Recently waiters, clerks, even folks holding an elevator door for me have burbled “No problem” in response to my request for help. Puzzling because I’m not sure my request would be a problem even under the worst circumstances. Why does my call for a glass of water, or inquiry if a dress comes in my size, or a gasped appeal for a short delay in an elevator ride result in this response rather than “yes” or “sure” or a British-like “certainly.”
I’m not offended, simply curious how the phrase caught on. Its users are almost always under the age of 30 or 35; they frequently work in a service industry. Do they mean they’d let me know if they have a problem with my bidding? I can’t imagine anyone responding, “No, that’s a problem” and slamming a door in my face or refusing to refill my coffee.
I’m not the only person who’s noticed this. A commentator on a national news show feels wait staff are substituting the term instead of saying “you’re welcome.” I think its usage is broader; it also functions as general fill-in-the-blank verbiage and as a synonym for “I hear you.”
Perhaps I should be grateful for this small sign of language adapting to new needs. It confirms the vitality of English and its speakers. But it brings me to another phrase I DO have a problem with—good job! I first heard this maybe 15 years ago, used by a mother of three young boys on an airplane. I was very impressed by her calm demeanor and positive words to the trio. I’ve learned to use the phrase with my grandchildren, and it’s become so engrained, it’s automatic.
I was drawn up short recently in a restaurant when my waiter used the phrase on me. I’d eaten every scrap, and he lauded, “Good job!” My response? “Does it look like this body needed all that food?” He laughed, but I began to wonder if (1) I look as simple-minded as a young child, or (2) if I use the term too much? Some child-rearing specialists are pondering this point themselves. “Good job” may be too obviously reinforcing the adult’s desired behavior. . .it doesn’t encourage the child to make decisions on his own. . .is too judgmental. (See http://www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/gj.htm)
Food for thought, and certainly no problem.