You’ve probably heard this nonsensical conversation today at some point. It’s as if two separate exchanges have fused into a couplet of collective insanity. Those two exchanges:
“Is this a problem?”
Both of those exchanges makes sense on their own, but it has become normal to answer the first with the second. I think that this betrays some very unhealthy currents in our culture, which I will explore in curmudgeonly fashion.
An initial caveat: I’m not naive enough to believe that language should somehow remain static and pure. Language is a product of culture, and culture of history, which means that a language that isn’t adapting, growing, and generally evolving, is dead. Used languages change.
But here’s Etiquette 101: When thanked by another person, the appropriate response is “You’re welcome.” It is direct, proper, and has a long history of being the appropriate social convention.1
Why then has “no problem” become the new default? I believe that the underlying assumption is that the person who just thanked you is anxious that the thank-worthy deed you did might have been somehow inconvenient, annoying, or just plain difficult for you. The sought-after “No problem” response is a way to relieve the thanker of any sense of actual obligation towards the person thanked. The “no problem” response vaporizes the deed done. “No problem.” Nothing just happened.
The implicit economics are not the only interesting thing occurring in the “thank you/no problem” exchange. To actually say “you’re welcome” would expose the thanker’s receipt of something from outside their own agency; that they possibly even required something from someone else to make it in the world. This doesn’t square with our pervasive individualism as a culture, where we’re all supposded to be self-made men.2
The more I think about this exchange, the more I think about George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, which masterfully exposes the use of empty language and how it actually matters:
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
Sloppy language begets slovenly thinking. I understand the power of social conventions, but I also understand the power of words doing more than just filling in space. Make your words count. You’re welcome.