Kudos to “Miss Conduct” in today’s Boston Globe for her scientifically and morally correct answer to a reader’s question about language. A reader from East Falmouth had written in with the following question:
When I thank waitstaff or some other people who have just done something for me as part of their job and they say “No problem” instead of “You’re welcome,” I want to say to them, “It shouldn’t be a problem; it’s your job.” But there must be some other response that might help them break that habit. Do you have any ideas?
You, faithful reader, may not even be aware of the big shift that has taken place in this area in the past 5–10 years. It used to be that the standard reply to a thank you was “You’re welcome,” and it was considered rude to say “No problem.” A majority of us oldsters still feel that way, but a majority of young people prefer “No problem.” We don’t really have the evidence to know why, but the observation is definitely correct.
So, how did Miss Conduct (Robin Abrahams, IRL) respond? Perfectly, in my opinion:
Leave them alone. There are all kinds of sociolinguistic reasons why “No problem” is an entirely acceptable response to “Thank you,” but said reasons would probably not persuade you. You hate “No problem,” and that’s fine. Believe it or not, some people prefer “No problem” to “You’re welcome,” which strikes them as formal and condescending.
There are also people who hate “ma’am” or “sir” or “I’ll be taking care of you tonight” or “you guys.” I know this because all those people have written me, asking how they can make restaurant servers talk the way they would like them to. And they always get the same response: It’s rude to even try. Waitstaff are busy enough, and every customer has his or her own particular linguistic pet peeve, so trying to keep everyone happy is a mug’s game. You can ask to have your pizza or your latte customized, but not your discourse.