Part of learning a language is learning the set routines of politeness: What to say when you accidentally bump into someone, how to introduce yourself, how to ask for help. Many of these routines work almost like a script. The lines are set for the person being polite and for the person responding. An introduction is followed by nice to meet you. A thank you is followed by you’re welcome.
But the script for thank you has undergone a change in the past few decades, leading to a generational divide between the you’re welcome and the no problem responses.
To the older generation, no problem sounds not just casual, but rude. The implication, according to writer Joe Burton, is that “we’ve gone from an expression of appreciation and gratitude to one that says, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not annoying me that much.’”
There are plenty of other set responses to thank you that don’t seem to offend in the way that no problem does. Lines like but of course, my pleasure, it was nothing, and don’t mention it are acceptable and smooth. Sure thing, no worries, you got it, and any time might seem a little too informal, but not directly insulting.
The problem with no problem is the mention of a problem in the first place. As one CBS News contributor put it, “Listen, today’s young people: if you want to infuriate someone born before 1980, just keep telling him ‘No problem’ when they ask you to do something that is most certainly NOT a problem.”
You’re not welcome, either
However, for those born after 1980, it’s you’re welcome that can seem a little rude. This generation grew up in a time where a sarcastic you’re welcome became a common joke in the situation where someone didn’t say thank you, but should have.
If you were the kid who took the trouble to move everyone’s backpacks onto the team bus when it started to rain, you might get on the bus when everyone was settled and sarcastically announce, “oh by the way, you’re welcome.”
You’re welcome took on the flavor of a boast, a call for attention to some deed that deserves gratitude.
You can see this in the 2016 film Moana, which features the song, “You’re Welcome,” with a demi-god listing all the marvelous feats he has achieved for humanity. The phrase, so set in its politeness script, doesn’t just follow the thank you, it presupposes it.
Younger people can separate sarcastic from genuine uses of you’re welcome, but they see no problem as in some ways a little more genuine, a little less required by mere convention. Instead of implying “yes, I have done the type of deed that merits a ‘thank you’,” it says, “I would have done it anyway because it didn’t put me out at all.”
If you feel like you’re hearing no problem more and more, you’re definitely on to something. No problem started out in the 1950s and rose sharply in use through the ’60s and ’70s. It has since become a standard, scripted response to thank you.
The generational divide happens between those who hear the full force of the noun problem in the expression, and those who hear only the whole phrase without thinking about its individual parts.
It’s not so different from the phrase you’re welcome in that way. What does welcome even mean there? Is it “you’re cordially invited to my help”? Is it “you’re an acceptable visitor to my house of good deeds”?
Of course, those interpretations would seem presumptuous rather than genuine. The phrase is just a phrase that includes a word that we don’t have to parse anymore, in the same way that we can say goodbye without ever thinking about the fact that it came from “god be with ye.”
No problem is on its way to leaving the notion of problems behind, but we are still in the midst of the transition, with different generations on each side of it.
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Bonus: Words reaching retirement age this year
Courtesy of linguist Arika Okrent, these words first came on the scene in 1955 and all turn 65 in 2020.
The first citation for database comes from a 1955 economics journal article. In 1962 it was written as two separate words in quotes in the following explanation: “A ‘data base’ is a collection of entries containing item information that can vary in its storage media and in the characteristics of its entries and items.” Now it’s so common a concept it needs no explanation or scare quotes.
Weirdo started as slang. The first citation is from an encyclopedia of jazz where it appeared as “Weird-o, a weird person.” It turned out to be very useful in the following decades.
The verb “to boggle” and the expression “it boggles the mind” were older, but the succinct adjective mind-boggling first made an appearance in Erich Fromm’s Sane Society: “Consumerism in the America of the 1950s constructed a culture of mind-boggling banality and stifling homogeneity.”
Another prominent intellectual of the period, Noam Chomsky, gives us the first citation for counter-intuitive, that which is contrary to intuition, or unexpected. It appeared in a 1955 work in theoretical linguistics, but took a while to reach the wider culture.
This cross-breed of a Labrador retriever and a poodle had been around for awhile as a “Labrador-poodle mix” before the cute blended name was coined in 1955. It didn’t catch on for a couple decades, but is firmly in the dog-loving culture now.
6. Artificial intelligence
In 1955 a group of scholars produced “a proposal for the Dartmouth summer research project on artificial intelligence.” The conference that took place at Dartmouth the next year is the beginning of the field of study concerned with the ability of computers to behave like intelligent beings.
This slang term for cool toughness shows up in a 1955 letter by James Blake, a jazz pianist and self-described “world’s most inept burglar” who published a book of his letters written from prison in 1971.
8. Inner child
The concept of the inner child, a person’s hidden, innocent, playful, authentic self developed in the 1950s and really flowered in the 1960s. The term and the idea are now fully entrenched in the culture.
The noun self-destruction is centuries old, but our first evidence of the verb is from a 1955 publication of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association describing “a ‘self-destruct’ circuit” that would “cause an anti-aircraft missile to destroy itself in mid-air so as to avoid danger to friendly ground forces.” In the late 60s, the TV show Mission: Impossible spread the idea of the self-destructing communication.
Before there was skydiving there was parachuting. After the end of World War II, returning soldiers developed the fun pastime of “sport parachuting” which eventually became “skydiving.”
These days it’s not unusual at all to talk about state-of-the-art skincare, or refrigerators, or chewing gum. It adds the sheen sophisticated, high-level technology to whatever the product. It first appeared in a 1955 issue of the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society with reference to automatic flight systems.