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Michelle Turnberg, Published July 21 2012

Turnberg: Good manners should be ‘no problem’

I grew up with the expectation from my parents that I exhibit good manners. No exceptions. Ever.

I was expected to help in anyway needed while a guest in someone’s home. I was taught to stand and give up my seat for an older person, to respect my elders, to use proper phone etiquette as in: “Hello, this is Michelle Turnberg, may I speak to Debbie please?” or “May I ask who is calling?” And when seeing someone in need always offering: “May I help you with that?” and always, always saying “please” and “thank you.”

Never, ever would “no problem” be acceptable.

The simple words, “thank you,” offer a genuine, simple and sincere response to the common niceties that people routinely do for others. When my parents taught me to acknowledge other’s kindnesses, they opened my mind to the notion that all measures of good will shouldn’t be taken for granted. And every time I utter the phrase, it creates a moment of brief reflection that allows me to look beyond myself.

So when did the phrase “no problem” become an acceptable substitute?

I’m not sure when the shift happened, but I hear people constantly saying “no problem” as the response to almost everything. It’s become so trite, clichéd, unoriginal and commonplace, and it rubs me the wrong way every time I hear it.

Servers say “no problem” when giving me change from the bill I just paid. Cashiers say “no problem” after I thank them for the change I receive for my purchase, and the person at the front desk of a hotel will say “no problem” after I thank them for my room key.

What was the problem in the first place? What happened to the simple yet powerful phrases of “you’re welcome” or perhaps “my pleasure?”

When I hear “no problem” offered in response to my “thank yous,” the first thing that comes to mind is: I didn’t actually think it was a problem. I thought it was part of the job.

When somebody says “no problem” or its variant “not a problem” then it makes me think that person really did think that my request for customer service or sincere thanks was a bit of a problem. It’s puzzling.

I understand that some folks, especially young ones, think “you’re welcome” is a little stiff. But as with all language, there are subtle nuances between the two phrases that imply a difference in how we feel about helping other people. When you say “you’re welcome” to someone who has thanked you, you’re telling them you were happy to have the opportunity to help them.

On the other hand, when a person replies, “no problem,” they imply that even though you dared to intrude on their personal space and expect something of them, you basically knew your place and you were not bothered enough to be classified as a problem.

Of course, I would thank you for reading this article if you have struggled to make it this far, and I trust that you will give at least a cursory thought to your response.

Michelle Turnberg writes a weekly column for SheSays.