A Word, Please: The problem with acknowledging thanks

In the last few weeks, three people have asked me about the term "no problem."

I had learned only recently — in the last two years or so — that some people consider "no problem" to be a problem. It seems that a growing number of people consider it a sub-par response to "thank you."

Here's reader Wayne. "To say 'no problem' instead of 'you're welcome' when being thanked just seems wrong to me," he wrote.

The word "problem," he explained, implies that a problem existed and "while the first speaker may not have been aware of it, the second speaker could see it and solved it quite easily. Therefore, unless a problem exists, either implied or otherwise, why even use the word at all?"

I get that. "No problem" is a bit like telling someone, "You don't smell bad" when there had been no discussion of smells up to that point.

But that doesn't mean "no problem" is truly a problem. It's just another example of how language is kooky and gets even kookier when you closely examine expressions and figures of speech.

Consider the "you're welcome." Chew on that for a moment and it starts to seem just as weird. Joe compliments Betty's new watch. Betty says, "Thank you." Joe says, "You're welcome."

That raises the question: Welcome to what? Betty already received the compliment. So what more might she be welcome to? Future compliments, perhaps? On the same watch? The logic of "you're welcome" doesn't hold up to scrutiny any better than "no problem." In fact, when you look at a bigger picture, "no problem" starts to look pretty good.

The once-popular alternative "don't mention it" is meant to be courteous, as if the thing that drew the thanks was so effortless and well-deserved that it's hardly worth thanking anyone for. But analyze those words for a few minutes and you realize that, in its most literal sense, "don't mention it" means something shockingly similar to "shut up."

Latin languages don't fare much better. "De nada" in Spanish and "de rien" in French both suggest that the act that elicited thanks was "nothing." If it really was nothing, then the person saying thanks is mistaken and needs to be corrected. The undertone, if you're looking for one, could be categorized as passive-aggressiveness or even martyrdom.

The Italians say "prego" when thanked. But "prego" can also be the first thing a waiter says to you in a restaurant because it means, "How can I help you?" So it risks confusion, especially for poor tourists who know the word best as a brand of spaghetti sauce.

Australians say "no worries," which is getting more popular here. It's the same idea as "no problem," except possibly with a hint of "Oh, don't agonize over how badly you've imposed on my generosity. I'll survive."

So, short of saying, "I'm glad you enjoyed the thing you're thanking me for," it's hard to imagine how we could improve on "no problem."

Of course, "no problem" is still considered informal. I'll definitely stick to "You're welcome" if I ever meet the queen of England. But in the warm, informal contexts in which we often thank one another, I have no problem with "no problem."

But the word "problem" causes other problems too, as Wayne reminded me.

"The city is having issues with pot holes."

Issues? Isn't it really having problems? Of course it is. And people who think it sounds silly to sugar-coat every problem this way have a point.

But as a former newspaper reporter, I sympathize with anyone trying to avoid editorializing. "Issue" is more neutral than "problem." It leaves labels and judgments to the reader, though, admittedly in a sort of spineless way.

And there are good reasons why someone would prefer the word "issue" to describe a lot of disorders, such as overeating. Calling someone's eating a "problem" is basically a diagnosis. But if that person just has an "issue," it may seem less daunting to fix it.

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "The Best Punctuation Book, Period." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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