Epic effort? Hey, no problem

Photo by Chris Ryan/OJO Images/Getty Images

The host led Leia and me to our table. We took our seats. I said “thanks.” The host said “no problem.” I was tempted to tell the host “I’m mighty relieved to hear that leading us to our table was no problem” but I knew Leia would shoot me a glance that could melt iridium.

Leia ordered wine; I ordered beer. The server delivered them. Leia said “thanks.” The server said “no problem.” I was tempted to tell the server “that’s fascinating; it never occurred to me that delivering our beverages would be a problem” but I knew my reply would be interrupted by an eyeball-rattling pain to my shin delivered by the point of Leia’s shoe. 

By the time dinner was done and we breezed through the restaurant’s exit, we’d been treated to an unofficial count of nine “no problem”s. I imagined thanking a Good Samaritan for yanking my car out of the ditch in a sub-zero blizzard. For my sake he missed his once-in-lifetime job interview, subluxated every vertebra in his spine and probably needed several fingers amputated due to frostbite. And I wanted him to know I appreciated it.

“No problem,” he replied.

It’s official: to paraphrase Nietzsche, “you’re welcome” is dead.

Is it unreasonable to demand that everyone be aware of the literal meaning of the words they use? Probably. I knew a guy who always greeted me with “hey, baby, what are you doing?!” I’ll never forget his facial expression when, after weeks of replying with “hi,” I gave him a play-by-play account of what I was doing. He looked at me as if I were radioactive.

It’s tempting as customers to view service providers’ “no problem” as dismissive and self-centered. “No problem” directs attention to the thanked person, the service person. “You’re welcome” directs it to the thanker, the customer. My personal preference, “my pleasure,” also directs attention to the thankee, but in a genial way: “I take pleasure in doing this for you” (that a problem might be involved is irrelevant and off the table).

So what’s the problem with “no problem? Are those who use the phrase being deliberately dismissive and self-centered? No, the problem is: they’re not being anything – but using words that convey meaning anyhow. The possibility that their effort on your behalf might have been a problem is not a thought that fires in their synapses. To them, “no problem” isn’t an attempt at precise communication; it’s an attempt to fill the moment with a social noise. “No problem” could mean “you’re welcome,” “my pleasure,” “no worries,” “whatevs” or “indubitably.” Its true meaning, I suspect, is far less genial. It means “I heard you thank me.” Nothing more.

And that’s the problem: We talk like we think. Unexamined language exposes unexamined thought. How many folks who use the phrase “I could care less” (instead of the original and correct “I couldn’t care less”) realize they’re expressing the exact opposite of their intended meaning? How many who use “it’s all downhill from here” as a negative term realize they’re flip-flopping the meaning of the original and correct metaphor (“after a hard slog uphill we get to coast downhill; it’s all good from here”)? Again: the exact opposite of their intended meaning.

In a world in which we’re bombarded from every point of the compass by those bent on persuading us to do their bidding – from politicians to advertisers – it’s never unwise to examine the meaning of words.

Some social critiques are attempts at promoting change. My riff on “no problem” has no such ambition. Let’s not fool ourselves: the situation’s hopeless. I’m not offended by “no problem” – just disappointed. But it’s only a matter of time before I lose patience and chasten a bewildered restaurant employee with my “no problem” tirade. How to avoid the unavoidable?

I should quit dining out.