Always Right is Slate’s pop-up blog exploring customer service across industries, technologies, and human relationships.
Imagine yourself, amiable reader, in a coffee shop, ordering yourself a beverage, and paying the barista for the encupment of said beverage. At some point during the transaction, you will surely find yourself saying “thank you.” Imagine that the barista responds, “No problem.”
In that moment, you have multiple options: You can let that sentiment evaporate into the air, leaving you unaffected. Or you may fume.
Whither the lost and genteel days of you’re welcome? you might fume, in your head, or on the internet, or heaven forbid out loud. How dare these youngstren/baristas/waiterettes say “no problem” to me? That suggests that I might have created a problem in asking them to do their job at me. It is no problem at all! I know it is no problem! I wish you would go back to saying “you’re welcome” at me instead, posthaste!
Friends! This is a disingenuous and an unlovely response, and from making this complaint I fear you will find it a slippery slope to leaving a stack of bills on the corner of your table and removing one as punishment every time your waiter displeases you. Of course the service employee in question is not suggesting that you have created a problem by asking for more straws for your Diet Slice, or what have you. It is a filler phrase, a transaction smoother; barely a step up from the well, kindas that the Russians call “parasite words.”
As is, of course, “you’re welcome.” You are welcome to what? To thank me again? To rely upon my help again in future? Fine, sure. It is an arbitrary expression of politeness in exactly the same way “No problem” is an arbitrary expression of politeness. As is generally the case in most forced social interactions, both phrases are a variation on, “Here is my soft belly, fellow stranger; I am driven so often by fear but I wish you to know in this moment that I wish you no harm, and have no intention of attacking you. All is well.” There is already no there there, just a form of whimsical call-and-response that has lived a long life and is surely due to collect whatever pension is due for its years of service if people have organically moved on.
It is undoubtedly true that at some point over the last 10 or 15 years, there has been a general shift among young people and workers in the service industry from saying “you’re welcome” to “no problem” or “no worries” upon being thanked for services rendered. I suspect we have nationally snagged “no problem” from the Australians, who love to say “no worries” at one another almost as much as they love always showing up in hostels in countries where you don’t expect them, and teaching people how to surf and play guitar. This is a perfectly fine and neutral change, but with change always comes anxiety. What your server is saying in that moment—and what I suspect you know perfectly well, friendo—is “I will fulfill your request, I acknowledge your thanks, and will continue to serve you with friendliness and alacrity.” Between “no problem” and “happy to help” there is no separation, and it does not suit you to pretend to be confused by the two. This is a harmless phrase, not an attempt to call out you, specifically, for asking to have your croissants heated up for exactly eight seconds in the microwave. The tide of language sweeps ever along, and it carries you with it whether you like it or not. Do not struggle foolishly against it.
“Are you telling me that I, a human being with certain inalienable prerogatives, have no right to dislike this particular phrase? Must I remain silent forever? Have I no recourse to complain?” That is exactly what we are saying. You must allow this grievance to seize up, and shudder, and drift harmlessly out of your body. You will be nobler for it.
Now, of course, there are different ways to register one’s displeasure with hearing “no problem” from a member of the service industry. We are not here to police all of them. Perhaps upon being “no problem”–ed you find yourself quietly annoyed, forget your annoyance upon leaving the offending shop, and later mention it offhandedly in the comments section of an article about etiquette. If you must do this, you must. This is ranked with the venial permissible sins, like regularly tipping 15 percent out of a fear of being thought cheap but also reciting Mr. Pink’s speech about tipping from Reservoir Dogs whenever the topic arises, as though you think it novel or compelling. Perhaps you pull a face at the speaker; if ever I catch you doing that, we will have words outside on the king’s highway.
Those who return “no problem!” with a tart “you mean you’re welcome” are in grave danger. You must root out the tendencies in your own soul that lead to such conduct. This waiter is already fetching you seven extra straws for your Diet Slice. He is wearing a clean shirt, working with a sprained wrist because he doesn’t have health insurance, and faked his own lunch break because his manager asked if he would just clock out for 20 minutes since they’re already slammed today and nobody else can cover his tables. He’s doing everything he needs to be doing. Attend to your own spiritual condition.
It is, however, those who ask to speak to a manager or who write a letter of complaint whom we must condemn wholeheartedly and with extreme prejudice. You are as Henry VIII, consigning Thomas More to the block because he has failed to bend the knee and acknowledge you as the Supreme Head of the Church. Insisting on policing the manner in which someone responds to your ostensible wish to thank them, in order that it more clearly telegraph servility, is beyond the pale. Fix your wicked life. Otherwise we’ll have to come speak with your manager about your attitude.