No problem? Big problem. Or so said the proprietor of this space.
In a recent column, he waxed disdainful of those folks (mostly young) who have junked the perfectly useful expression, "You're welcome." Whenever someone says "Thank you" to them, they reply, "No problem."
Grumpy Gus Levey declared this a little aggressive and a little sharp. Who ever said there was a problem? To say "no problem" is to suggest that you're actually resentful at having done whatever elicited the "thank you" in the first place.
I asked the vast hordes Out There to weigh in on this. Several dozen did. The bulk of them thought that the proprietor of this space was out to lunch (and possibly breakfast, too). But the margin wasn't overwhelming.
"I think it means the opposite of what you claim," e-mailed Hilary Carter, of Cambridge, Mass. "I use it to mean `You're thanking me for that? It's unnecessary since I did not go out of my way at all. Don't even dwell on it.' "
"No problem" is "simply a succinct way of stating, `It was no trouble at all to assist you,' " Layla Masri wrote.
She added, with dripping sarcasm, that such sentiments were around "even in your day," and were "espoused by the likes of Andy Griffith." In case you didn't catch the reference, kiddies, Griffith was the star of a vintage '60s TV show.
Kathy McMahon and Dustin Smith both argued that "no problem" is interchangeable with "my pleasure." Jack MacKenn said he doesn't "think there's any nastiness intended."
Since this is an international community, many readers pointed out that the rough equivalent of "no problem" is standard fare in other languages.
Paul Valette said that "machts nichts" means "no problem," more or less, in German. E.J. Lloyd said the same about "de nada" in Spanish, and Jacqueline Kinzie, of Poolesville, made the same point about "de rien" in French.
Even other English-speaking countries have devised their own ways of saying "no problem," several readers observed. Lara Beaven, of Alexandria, noted that Australians often say "no worries" in response to "thank you."
Mike Jacobs, of Columbia, was the only reader to point out that "no problem" has been around far longer than one might think. Mike was a teenager in Southern California in the trend-setting late 1960s and early 1970s. "No problem" was "current" in that era and in that place, he said.
Some readers declared that stepbrothers of "no problem" make them even crazier than the NP-phrase itself.
Hal Johnson said that "not a problem" sends him far, far around the bend. Phil Taylor said he once worked with a woman who would answer "thank you" with "don't worry about it." Phil notes that was a transparent plea for precisely the opposite.
On the Bob side of the ledger . . .
Michael Cuddy, of Cleveland Park, calls "no problem" a "180-degree departure" from the glory days of a simple "you're welcome." Michael says the message that "no problem" sends is, "Yeah, well, you should mention it, 'cause my time spent helping you is time I could be spending getting myself ahead."
Pam Rizik says that "no problem" drives her especially crazy when it spills from the lips of "a store clerk to whom I have just given money. This person should be thanking me, not telling me that the gracious act of accepting my money was no problem."
Tony Medici said I should thank my lucky stars that I don't live in the Midwest. There, he says, a simple "thank you" is often met with "uh-HUH." Tony finds this "incredibly boorish."
Part of the issue, I think, is that "no problem" has become such a reflex that users don't notice how often they say it, and in what context(s).
Listen to what happened to Ann Todaro when she got a prescription refilled recently at a CVS drugstore. Ann had tried to have it refilled over the phone but had run into bureaucratic sludge. So she tried her luck in person.
The clerk filled the prescription and handed it over. Ann thanked him for his help. "No problem," quoth he.
Ann said: "Well, actually, there is a problem. That's why I'm here."
The clerk said: "Well, you know what I mean. We'll take care of the problem and then there'll be no problem."
Ann said, "Okay."
The clerk said, "No problem."
Perhaps the wisest owls in this discussion were those who pointed out that it's about tone, not just about word choice.
Marcia May, of Damascus, observed that if "no problem" is delivered "reluctantly, caustically or sarcastically," the deliverer is really saying, "How dare you ask me that?" Otherwise, the phrase is innocuous, Marcia believes.
Andrew Williams recommended that I become a closer student of "body language and vocal modulations" when analyzing any one incidence of "no problem."
And an anonymous voice mailer said that "the British have this right, as usual.
"They don't say anything so pedestrian as `no problem.' They say, `No trouble at all.' But they run the last two words together so the phrase sounds like, `No trouble at tall.'
"How can you get mad at someone who says `no problem' so elegantly?"