WASHINGTON — After they say "thank you," millions of traditionalists expect to hear "you're welcome." However, millions of laid-back — and younger - Americans say "no problem" instead.
That's a problem. It's not that the distinction between "you're welcome" and "no problem" is important. Rather, it's that it bothers a lot of people a little. They're convinced that whatever is said after someone says "thank you" is telling.
Joseph Foster, a self-described language curmudgeon at the University of Cincinnati, for example, said he associated "no problem" with "the baseball-cap-worn-indoors and backwards cohort."
"I'm tempted to ask what the person would have said if the thanked-for thing had actually been a problem," sniped Foster, an anthropologist.
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Deborah Tannen, the author of "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation," has a different bone to pick.
"You're supposed to say something that minimizes the pleasure when you do something for someone," said Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
So she's a "tiny bit offended," Tannen admitted, when someone responds "you're welcome" after doing something for her instead of "no problem," which she considers a clearer expression of minimized pleasure.
There'd be no problem if the American gratitude formula weren't a three-step dance, according to Foster and other members of the "Ask a Linguist" panel, a nonprofit group that provides language expertise online.
You know the gratitude dance by heart, however you perform it:
Laura says: "Please pass the pepper, Bob."
Bob passes the pepper. Laura says: "Thank you, Bob."
Bob says: "You're welcome" or "No problem."
In many countries, the gratitude formula has only two steps, so "you're welcome" seems overly formal or even unnecessary.
Geoffrey Sampson, a British "Ask a Linguist" panelist and University of Sussex linguist, said he'd noted the superfluity when he lived in the United States some years ago.
His British view was that after "please" and "thank you," "the transaction was complete and no further words were required on either side."
Historically, "you're welcome" is a linguistic newcomer. The Oxford English Dictionary cites its first appearance in 1907, although "Ask a Linguist" panelists say that it went unnoted for some years before that, as most idioms do.
While "no problem" is a recent Americanism, they added, the same sentiment arises among people such as Russians ("nichevo"), Spaniards ("de nada") and Italians ("di niente").
Jack Chambers, a University of Toronto linguist, theorized that "no problem" came into American English because "you're welcome" came to seem formal.
As "you're welcome" fades further, he added, "it will eventually be quaint and then it will be obsolete."
He said that "no problem" simply had advanced as "you're welcome" retreated.
It could be worse. "No problem" could be replaced by "yup."
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