Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Plain English: Responding to "Thank You"

The most annoying language pattern going around these days is the use of “No problem” to mean “You’re welcome.” Is there an insidious employee training program out there that is instructing store clerks to abandon “you’re welcome?” Or is it a youth-driven attempt to destroy formal speech in favor of casual speech? Typically, no one knows how these trends get started. What we do know about the spread of language patterns is that they are untraceable and uncontrollable. We all pick up expressions and slang without thinking about what we’re doing. Here’s the problem with “No problem.”

“No problem” implies that there was or could be a problem with your “Thank you.” Instead of acknowledging your polite expression of gratitude, “No problem” changes the tone and the subject. The phrase responds to gratitude with rudeness, as if whatever the person did to make you say “Thank you” was or could have been an inconvenience. “No problem” is an appropriate response to “I’m sorry.” There has to be some kind of problem, annoyance, breaking of rules or protocol for someone to acknowledge an apology with “No problem.” It’s what a clerk should respond with when you bring 10 different items to the Returns Counter at Target. “I’m sorry,” you say. “My husband didn’t like purple in the kitchen.” The clerk says, “No problem,” and proceeds to process the return. After the clerk has spent 10 minutes crediting your Visa card and you have signed the final paperwork, you may want to say “Thank you,” an expression of gratitude that deserves a dignified and pleasant acknowledgment. The clerk politely responds, “You’re welcome.”

Other generations have attempted to break with tradition on “You’re welcome,” without success. Two examples are “Don’t mention it,” and “Anytime.” I have also run across regional responses. In Alabama and Georgia, in particular, when you say “Thank you,” people often respond, “My pleasure.” “My pleasure” at least is polite, pleasant, and conforms to the appropriate tone that “Thank you” deserves.

Perhaps the strongest argument for sticking to “You’re welcome” is that the response is universal. “You’re welcome” translates into every language on the planet. “You’re welcome” is the appropriate response worldwide when someone says “Thank you.”

In the new global economy, conforming to tradition and protocol has become a top priority. American corporations have had to rein in casual language in the business setting. Companies are spending time and money training employees in basic etiquette so they can perform well at a simple business lunch with international clients and colleagues. A lot of money is riding on polite conduct and speech when it comes to closing deals in a global environment.

Among the first speech lessons taught to Americans doing business overseas is the greeting: “Good morning. How are you?” Response: “Good morning. Very well, thank you. And you?” It may sound stilted compared to how Americans have come to greet each other, but the formal exchange is universal. Lesson number two is the use of “Pardon me,” “Please,” “Thank you,” and “You’re welcome.”

American culture is driven by youth compelled to alter the status quo. Language has always been one of their prime targets. Change for the sake of change in fundamental language patterns often meets with disaster. Remember how suddenly in the 1970s the phrase “ya know” spread like a disease across the country? It took a conscious effort by teachers and the business community to stamp out people’s habit of inserting “ya know” into every sentence. I’d like to see the use of “No problem” instead of “You’re welcome” dealt with in the same way.


Mary Jane McKinney is the creator and owner of LLC, publisher of grammar, style, and proofreading exercises that use sentences from literature. She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. LLC, P.O. Box 299, Christoval, TX 76935,, 325-896-2479,

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I guess I feel a bit differently. If I say "no problem" in response to "than you", I generally mean that whatever I did for you to be thanking me wasn't a problem - not that there could be a problem with you thanking me.

And there have been plenty of times where it WAS a problem, so I replied, "You're welcome."