Why ‘no problem’ is a problem

Rampant use of the popular catchphrase concerns this communicator.

Houston, we have a problem. It’s no problem, a phrase comprising two negatives that’s meant as an affirmative.

No problem and its sister not a problem (the Australians have no worries, but that’s another story) have supplanted yes, you’re welcome, happy to help, OK, that’s fine, got it, here you go, and I can handle that for you. All of which are positives.

I relish being told yes, appreciate the good manners of a you’re welcome, am delighted when someone tells me he’s happy to help me out, am grateful for a simple OK, relax when I hear something’s fine, can move on to other things when I’m confident someone has gotten what he needs, am appreciative when I’ve gotten what I need, and am relieved when I finally reach the person who can indeed handle my problem.

But tell me no problem and I instantly have one. That’s because you’ve started out by saying no, making my system shudder, and then you compound matters with the word problem, which downright rattles me.

Ring, ring.

“Hello, Tony’s.”

“I’d like a large pizza for take-out.”

“No problem!”

“With pepperoni and mushrooms.”

“No problem! Is that it?”

“And a cheese steak with fried onions, no sauce.”

“Great, no problem! Anything else?”

“Yes. I’d like you to pay for it.”

Now, Tony has a problem.

No problem is typically delivered in a friendly, chirpy tone. No problem! Noooo prah blum! No-prob-LEM-o! NO PROB-lem! This is consistent, regardless of the situation. In fact, its use is so rampant that, unless we clamp down on it now, I predict it will have totally eclipsed all other affirmations by 2013:

Do you, Ian, take Hermione to be your lawfully wedded wife?
No problem!

May I see your driver’s license and registration?
No problem!

Look into the camera and say “”cheese.””
No problem!

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.
No problem!

Do you solemnly swear that you will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will to the best of your ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help you God?
No problem!

The biggest problem with no problem is its inherent vagueness. You cannot be sure what to expect, because it’s not clear what the person is telling you — perhaps that it’s no problem for him.

It’s especially disarming when you’re after a solution to a problem—any problem—and the person you finally get to, after you’ve navigated a voice-prompt labyrinth, responds to your inquiry by telling you there’s no problem, when the very nature of your call is to resolve one. Noooohprooooblemmmmm ...

Tell me that I’ve got the right person, or that you’ll look into it, or that you understand the situation. And when I thank you, smile and tell me, “You’re welcome.” Just don’t tell me that it’s no problem. Thank you.


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