What’s the Problem with “No Problem”?
A generational divide might be to blame for the antipathy toward the popular expression.
In an attempt to raise respectful children and grandchildren, you’ve rehearsed and forced many a “you’re welcome” from their sweet mouths.
Then, they grow up, go into the world, and come home one weekend with disappointment dripping from their lips.
You: “Thank you for rolling the garbage can in from the road.”
Child: “No problem.”
In that moment, all time stands still as you decide whether to wash their mouth out with soap or give them a grammar lesson on that petite chalkboard you’ve been meaning to donate to Goodwill for months now.
Perhaps what’s needed instead is a history lesson—and some vocabulary flexibility.
When did we start saying “no problem”?
“No problem,” as a response to “thank you,” entered the common vernacular in the 1980s. That’s about the same time we started saying things were “cool” and “awesome” or someone needed to “chill” if they were upset.
Those words, too, were met with a collective raised eyebrow from a generation of people who stuck like glue to traditional expressions. They just don’t seem to stick in one’s craw as much.
No sweat. No worries. Forget it. Any time. You bet. You got it.
And these “you’re welcome” substitutes also don’t draw the equivalent ire of the oft-maligned “no problem.”
Why is that?
It might simply be a matter of interpretation.
No problem, in a grammatical sense, is a negative phrase. No means there is not any; problem implies difficulty accepting or doing something. Therefore, no problem means they didn’t have any problem doing this task.
And that, it seems, is where the proverbial feathers are ruffled.
To some individuals, saying “no problem” is the same as telling you they don’t have any issue with this request, this one request, right now. But that says nothing of future requests, which implies there is an expectation that some forthcoming task will be problematic.
No one likes to be a problem. No one likes to be reminded that something could have been a problem. So when someone thanks you for a task or assistance by reminding you that it could have been a problem, polite noses turn up in disgust.
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But you know who doesn’t view it as dismissive or negative? The likewise oft-maligned Millennials, and even some Gen Xers. That’s because to these generations, the meaning of an innocuous “no problem” is an implied “you’re welcome” or “I was happy to do it.” The literal meaning carries no weight.
Is it OK to say "no problem"?
The truth is the phrase “no problem” is often said as a sincere response. People who rely on it rather than the genteel “you’re welcome” may feel a certain level of pompous positioning—as if to say I recognize that I did this for you, and I’m making a point to say it.
“No problem” is, though perhaps feebly so, an attempt to offer the same rejoinder in a more humble, less intimidating manner.
In a professional setting, it might be wiser to adopt a less divisive phrase.
It’s my pleasure. Think nothing of it. I’m delighted to.
Some managers have expressed distaste of the phrase, even going so far to imply it may cost employees their jobs.
But in the day-to-day business of conversing with your friends and family, if an errant “no problem” slips out, show a little grace. If you don’t want to say it, that’s fine. If others say it, recognize it for the genuine expression it’s meant to be.