You’ve probably heard this nonsensical conversation today at some point. It’s as if two separate exchanges have fused into a couplet of collective insanity. Those two exchanges:
“Is this a problem?”
Both of those exchanges makes sense on their own, but it has become normal to answer the first with the second. I think that this betrays some very unhealthy currents in our culture, which I will explore in curmudgeonly fashion.
An initial caveat: I’m not naive enough to believe that language should somehow remain static and pure. Language is a product of culture, and culture of history, which means that a language that isn’t adapting, growing, and generally evolving, is dead. Used languages change.
But here’s Etiquette 101: When thanked by another person, the appropriate response is “You’re welcome.” It is direct, proper, and has a long history of being the appropriate social convention.1
Why then has “no problem” become the new default? I believe that the underlying assumption is that the person who just thanked you is anxious that the thank-worthy deed you did might have been somehow inconvenient, annoying, or just plain difficult for you. The sought-after “No problem” response is a way to relieve the thanker of any sense of actual obligation towards the person thanked. The “no problem” response vaporizes the deed done. “No problem.” Nothing just happened.
The implicit economics are not the only interesting thing occurring in the “thank you/no problem” exchange. To actually say “you’re welcome” would expose the thanker’s receipt of something from outside their own agency; that they possibly even required something from someone else to make it in the world. This doesn’t square with our pervasive individualism as a culture, where we’re all supposded to be self-made men.2
The more I think about this exchange, the more I think about George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, which masterfully exposes the use of empty language and how it actually matters:
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
Sloppy language begets slovenly thinking. I understand the power of social conventions, but I also understand the power of words doing more than just filling in space. Make your words count. You’re welcome.
7 responses to “Just Say You’re Welcome”
I love how Chick-fil-a employees say “It’s my pleasure” when someone thanks them. That’s really the best response in my opinion.
An exchange I heard today, and many days past, which may warrant a similar tangent:
“Hey, what’s up?”
I think you’ve given this far to much thought…
“My pleasure” connotes a similar thing as “no problem”—not only was it not a problem, it was an out-and-out joy. The thanker can be assured that no pains were taken by the thankee. The gratitude relationship from this one favour is not necessarily going to be an ongoing transaction.
“You’re welcome” tells the thanker that they may count on future help. The thanker will be “welcomed” should they return for more assistance.
“No problem” is a closed door; “you’re welcome” is an open one.
@Casey As my footnote says, and @Erica says better, I think that “my pleasure” is not a good solution. It still doesn’t really acknowledge whatever deed you’ve done, it just moves it from “it wasn’t hard” to “I enjoyed it.”
@Doug Ha! Love it.
@Ryan Yes. I think about everything too much. :)
@Erica I love the insight about “you’re welcome” being an open door.
Fantastic post =)
This is a very interesting article, especially given that I found it on a Google search for the reason why, in English, we say “you’re welcome” rather than “it’s nothing” (e.g. French “de rien” or Spanish “de nada”), and here I find the exact opposite argument. Whilst it certainly has made me think, I do have a few thoughts to bring to the table.
First, I think that the history of the word “welcome” is to be considered when discounting the reply “my pleasure” — because that is precisely what “welcome” meant when we began saying “you’re welcome” as a reply to “thank you”. The word “welcome” not only connotes that one has been, is, or will be received, but that they will be received with pleasure.
Then, I suppose that context is very important. You may welcome a person warmly and with pleasure, despite any difficulties that assisting that person may incur. Thus, you may say that a person is welcome, implying that it is your pleasure to assist THEM, rather than actually saying that it is your pleasure, implying that it is your pleasure to ASSIST them. (Emphasis is of the essence here, thus the use of uppercase; I do apologise if it was perceived as shouting.) Here, we see the value of precision of language — as was mentioned, if your thoughts are untidy, your words will surely follow, and in reverse. It is an Ouroboros of failure to communicate, internally and externally, in an effective manner.
So on that token, we must look at the cultural implications. For instance, in Spanish, they say “de nada” in reply to “gracias” — why? As an example, in many Spanish-speaking cultures, communities are very close-knit and it is simply assumed that you will do anything for your family. When thanked, you are likely to say that it is nothing — as if to say, “Don’t even think of it. It’s what family does. Of course I helped you.” Culturally, this is very valuable.
Similarly, I grew up in a very traditional French-Canadian family. My great-grandfather was the sort of man about whom no one has a bad word to say; he helped everyone, with great pleasure and without thought to his own difficulty. However, my family very strongly sanctions interdependence via a sort of scaffolding, rather than co-dependence. I know that my mother would help me through or out of anything, so long as I learned something from the experience and became stronger and more independent as a result. My grandfather, her father, is very much the same. The help is always available, but it comes at a price: using the opportunity to better yourself and your situation.
In that way, my grandfather is the sort of man who would say “you’re welcome” rather than “no problem” or “my pleasure” because the emphasis is on the fact that he is available to assist us when a true need arises, but that does not mean that he is untroubled by it, simply that being able to help is more valuable to him than maintaining constant comfort.
I think much of the issue is that people don’t think about what they are saying, both literally and by implication. I don’t see an issue with saying “it wasn’t a problem” if it truly was not any problem to you. In some cases, I prefer to say “I don’t mind” — that is, in situations where perhaps my intent is not to be welcoming. For example, if I jump-start someone’s car, and they say “thank you”, I don’t want to tell them that any time they need a jump-start, they ought to call me. To me, that is what saying “you’re welcome” might imply. However, I may choose then to say, “I don’t mind”, or perhaps, “it’s no trouble”, if that’s true to say. However, if my mother thanks me for picking up groceries for her while I was fetching mine, I may go so far as to tell her, “anytime.” Why? Because any time I am fetching my groceries, I don’t mind to fetch hers as well. That is an open invitation.
I know that social conventions are important, and people expect a certain response to a set phrase that they say. However, I think that that is social conditioning more than proper communication. And of course, in some cases, there are harmless untruths that we tell for the sake of social peace; if I’ve jump-started the car of a perfect stranger who doesn’t have my number, I might then say, “you’re welcome”, because they cannot actually take that as a future welcome, but rather a past/present welcome. Intention is very important, and communicating your intention clearly is one way of keeping social peace. It would be very awkward to imply an unintended sort of welcome to someone who did have the means of following up on it — imagine giving your co-worker half of your sandwich on a day that they forgot their lunch, and when they thanked you, saying “you’re welcome” — and having them turn around and stop bringing lunch, and helping themselves to half of yours!
(Now, ideally, that wouldn’t be the case. I certainly wouldn’t be one to behave in such a way; what a disgrace to someone’s generosity, to take advantage! But we must realise that many people do not understand how to get along fairly with others.)
I suppose the point of all of this, really, is simply this: Say what you mean. If it was not nothing, then you oughtn’t say so. But if it truly was no hassle, then perhaps that is then appropriate. Similarly, if it was not your pleasure, saying so is simply rude — it’s an insult to both yourself and what you have contributed for the benefit of another, as well as the thanker’s gratitude. But we must be willing to step out of our linguistic comfort zones. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” How many people say these things mindlessly, unappreciatively, without any feeling passing between them at all. The spirit of gratitude is one that ought to be respected, from both sides.
(I apologise for posting a novel in your comments. As I said, this post gave me something to think about.)
Good day to you.