As an organization that advocates etiquette, decorum and respect in all levels of communication, we want to talk about the phrase, “No problem.” For some, it’s used as a replacement for the standard “You’re welcome” and for many others, it’s simply a phrase that is absolutely unwelcome.
Although the expression is not new (it first became prominent in the 1980s, according to the Empirical Studies of Applied Linguistics), the phrase has become increasingly commonplace in today’s more causal business and social culture as a standard response to the expression “thanks.”
So, what is the problem with “No problem?” Many people in the service industry use the phrase “no problem” as a worthy substitute for “you’re welcome.” To them, “no problem” means that they were glad to offer the services they provided and that they were simply happy to help you— a contextual definition that speaks to someone who was happy to have helped.
On a more literal sense, an expression like “no problem” falls into the category of phatic expressions, formulaic sayings that are used less for their literal meaning and more for their social contribution. So, in effect, when someone says, “no problem” they are simply minimizing the importance of their service in a humble way, saying that good service is expected and maybe should not even be noted in any overly congratulatory way. For a reference, other minimizing expressions along these lines include “no worries,” “sure,” “my pleasure”, “anytime” and “don’t mention it.”
The problem with “no problem” however, is the inclusion of the word “problem.” No one likes to think of themselves, their requests or need for service as bothersome and the phrase can leave an ambiguous ending to what should have been a simple and friendly interaction between two people.
The different interpretations of “no problem” also speaks to the nuances of words and interpretations that vary from different generations. For Baby Boomers and even Generations X, Y and even Z, “you’re welcome” was once the go-to, genteel response that showed pride in service, a respect for your customer, and an overall display of good manners. But for many people—including Millennials—“no problem” does the same job.
So, here we have two entirely different interpretations of a response that, in general, is saying the same thing. It’s similar to the terms “take care” or “be careful.” When you advise someone to take care or to be careful, this term is typically used in a very friendly, benevolent way when leaving each other. However, some people—especially non-Americans—perceive an order to “take care” as a veiled threat. The point is, there are many interpretations to many phrases and it can vary depending on geographic location and yes, generational differences.
If you are a Baby Boomer who is thanking that 21-year-old barista for your latest soy latte, don’t take offense at hearing “no problem.” Just smile politely and tell them to “take care.” You both may come to understand one another in a brand-new way.
At The Protocol School of Washington, we advocate best practices in protocol and ways to enhance communication among different audiences, we do prefer the use of the clearly defined and unambiguous “You’re Welcome.”