“No problem” is a problem

Robert Valentine Senior lecturer of advertising

Column by Robert Valentine, Senior lecturer of advertising

The nice young man at the restaurant brought a nice cup of nice hot coffee just in time to keep me from freezing to death.

“Thanks,” said I, and I meant it.

“No problem,” said he.

And right there, I had a problem. I always have a problem when someone does something nice for me and I say, “thanks,” and I am told that the act of kindness performed was “no problem.”

Really? In that case, I take back my “thanks.” After all, in most cases, someone is just doing a job. They are supposed to bring the coffee; they are supposed to tally up the sale and put the goods in a bag. It’s not supposed to be a problem. Being unemployed is a problem, but doing your job shouldn’t be.

Of course, it wasn’t a problem. But the proliferation of “no problem” in everyday speech has become an epidemic.

I am aware that the thought one wishes to express is something like this: “While I appreciate your thanks, you should know that it is part of my job – and a part in which I take unbridled delight!”

Naturally, that kind of effusive discourse would probably alienate the patrons in most restaurants and would be a definite turn-off for people calling the theater to clarify the time of the next showing of “The Lego Fifth Element.” So what is one to do?

I like the British solution. When offered thanks, the tradition is to respond, “It is my pleasure.” That is a nice way of saying, “Please don’t feel that you are in my debt; I enjoyed being of help to you, so we’re even. No ‘thank you’ card, please.” The Brits are so good at it and have been doing it for so long that they shorten the whole thing to the smiling delivery of one word: “Pleasure!”

There is an American approach to the issue that might even be better. I am told by those much older than I that, when someone offered “thanks” in the old days (say, the 1980s), one might respond, “You’re welcome.” That means, according the Dictionary of Out-moded Terms and Languages (Revised), that the recipient of coffee, assistance or a college degree is free of obligation and is “welcome” to a state of non-obligation. It is an international expression.

The Canadians say, “Oh, you’re welcome, eh?”

The Scottish say, “Aye maist welcome.”

The Italians say, “Prego!” (Also the name of a good red sauce – yum!)

The Germans say, “Bitte schon,” in response to the polite “Danke,” and it means, “You’re welcome.”

The residents of Millsaps College in Mississippi say, “Well, aren’t you just the sweetest thing!” (It means “You’re welcome.”)

The Australians say, “No problem, mate.”

And there you have it. The whole thing starts with the Australians, whose principal exports to the United States have been “no problem,” reference to a coal fired portable grill as “the Barbie,” Mel Gibson and Olivia Fig Newton John. While a lovely group of people in and of themselves, the Aussies obviously have only a tenuous grasp of the English language and ought not be the standard-setters for polite interpersonal conversation. They are, however, very jolly and have never started a war with anyone over oil.

Thereby hangs the tale: “No problem” is a shabby way to say “You’re welcome.” It’s not even an American phrase and ought to be sent back to Australia on the next Qantas jet. So now, even though there was no real problem, the problem is solved.

You’re welcome.