Almost a year ago, I moved. I hired movers who specialize in transporting art and antiques, movers who will pack fragile belongings in a pleasing, delicate way and transport them without event to your new apartment, where they will unpack and place everything just as it was. After walking up and down two flights of stairs for hours, the six men were red-faced and soaking wet. There was no air-conditioner installed yet, and what I live with is neither light nor modern. When they finished, I thanked them. They all said, “No problem.”
I was immediately made aware-in a way that I would not otherwise have been-that I could have been responsible for all kinds of problems, including but certainly not limited to heat exhaustion, back pain, muscle tears, nausea and the loss of a Saturday that might have been spent at the beach. I had to remind myself that this was a business arrangement, that I had not truly been at risk of causing a “problem.” I had hired them and they had arrived; they had carried things and I had paid them for it. All the same, having “No problem” thrown in my face gave me pause. What might have happened if I had caused a problem?
I didn’t think about the movers again until a few weeks ago, when, walking downtown, I was caught in a sudden flash of rain. As I made a spastic, high-heeled dash for the Frick Collection, a man walking by insisted that I take his umbrella, holding it over me until I relented, thanking him profusely, to which he responded, “No problem.” He wasn’t very convincing, standing there drenched, but at least this time I knew I hadn’t commissioned his suffering. In this particular case, the “No problem” felt like a joking nod to cinematic street flirtation: Man with umbrella saves woman in improper shoes. It’s all in the tone, really.
And so I hate to be too hard-line about it, but I’ve come to believe that “No problem” is a seemingly benign expression run terribly amok, to the point of destroying what vestiges of civility we have left here at the beginning of the 21st century. The man with the umbrella notwithstanding, the pitch of “No problem” is narcissistic: It changes the nature of the arrangement between myself and another person. Whereas once I might have said, “You’re welcome” (to my services, kindness, etc.), I now say it’s “no problem” (for me to do something for you). So I was unsurprised to discover that, according to the O.E.D. , the term appeared in its current usage at the dawn of the Me Decade. With its feel-good group-therapy sessions and forced casualness, the pre-eminent personal-style statement of the 70’s was a kind of nonstop expectorating confession. While I remain convinced that the pop utopia created in that decade was almost entirely about hair, we in the new century still bear the burden of far-out 70’s language.
I was curious to know if the insidious rise of “No problem” was a documented linguistic phenomenon, so I phoned Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of such books as You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation . She told me that a general casualization of language is responsible for the expression.
In Ms. Tannen’s view, “No problem” is dismissive, overcasual and makes light of a favor. She herself draws the following distinction when acknowledging thanks: If she has given something to someone and that person thanks her, she says “You’re welcome.” If she has done something for someone else and that person thanks her, she says “My pleasure” or “Don’t mention it.” Although she warns that we shouldn’t overinterpret the literal meaning of common expressions, Ms. Tannen does believe that ultimately such language is a byproduct of the breakdown of the barrier between public and private that has occurred over the past 30 years in this country.
Indeed, with every other book published these days a tell-all, several thousand surveillance cameras monitoring New York City and “reality” everything all the time, we no longer know how to handle strangers, because none exist. The social “How are you?” has, in many instances, given way to an insincere, searching “How are you ?”
Then there is the deadly “How are you [pause] really ?” I rapidly respond to these with “I’m fine, thank you.” I have, in other words, “no problem”-no problem I would like to discuss with you, Oprah Winfrey, nor with you, person next to me on the train, nor with you either, stunning bore at the cocktail party. Is “No problem” our only defense against the onslaught of those running at us with self-help books?
In language, as in dress and courtship, things are at present so humorlessly lax that one runs the risk of sounding antiquated-or worse, a snob-for trying to maintain some formality. I was taught that it’s impolite to make others uncomfortable in any way, and it’s easy to do by dressing them down with the manner of one’s speech. Growing up, we made fun of people who used long, ridiculous, flowery expressions; they tried too hard. But nobody should feel like a great democrat by saying “No problem.” “You’re welcome” is a perfectly good phrase that everyone understands. If anything, “No problem” is more condescending.
Ms. Tannen, in any case, seemed resigned to “No problem.” Americans, she said, have shunned “You’re welcome” because they “do not like to feel they are saying something that is standard.” And yet, of course, alongside that linguistic prejudice there’s also the American need to believe we’re all the same, to disregard the real differences between people in favor of soothing but meaningless political correctness.
Our mad rush from civility shows no signs of abating. Already, “No problem” is giving way to the painfully current “No worries,” a phrase common in Australia and New Zealand. Even worse is the smug, New Agey “It’s all good.” Both seem to take offense at the very act of being thanked by someone. I first encountered these phrases in boarding school, where we were spoon-fed the curriculum of indifference. When someone says either of these phrases to me, I immediately translate that into “How weird that you are thanking me, you insane thanking freak.” These expressions are so generalized that they make no sense anyway, but their studied insouciance conjures-for me, at least-creepy memories of preppies with hats on backward swaying at Phish concerts. The people who say “It’s all good” are as baffling to me as vegans, the smoking ban, and those who choose the pink checks with bunnies printed on them.
Maybe, in the end, “No problem” is an appropriate expression for a country populated by people with no problems, only “issues.” Problems are collective and well defined-the drug problem, homelessness, unsolved problems in science and engineering-and by definition are meant to be solved. Issues are never resolved: One just speaks about them endlessly until the guests get bored and go home.