Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

September 15, 2002


A new phrase has emerged to afflict our daily conversations


          I am amazed at how commonplace the phrase, “No problem,” has suddenly become in daily conversations. If you haven’t heard it more than ten times this week, then you must have been vacationing on the moon.

            Everywhere I turn someone responds to me by saying, “No problem.” For the life of me, I cannot explain the widespread usage of these two words.

            Did I miss an act of Congress requiring the public to start using this phrase? Did Lucy popularize it by saying it to Charlie Brown? Did the Pope mandate its use? Did Billy Graham get it started in his crusades?

            Was it in a song by Hank Williams or Elvis Presley? Whatever its source, I missed it.

            I wonder if our Hispanic friends gave us this phrase. In Costa Rica my friends there responded to almost every need by saying, “Small problem.” But what they meant was, “We have a solution to the problem.” So it seems unlikely that we have changed “Small problem” to “No problem.”

            No matter where the phrase came from, it is apparently here to stay, like it or not. Actually I like it sometimes.

            If I ask a clerk in a store to direct me to the electronics department, it seems appropriate for the clerk to say, “No problem,” and then give me directions.

            If I return an item I purchased to exchange it for something else, it seems alright to have the clerk say, “No problem,” and assist me with the matter.

            In another setting I may interrupt a colleague at work and say, “Do you have a minute?” More often than not he or she will reply by saying, “No problem,” and I find no fault with that.

            In the context of these examples, the phrase seems to be a shortened version of “I have no problem assisting you with your concern or your need.”

            What bothers me is that its usage has gone wild. People are using this phrase in settings where it simply makes no sense.

            Here is an example. In a restaurant the waitress asks what I would like to drink. I reply, “Sweet tea please.” And she says, “No problem,” and walks away.

            Soon the waitress returns with the tea. As she puts it down on the table, I say, “Thank you.” Again she says, “No problem.”

            When I tell the waitress what I want to eat, she says it again, “No problem.”

            A few minutes later she brings my food and I say, “Thank you.” And believe it or not, once again she says, “No problem.”

            By this time I am so tired of hearing the phrase that I am on the verge of trying to create a problem!

            I have tried to analyze what people mean by this phrase, and what words were used before the phrase was coined.

            Some people must mean, “I am happy to be of assistance to you.” Or perhaps, “Even though I have other things to do, I am willing to stop and gladly help you.”

            Such usage seem perfectly reasonable to me.

            But I have a problem with the phrase being used as a substitute for “You are welcome,” the traditional response to “Thank you.” In that context, “No problem” makes no sense.

            The good news about this new phrase that has wormed its way into a thousand daily conversations is that no one seems to use it to be offensive. Nor does its use stir any feelings except possibly mild appreciation for the service rendered.

            In time I suppose I can get used to it. After all I have learned not to be bothered by other meaningless phrases such as “How you doing?” or “Stop by sometime.”

            We do sometimes afflict our conversations with a lot of hollow and insincere phrases in an effort to be “nice” to others, when what we really mean is, “I am so busy that I really don’t have time to squeeze you into my schedule.”

            I guess the best thing for me to do is to stop fretting about how many times a day I hear the phrase and simply say to myself, “No problem.”

            I hope you don’t have a problem with that solution. If you do, then all I can say is, “No problem.”