The Problem with "No Problem"

Barista Pouring Coffee

Recently, I was at a dinner and complemented one of the persons who brought a very delicious dish.  Her comment was, “No problem."  But she was smiling and making eye contact with me when she said it.  Clearly she was pleased by my compliment, which pleased me.  

A server at a local coffee house completed my order and I thanked him.  His response: “No problem.”  He was not looking at me and he was not smiling.  And his response didn’t feel like an acknowledgement of my thanking him for his service.

Logically speaking, this phrase doesn’t make sense to me in either case.  But I understand that many think “No problem.” equals “You’re welcome.” 

A teacher friend of mine says that her students seem to think “You’re welcome” is out of vogue, that it is a mere contrivance, and it’s time to change.

Politely and Logically Speaking

As children, we are taught that at a minimum, “You’re welcome,” is the polite thing to say when you are thanked.  We are also taught that you are supposed to be sincere.  The first “magic words,” a child learns are “Please,” “Thank you,” and “You’re welcome.”

All the phrases interrelate.

If you give me a gift and I say, “Thank you,” you can see and hear that I am grateful.  You then give back to me an acknowledgement of my expression of thanks by saying, “You are welcome" (to the gift, favor, etc). 

It’s a “yes-yes” situation.  There isn't a problem to address! 

The test question for the modern now: 
As a parent, would you teach your child that the response to your thanking him for picking up his toys would be, “No problem”?

Most likely not.

There’s nothing incorrect about saying “No problem” or “Not a problem,” when responding to an apology.  You would probably teach your child that when his friend or sister apologizes for something that person did, he will need to forgive the mistake.  “That’s okay” works as a response.

The next step is to learn that if you can minimize the fact that your friend caused a problem because she feels very bad about it, you can combine your acknowledgement of forgiveness with helping her not feel bad.  “It's okay.  We all make mistakes.  We're good to go." 

Kindness is Never a Problem

When you respond to an act of kindness, why would you bring in a feeling or tone of an apology?

And if you respond to my “Thank you, John, for going out of your way to pick up my extra bags” with “No problem” or “It was nothing,” I could easily feel that you are denying that I should thank you, or that it really was a problem, however slight.

If you say, instead, “It was my pleasure, Candace,” I have the feeling that you know I’m grateful, and that your act of kindness was not an inconvenience.  When kindness is met with kindness, there is never a problem.

Consider the origin of the word "problem."  It means "to put forward," or "to present a difficulty."  Replying to an expression of gratitude with a denial that a gift, favor, or act of kindness wasn't difficult for you doesn't acknowledge the thank-you.  You're only saying something was easy for you, or that someone didn't inconvenience you. 

However, letting someone know she is welcome to your kindness, or that it was your pleasure to show a kindness keeps the exchange positive and leaves room for nothing but good will.  

If you find yourself in the habit of saying, “No problem” and you’re now convinced that you should get back to basics, to the recognized phrases of politeness, it’s not too late to begin amending your habits.

Someone may say to you: “Thank you for inviting me to your party.”
You may say: “No problem."  And immediately amending your statement: "It’s so wonderful that you could come. So thank you for the thank you.” 

It would be very hard to say this if you didn’t mean it.  You've now expressed sincerity and kindness in a single reply!

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