Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Is There a Problem with "No Problem"?

Visual Thesaurus subscriber "Curious Cat" has struck a nerve. Commenting on a Word Routes column last month about annoying words, "CC" wrote:

My bugbear: "No problem" in response to "Thank you" in restaurants. "You're welcome" is disappearing in this context. I assume that my business is not a problem.

Lexicographer Erin McKean picked up on the "no problem" complaint and used it as the topic of her language column in the Boston Globe on Sunday. And it turns out Curious Cat has an awful lot of company.

"Many especially dislike hearing 'no problem' in commercial transactions and from folks in customer service jobs, since, as the customer is always right, nothing a customer could ask for could ever be 'a problem,'" McKean writes. Judging by the avalanche of comments left on the Globe column (200 and counting), "many" is an understatement. To be sure, some of the commenters don't have a problem with "no problem," but the majority are in Curious Cat's camp. Voices got heated on both sides of the debate, however, as things ended up getting a little nasty. (Meanwhile, over on Stanley Fish's New York Times blog, "no problem" was selected by readers as the most disliked phrase in English.)

The linguist Sally Johnson once wrote, "It is not language per se, but its power to function as a 'proxy' for wider social issues which fans the flames of public disputes over language." That seems to be the case with the strident back-and-forth by the Globe commenters. It's not so much about the two words "no problem" but about how social roles are negotiated in the public ritual known as the service encounter. It probably didn't help that the Globe column came out on the weekend after Thanksgiving, when the beginning of the holiday shopping rush raises blood pressure among both cashiers and customers.

This little episode serves to demonstrate how language can take on outsized importance in certain corners of our lives, and a seemingly innocuous choice like that between "you're welcome" and "no problem" can be freighted with all sorts of social significance. McKean suggests that "perhaps the 'no problem' of service workers is a way to reclaim some measure of power — 'no problem,' after all, does remind the customer that her request is technically within the power of the employee to grant or refuse." That kind of shift in the power dynamic of thanker and thankee can, it seems, have a seismic effect for many English speakers. For others it might be no problem at all — no big whoop, as Linda Richman might say.

Where do you come down on the big "no problem" debate? Sound off in the comments below — but, as always, please keep the encounters civil! Thank you for reading, and please come again.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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