30 Comments

  1. I’m among those who waggle a finger at those who say “No problem” instead of “You’re welcome”.

    But that’s an issue of politeness / sincerity /warmth. I also had a “theoretical” [theory of what I don’t really know] interest in cases where the basic rule fails — the basic rule being “the right response to ‘Thank you’ is ‘You’re welcome'”.

    I have two main cases where that basic rule fails.

    1. Actual welcoming
    Host: Welcome to our home!
    Guest: Oh, thank you!
    Host: * You’re welcome.

    What’s wrong with it here is that you already welcomed them! And used up the word “welcome” for this interaction.

    2. Complimenting
    A: On, how beautifully you have decorated this gazebo!
    B: Why thank you!
    A: * You’re welcome.

    What’s wrong with it here is that it makes literal the idea behind “gave them a compliment” — it turns the compliment from a genuine expression of admiration to a social grace or even transaction — which it may be in fact but we aren’t supposed to acknowledge. And in the process, retracts the compliment — the “you’re welcome” says “hey, you can have a compliment anytime you want, it doesn’t depend on you actually having done a good job”.

  2. I saw “uh huh” as kind of a generic response that conveys the sincere response: “I don’t care.” Literally “de nada”, it is nothing.

  3. Mitch, I hope Olivier will correct me if I’m wrong (I’m just a student of French), but I think the French may have a solution for your second case. When one is complimented, it appears to me that one (if not THE) appropriate response is “Vous croyez?” (You think so?)

  4. It could be a generational thing, but “You’re welcome” sounds insincere to me. If you say something because it’s the expected reply, then you don’t actually mean it. “You’re welcome” sounds like a sentence fragment. You’re welcome to what? It has little meaning outside of being a response to another phrase, like some some sort of password and counter password exchange.

    “No problem” sounds better to my ears because it feels like it means something – “There’s no need to thank me, because you didn’t actually put me out.” Of course, now that “no problem” is becoming more automatic, in another generation it will probably be seen as insincere as well.

  5. When I first heard ‘no problem’ in Australia in 1995, I liked it. Little did I know it would become ubiquitous in the US soon thereafter, and I became sick of it pretty quickly. (Actually, the original I heard was,’No problem, mate’, which I actually still like ’cause I don’t hear it much IRL.)

  6. Fury, I’m pretty sure it is a generational thing; even if mostly because that’s how it has been media-promoted. (But btw if you are truly from 1958 that would be pretty much the same generation as me – or exactly the same as my brother.)

    And the difficulty with it is precisely because of the interpretation you give. “There’s no need to thank me, because you didn’t actually put me out.” Well, maybe that’s fine between friends, if it was really a favor and the thanks was sincere. (Or mostly sincere along with some element of ritual.) But for those of us who sometimes dislike it, that interpretation shows what the problem is when it occurs in something like a retail transaction.

    If you are working the counter and hand me my purchase, I say “Thank you” with some sincerity but largely ritual. If your response is “No problem” I feel like you are trying to say we are friends (see previous paragraph), and your preparation of my coffee was a favor (rather than something you were supposed to do, part of your job), and that my receipt of that purchase was contingent on you not needing to put much effort into it. What if a (minor) problem had in fact come up? Would you have worked to figure it out and do a workaround? Or would you have given up, and shrugged, because now it wouldn’t be “no problem”?

  7. “Uh huh” is perfectly polite and when the someone thanks you for something really minor as when you hold the door open for someone (who isn’t trying to juggle 4 lidless cups of coffee). Something like “You’re (very) welcome” comes across as overkill, possibly even sarcastic, The thanking and “you’re-welcoming” should reflect the amount of inconvenience the thankee underwent.

  8. I’m still thrown by the Germans’ use of “bitte,” which means “please.” guess it’s short for “please, don’t mentioning it”…

    That said, I’m not sure why “thank you” cards would be in the “uh’huh” section or why this would be funny.

  9. I see your point Mitch, but I think you’re putting more thought into it than we do when we use the phrase. Just like I am when I bristle at “you’re welcome”.

    Of course, no matter how we try to explain or justify our preferred expressions, the truth is most of us probably just prefer whatever we grew up with because we’re used to it. (And for the record, I was born in the 70s.)

  10. @Le Vieux Lapin: ‘C’est correct’.
    You can check the movie ‘La folie des grandeurs’ with De Funès: there’s a scene about flattery: ‘Est-ce que vous pensez vraiment ce que vous dites?’ (=do you actually think what you say?).

  11. @Mitch: early 2000 I moved and joined the startup company my old college roommate had; shortly thereafter, he wrested his company back from the Advertising Firm he had sold it to, but then 9/11 happened (we were a block away on Maiden Lane), and the big deal we were in the process of signing froze, and money suddenly got tight. I was happy working, having somewhere to go, seeing people, and I didn’t need the money, so I offered to forgo my salary; it was understood I was taking up a more founder-like stake in the company, but that the company needed first to survive. It was during this time that I discovered a very interesting thing: my old college buddy of course wanted to thank me at the end of each day that I was coming in without pay — I, on the other hand, could not stand to be thanked, it really rankled me. As I explained to him, I was on the borderline of feeling like a complete rube coming in, working for free; the only way I could justify it in my mind was that I was now more of a stakeholder, working to preserve the company, and that I was forgoing pay just as he was to ensure the survival of the company — if he thanked me, he ruined this illusion, and thus made me feel like a idiot for working for free. I had to ask him to please NOT thank me, I understood where he was coming from, he truly was grateful, but by reinforcing the old structure (ie: I was working for him for some kind of remuneration, even if just thanks, rather than staking a claim in a future successful company), he was making me suffer from a cognitive dissonance, so please can it with the thank yous. I am no longer an employee, whom you would thank, but a stakeholder, doing it for my own profit; he wouldn’t thank himself, so he shouldn’t thank me.

  12. Bill: for me, at least, bitte as “you’re welcome” is a completely different word from bitte as “please” — they’re completely identical homophones, but different words. It is expressly not a form of “please don’t mention it” or whatever — it is a word that means more or less the deep structure meaning of “you’re welcome” as a response to “thank you”, the one that has no bearing on a “welcome” of any kind.

    It’s kind of akin to having acquired “secondary meaning” in patent law…

  13. It seems off, unless every kind of greeting card is in the Uh Huh section. Funnier if she were looking for a “Welcome” card, but I don’t think that’s actually a thing.

  14. mitch4: I agree with 1958fury. These are set phrases, so their meaning is largely divorced from the literal meanings of the components. “No problem” is essentially equivalent to “you’re welcome,” and I don’t think you can detect any difference of politeness/sincerity/warmth between them, because most speakers aren’t choosing one or the other based on the semantic difference of the components.

    In Chinese, you might respond to a compliment or expression of gratitude by saying 哪里 (nǎlǐ), which literally means “where?”. But it’s short for “where is this thanks/appreciation coming from? I’ve done nothing to deserve it.” It wouldn’t make sense to gauge the the sincerity of the response by parsing it as a literal “where,” or the longer sentence.

  15. I agree with larK about “bitte“, but I once had a colleague who used to say “please” (in “English”) whenever he handed me something. He knew it was wrong, but he thought the parallel usage forms were amusing (and he probably got a kick out of seeing how it rankled me when he said it).

  16. @CIDUBill, the joke is that you can’t figure out why “Thank you” cards would be in the “Uh huh” section. Then you find out: because this clerk thinks they are closely associated. That little surprise is the entire joke.

  17. @ Bill – That’s like shooting fish in a barrel in downtown Berlin. One half of the personnel are immigrants, many of whom speak English better than most older Germans do, and the other half are students, who are still taking English classes in school or college.

  18. Kilby, I didn’t say I had to order in German: I’ve had a harder time finding English-speakers in areas of New York than in Berlin. My point was that anything tougher than dining at von Donald’s was above my pay grade and I wanted to order something in German before I left.

    Foreign languages aren’t my friends: I actually do have an interest, but not much ability.

  19. @larK thanks for sharing that experience. Oh no, sorry, didn’t mean to thank you!
    … Just kidding, I know you weren’t disavowing all thanking and being thanked.
    I think NPR host interactions with a whole variety of guests, interviewees, and NPR colleague dialogs are great soil for how the thanks/sure process can go wrong. Some other time though.

    @WW and others back on the original topic of the response to a thank-you: I should have made clearer that I’m not an absolutist for “You’re welcome”. I know it looks close to absolutist when I assert that YW is so much the standard that it becomes *almost always* acceptable – and thus my interest in situations where it seems to me not to work, which I excitedly listed in an earlier comment.

    But that does not amount to cling it the only right answer. I do not need to cringe when hearing, and often myself would use, more casual forms, such as “Sure!” and “You bet”, and a little less casually “Of course” and “Certainly”, and somewhere in between those “Not at all” ; and even beyond YW on the formal end, “Think nothing of it”. [I do maintain a dislike of “No problem” and the awful variant “Sure thing!”. But that’s just personal.] However, note that all these forms are restricted, and what’s special about YW is that it seems to be the least restricted .

  20. @ Mitch4 – “NPR host interactions with … interviewees … ”
    One phrase from just about every NPR-interviewee that I am getting exceedingly tired of is “Thanks for having me…“. Every time I hear it, I keep wondering how the phrase should be completed: “…for lunch.“? Or perhaps with the universal Chinese fortune cookie extender: “…in bed.“?
    P.S. Another truly odious NPR-interviewee response is starting every answer (no matter how the question was phrased) with “So…“, and then rambling into a memorized piece of boilerplate that sometimes (but not always) fits the question.

  21. “You’re welcome” is short for “You do not need to thank me, because you are welcome to my labor/hospitality” — or in other words “You do not need to thank me, because I am doing this out of social obligation/because it is my job/because you are my friend/insert other obvious reason here.” So you aren’t actually accepting their thanks, you are declining the thank you in a false-humble way.
    At least when you say “no problem”, you are accepting the thanks (while simultaneously downgrading the whole interaction as something tiny and not worth mentioning, but still…)

  22. To me, the sincerity of the response to TY is determined much more by the tone and facial expression than it is by the words.

  23. @ larK – In the absence of a direct path to send you a message via (and “re:”) the Comment Harvester, your programming wisdom (with regard to a future replacement site for CIDU) would be dearly appreciated in the Random Comments thread.

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