I Have a Problem With “No Problem”

I have a problem with “No problem.”

“Thank you” and its variants are as old as language itself. Acknowledging and appreciating even the smallest exchange is part of the social lubricant that makes societies spin. Human transactions that are not anonymous have seldom been soulless.

“Thank you” affirms an emotional dimension to the simplest act, giving the actor an intangible token. Each good action, properly lubricated, makes subsequent good actions easier and more likely.

But what then comes next? Indo-European tradition offers two responses, dividing itself roughly in half. Southern cultures favored versions of Spanish “de nada” or Italian “di niente.” Each means, literally, “it’s nothing.”

Meanwhile, northern climes gravitated over centuries toward “you’re welcome” or the Germans’ “gern geschehen” — literally, “my pleasure.” “Willkommen” was German before it became English. Some linguists believe its oldest and first version meant, “Very well, come in.” Phrases are like nails — hit them often and they tend to shorten. “Welcome” entered our vocabulary — and the doormat industry was born.

There’s an overly simple explanation for this south/north division, but it may be partly true. People developed the habit of inviting people indoors to acknowledge appreciation, but only where it was cold outside. In places where the weather was warm and hardships may have been less physical, the deprecating “it’s nothing” made more sense.

Life has gotten easier over the last century. Combustion engines and Gore-Tex have made the cold less fearsome. ChapStick and Kleenex have made it less painful. Life conditions are more temperate now, even if the weather is not. When progress is made, language adapts.

But “no problem” overlearns the lesson.

Remember that this everyday courtesy begins with gratitude. Whether it’s for the smile, or the service, or simply for returning the correct change — a small expression of thanks has been offered, hoping to increase the frequency of similar actions.

“You’re welcome” or “my pleasure” returns the kindness with another kindness. If the opportunity repeated itself, the outcome would be the same. Even when the world seems cold, hospitality is available — “well, come in.”

Just as the thanks is meant to acknowledge the original act and affirm its actor, the response affirms the thanker — they’re worth the effort, the act was no fluke. A virtuous cycle of gratitude and affirmation has begun.

Compare that with the prevalent southern response. The originating actor can diminish (“it’s nothing,” “don’t mention it,”) or deny (“no trouble,” “no sweat”). But at least those responses don’t divert the attention from the original kindness.

“No problem” extends the denial response by changing its terms.

The gratitude was for the effort, the exchange, the exertion. If the reply insists there’s not a problem, it’s fair to wonder how a problem got added to this social equation. Why would you tell me it wasn’t a problem, unless it almost was — or might be, next time?

Consider the visceral, if not-quite-rational, response to “no problem.”

“Grateful as I may be, I’d like to avert any future problem for you, if I can. We might both be better off if I did my next exchange with somebody else — or, better yet, if I avoided any exchange at all. You know, just to be certain that there’s no problem.”

My hunch is that “no problem” may have been an adaptation of “no sweat.” Beatniks in the 1960s adopted “no sweat” as their go-to response. The war they were fighting over draft deferments and other upper-class entitlements was slowly lost and then forgotten.

Everybody now wants those upper class privileges, which include not sweating. In fact, sweat itself could now be seen as a problem. So “no sweat” became “no problem,” after stopping briefly at the surfer-dude’s “no worries.”

But there’s also this. “No problem” sounds suspiciously like a one-size-fits-all response — the tube socks of daily courtesy. But just like tube socks, they never fit well.

However inexact the response might be, it offers efficiency. Why learn one response to “thank you” and another to “I’m sorry,” when “no problem” can work for both?

The problem is, it works for neither.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.