What Happened to “You’re Welcome”?

A waiter serves you your soup. You say, “Thank you.” He replies. “No problem.” Or, “Not a problem.”

You sigh. You are nostalgic for the days when waiters said “You’re welcome.”

If you’re in the mood for a little banter you may say, “Not a problem for you. But it’s a problem for me – I will have to pay for it.”

But you might as well leave it and wonder quietly why “No problem” has become universal in the English-speaking world.

Matt Zoller Seitz tackled this question in Salon on July 5.

“No problem,” he writes, translates as, “What I did for you was not the sacrifice you so charmingly believe it to be. I hereby release you to get on with your day, blessedly free of guilt.”

“In other words,” Seitz writes, with reference to shopping in a store, “No problem reverses the terms of the transaction. Rather than your doing a favor for an establishment by shopping there, suddenly the establishment is doing you a favor by having its employees help you, then reassuring you that it was no big deal, seeing as how you were already in the store and all.”

Seitz was annoyed by the man who told a lady it was not a problem to hold the door for her. “His response,” Seitz writes, “reverses the historically accepted terms of a routine encounter. It was once expected that gentlemen would always open doors for ladies because the gesture was more than a gesture. It was a puny vestige of chivalry, a token of appreciation toward the gender that does the whole human race a favor by carrying life inside of it. In this context, ‘No problem’ translates as: ‘Don’t worry, holding that door didn’t cost me anything but a few seconds of my life and a handful of glucose molecules – so carry on, lady!’”

Next time a salesman or waiter says to you “No problem,” why don’t you reply, “No, it’s not a problem. It shouldn’t be a problem. It’s your job!”

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13 responses to “What Happened to “You’re Welcome”?

  1. Horace Krever

    On the other hand, apart from long usage, how much sense does “You’re Welcome” make?

  2. Horace Krever

    By the way, should we expect to experience withdrawal symptoms or will the blog continue during the Couchiching Conference?

  3. Yup, I’ve felt this.

    Here, let’s step into the conservatory of minute sensibility, to look at it…

    “No problem” is not neutral.

    Taken literally, it rebuffs a pleasant exchange, a conventional tit-for-tat. It implies my thanks offered in return for your service are inappropriate.

    Taken with good heart to be an equivalent of “you’re welcome”, it still requires emotional translation to become coinage that forges a small temporary “we” instead of bumping us away into two “you’s”.

    Taken sociologically: it embeds a message “don’t think I owe you this, in case that’s what you’re thinking”.

    I first heard it, finding it odd, in Toronto in the 1970’s, from a friend from Pennsylvania. Maybe “no problem” is functional and emotionally-satisfying in a setting where an assertion of individual equality is perennially useful, maybe where inequalities obviously exist, but ideology prohibits their recognition.

    Thanks for the opportunity to get this expressed.

  4. “You’re welcome” acknowledges that a service has been performed, and that the recipient is welcome to it, i.e. the service provider does not begrudge the service. (It’s also the traditional polite response, which has a good deal going for it simply as the formula that keeps the wheels greased.)

    Compare some other languages – for attitude or for tradition.

    Italian: ‘prego’ – more or less the same as French ‘je vous en prie’ – which I take to mean ‘I beg to you to accept’.

    German: ‘bitte’ – more or less the same as Italian and French, or rather ‘ask any time’ for the service?

    Spanish: ‘de nada’ – it’s nothing. The closest to ‘no problem’. One often hears ‘de rien’ in French, for the same meaning. Indeed one now hears in French (not formal French, but colloquial) ‘sans problème’…

    I prefer ‘you’re welcome’ – but I’m not sure ‘no problem’ grates on me as much as service people, particularly in restaurants, addressing my wife and me as ‘you guys’. It seems to me that in any place where one pays more than, say, $8. a person for food, we should not be treated as ‘you guys’. Just ‘you’ will do. (Is there some kind of ingrained, Chomsky-esque push, some innate grammar, that wants to emphasize the plurality of the second person, à la ‘you all’, or the southwestern Ontario (among other places, no doubt) ‘youse’?

  5. Better restaurants in Quebec often offer “plaisir!” – an abbreviation of “c’est un plaisir”…

    I was brought up in a social circle where high level formal dining not infrequently took place. I was instructed that you didn’t thank a server who brought you food. You said nothing, but you might bow your head slightly and form a tiny smile IF YOU WISHED. If, however you were offered something not to your taste, you would smile and say “no, thank you”, and look directly at the server.

    In Australia “no problem” has become “no worries”. I found this confusing at first until I got used to the idea that it was just another form of social grease. Semantic acclimatisation.

    Digression:

    In Quebec “sans problème” is much more likely to be “pas de problème”.

    But in the CBC, where I worked for many years, I slowly learned that it was No.1 on the list of the 3 Great Telephone Lies. Here they are:

    1) “Pas de problème”. Means the roof is about to fall in; check everything or your program will be in danger.

    2) “Ce sera pas long”. Means that you’ll never get it unless you pay a personal visit and stand over the tardy individual until you get it.

    3a) “C’est pas ma faute..”
    3b) “C’est pas ma job..”

    Barefaced, whining untruths. Severe cross-questioning will usually pin the blame where it belongs. (“So whose fault IS it? So whose JOB is it?”)

    My new script-assistant thought I was being unduly cynical until one morning when I came into the office, she had her hand over the phone mouthpiece and said, wide-eyed: “I’ve got 1) and 2) at the same time!”
    I said she should take all our requisitions and get them checked out personally if we wanted to get the show on the air.

    After that there was no question ever again of my being considered cynical…!

    Back to the topic: what really grates on me in restaurants is when a server puts a dish down in front of you and says “there you go!” Exactly as if I were a child begging for a lollipop and finally getting one, then being sent on his way with a condescending pat on the head.

    This started in the 70’s and I’m still not used to it!

    • You’ll Get Used to It. World War II song in quick-march tempo, written in 1940 by Freddie Grant about life in a camp for German and Austrian nationals (many of whom were refugees) in England during the hostilities. It appeared first in the November 1941 issue of Stackeldraht (sic), the newspaper published in the internment camp at Farnham, Que, to which Grant had been transferred.

      A version with modified lyrics credited to Gordon Victor (a pseudonym for the song’s commercial publisher, Gordon V. Thompson) was popular as a morale booster during the war, and the title became a catch phrase among the allied forces. This version was sung frequently by the Happy Gang, recorded by Wilf Carter (and in the 1960s by the Al Baculis Singers), and appeared in the folio Sing With Gracie Fields (Robbins). In Canada, the song was a show stopper as sung by John Pratt to his own lyrics in Meet the Navy. Pratt also performed his version in the English movie of the show and on a Victor recording.

  6. “No problem” bugs me too, especially if the waiter or waitress has a tattoo :)) I just can’t understand the tattoo thing . .

    BTW: my favorite TV control room phrase is: “It’s OK leaving here” as the incoming screen shows nothing but pixels (formerly kinown as white snow.)

  7. Eric – I too read the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada from time to time – in time I got used to it!