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.