Colorful Colloquialisms – “no problem” (English)

Today’s post is a response to a request to explore the phrase “no problem” as used in response to “thank you.”

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I have to admit, I’ve never really thought much about this usage. It never occurred to me that it’s endemic to the US, as most of the articles I’ve found have stated, because of the sheer number of non-native speakers who use it. Many of them, in fact, are from areas where English education is primarily British English (including England).  Some of them are very recent immigrants, and some have been here for a while.

My efforts in learning Hungarian have further reinforced the idea that it’s not exclusively a US phenomenon. Hungarian has two phrases for this, semmi baj and nem baj, both of which are used frequently enough that they have been abbreviated to sebaj and nebaj (the former being more common, as far as I can tell).  Not to mention the obvious analogs in Spanish (de nada) and in Australia (“no worries”).

It wouldn’t surprise me, though, that this may have been first an American phrase that was adopted into other languages.  That’s kind of a thing that happens.

What really surprised me was that there was so much contention over the phrase. Most articles I find refer to the phrase as a rude Millennial habit that drives baby boomers crazy. I had no idea the phrase was annoying at all, let alone this contentious.

How on earth have I missed this?

But let’s look at the argument. First, I’m not sure that the characterization that this usage of “no problem” is a millennial thing is all that accurate. I myself am, by most measures, a member of (late) Gen X. My contemporaries have been using this phrase for decades, including people who have enough years on me that NO standard could consider them millennials. I’ve also heard it used frequently members of the baby boomer generation.

The phrase itself is older than the millennials. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the first print usage as 1955. It was used in response to a request: “Could you hand me that book?” “No problem.” While I haven’t found anything definitive, most sources seem to point to its use as a response to “thank you” becoming widespread in the 80s.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that this use of the phrase originated with millennials and spread backward to boomers who don’t have a problem with the usage – which, as far as I can tell, is most of them.

But why is it so offensive to some boomers?

This article on All Things Linguistic sums it up well, I think. The gist is that, to boomers, the phrase assumes that the speaker thought there was a problem in the first place and contradicts them, or even rejects the appreciation, where “you’re welcome” simply acknowledges the thanks. Millennials, on the other hand, see it as replying, “no need for thanks,” because saying “you’re welcome” feels like saying that they did something worthy of thanks. They are downplaying their action as something that anyone would or should do and not a big deal.  As the article states, these phrases act as minimizers, allowing the speaker to indicate that their action was not unexpected or unusual.

I tend to come down on the side of “no problem” or other minimizers. Maybe this is part of a larger cultural shift, but if I hold a door for someone and they thank me, that’s the type of response I give. Saying “you’re welcome” makes it seem like I’m acknowledging that holding the door is some kind of noble gesture instead of a normal, decent thing that everyone does. The “thank you” doesn’t feel inappropriate, and I’m not rejecting it, but “you’re welcome” feels like I’m saying I did something extraordinary.

The argument makes me think of military veterans. Strange, I know, but hear me out.

I know many veterans who feel like they don’t know how to respond and feel uncomfortable when they are thanked because they don’t know how to respond, and the reasoning is simple. To them, they just did their jobs, so saying “you’re welcome” would be acknowledging some extraordinary action, which they don’t feel they performed. People have even thanked me for supporting my husband, who is a veteran, and I never know what to say. They’re thanking me for supporting my husband, but isn’t that what a spouse does? Some will now say “thank you” in response to being thanked. It feels awkward, too, but it kind of downplays their actions while appreciating the thanks.

(Note: I’m not saying don’t thank veterans. Many of them appreciate being thanked, especially the older generations. And their actions were extraordinary, whether they feel that way not.)

The whole argument is a perfect embodiment of the linguistic differences between generations and the reactions to those differences. I hate to take a side (especially since I know I have the same reaction to some specific changes that especially annoy me), but I have to say that the fight against the phrase is a little get-off-my-lawn.

Darn kids today.

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