My problem with “No Problem”

OK, so I’m not doing so well on the weekly blogging challenge… but hey, I’m still trying! We’ll get there! Also, today this blog got its first subscriber, and that too someone I don’t know personally. His message to me, and then to a mutual friend who forwarded that to me, is for now motivation enough to keep blogging. Big shoutout to you, Rohit! ;)

One of the recent WordPress prompts was something on the lines of “one thing you want to vent about.” I don’t really want to vent on this blog because (a) I don’t want to put you through having to read a litany of complaints and (b) I definitely don’t want to upset someone by venting about them, directly or indirectly. Vents belong in diaries and private emails, not on blogs.

But there’s something I’ve been thinking about lately that sort of falls under that general topic area. Those of you who know me (or who have looked around this blog at all) know I love words and think a lot about language and how it changes. Having moved from place to place several times in the last 6-7 years, I find it interesting to reflect sometimes on how my own language has changed — sometimes it’s as small as the way in which I pronounce a word, sometimes it’s about expressions I’ve started using, sometimes about how my spellings of words will change between british and American English depending on whether I type or write by hand (I tend to still write “colour” but type “color”).

Recently, I’ve been thinking specifically of my response to the phrase “Thank You.” My most natural response used to be “You’re welcome,” then it became “Thank you” (which was sometimes weird because there wasn’t a very good reason for me to be thanking the person but it was just what would slip out of my mouth!). Lately– and I’m not sure when exactly this shift happened– my instinctive response has become “No Problem.” And that bugs me.

It bugs me because I don’t like the assumption that someone is thanking me because they think that the something I did for them was a problem for me. I say “thank you” to people all the time, often just for being who they are or being part of my life… and yesterday, when JF said he was so grateful to have me working with him, I realized (again) how “no problem” just isn’t an adequate response. He isn’t implying that it’s a problem for me to be working with him, he’s just saying that he’s grateful that I am, and it really bugs me that those words slip out of my mouth sometimes before I even notice them. Similarly, sometimes when I thank a friend for being there on a tough day or for helping out with something big, and they say “no problem,” I find myself tempted to point out that it better not be a problem, it’s part of what friends are for, but I’m still grateful!

Which is why this wikipedia definition of gratitude, from some psychological journals, feels off to me: “Specifically, gratitude is experienced if people perceive the help they receive as (a) valuable to them, (b) costly to their benefactor, and (c) given by the benefactor with benevolent intentions (rather than ulterior motives).” Specifically, it’s (b) there that puts me off… does gratitude have to imply that? I hope not. I don’t believe so, it doesn’t for me when I am grateful to someone.

So, of course I had to google it. And the wonderful (and oftentimes humbling!) thing about the internet is, no matter what I’m thinking, I can find someone, somewhere who is thinking the same thing! Here, have a look at this discussion about the same thing! And here’s a long discussion amongst ESL teachers about what to teach students about the most appropriate response to Thank You. What’s interesting to me about both of those is that there seems to be some agreement that “No problem” is an American English response… I am pretty sure I too learned it in America. One of those contributors makes it about how “no problem” creates more distance than “you’re welcome” does, which I’m not sure I buy, but which I think is an interesting idea.

So, finally, where did the phrase “you’re welcome” come from? here’s what the internet tells me:

The phrase you’re welcome, as a response to thank you, dates only from the early part of the 20th century.  The first record of it is in W. W. Jacobs’ Short Cruises: “‘Thank you,’ said the girl, with a pleasant smile. ‘You’re quite welcome,’ said the skipper.”  This usage popped up so late because welcome meant “well come” (i.e., one’s arrival was pleasing) prior to that time, and that was broadened to include such meanings as “pleasing” or “acceptable”.  That group of meanings, however, arose in Middle English due to the influence of Old French bien venu, “welcome” (literally, “well come”).  In Old English, welcome, which had the form wilcuma, meant “one whose coming is pleasing” or applied to someone who was “acceptable as a visitor”.  It was formed from wil- or will- “will, desire” and cuma “comer, guest”. The sense in you’re welcome is one of “it was pleasing to me to do” whatever it was that you were thanked for (http://www.takeourword.com/Issue071.html)

I like that better. I also like one of the ESL teachers’ suggestion of “my pleasure.” And I really want to stop saying “No problem”! If you catch me saying that, call me out on it, will you please?