if he is one at all. Can’t tell with the beard.

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This post was written by Julie Andresen

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