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!”