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Wishful thanking

Is it too much to expect ‘You’re welcome’ instead of ‘No problem’?

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At the end of a casual commercial transaction, following the patterns instilled by your mother and James Bond movies, you accept your latte and courteously say, “Thank you.”

Your barista beams, graciously dips his man-bun and replies, “No problem.”

Who said there was a problem?

As a response to an expression of gratitude, however casual or ritualistic, the previously expected “You’re welcome” is now as outmoded as a sweeping bow. Instead, you receive a cheerful assurance that the service involved no perplexing difficulties on the performer’s part, a message that presumably greatly eases your concern. Who among us, when requesting the afternoon’s oversized chocolate chip cookie, hasn’t worried that our craving might present a daunting obstacle to the operator of the cash register? “No problem” calms those pangs.

It also rearranges the mood of the transaction.

The traditional “You’re welcome” conveyed a warmth, graciousness, and readiness to be of further service that is now reliably found only in a grandparent or a hotel concierge.

By contrast, “No problem” dismisses the transaction — and the person expressing thanks — as a blip in the speaker’s day. Far from the I’m-at-your-command attitude of “You’re welcome,” the breezy assurance of “No problem” minimizes the entire experience — and implies that if there had been a problem, the exchange wouldn’t have happened.

You might argue that “No problem” is simply the equivalent of the Spanish “De nada” or the French “De rien,” phrases built around the word for “nothing” and considered gracious responses to a thank-you. But those continental responses suavely minimize the object purveyed — no, really, the Himalayan mountaintop blossoms I’ve given you are nothing worth mentioning — rather than the effort and attitude involved in the delivery of it. And for the French, the formal response to gratitude might be not “De rien” but “Je vous en prie” — “I beg you (not to mention it)” — which makes everybody involved in the transaction feel like a playboy in a 1930s movie.

A Frenchman might even respond to thanks with the gracious “Avec plaisir.” It would be a marked improvement to our prevailing level of civility if the person whom you thanked for toasting your bagel responded, “With pleasure.”

“You’re welcome” is also a snarky way to express an expectation to be thanked. Will Ferrell’s one-man Broadway show about George W. Bush conveyed its entire theme in its title: You’re Welcome, America.

“You’re welcome” is not the only polite expression that has been toppled like a curtsying hippo. The phrase taught to lisping three-year-olds as a way to ward off a great-aunt’s cauliflower casserole — the get-out-of-jail-free construct “No, thank you” — has also been excised from every occasion short of a state dinner. It has been replaced by the eminently unappreciative and inescapably smug “I’m good.”

“No, thank you,” built around an expression of appreciation, is often accompanied by a smile, if sometimes an awkward one.

By contrast, “I’m good” is frequently accompanied by a shudder. As a response to an offer of more meatloaf, “I’m good” seems not only negative but derisive. Declining seconds with “I’m full” acknowledges that the person making the offer has already provided you with something of value; responding with “I’m good” conveys relief that you’ve survived his hospitality so far and have no interest in pushing your luck.

“I’m good” is not actually a response to an offer. It’s an answer to a question nobody asked. When responding to an actual inquiry about one’s well-being, “I’m good” is perhaps not quite so dismissive, if still a bit Tarzan-like. But as a response to an offer of more lentil stew, “I’m good” is all about the speaker, who recoils at the offer. Contrary to the phrase’s nominal claim, it’s not good at all.

And should someone declaring “I’m good” subsequently decide that his response or behavior wasn’t actually appropriate, he would be unlikely to say that he was sorry. More likely, he would concede, with a terseness reflecting his actual degree of regret, “My bad.”

Entire religions have been built on the expression of atonement, a challenge that can send the apologizer into a freeway cloverleaf of conflicting philosophical directions. Just about all of them, however, require more than two syllables of contrition. “My bad” is a coin flip of an apology, a casual concession that if you want me to say something, I’ll say something. It’s along the lines of the conditional apology, the one that begins, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended. …” Like the conditional apology, “My bad” suggests not so much sincere regret as an implication that the target of the contrition is making too big a deal of the whole thing.

“My bad” is well on the path to the non-apology apology, “Sorry not sorry” (enshrined on T-shirts and in a Demi Lovato song), expressing nothing but the speaker’s awareness that the listener wants him to say he’s sorry, but he won’t.

Certainly, not all expressions of contrition require sackcloth and fasting, although a lot of apologies might gain some sincerity from a touch of self-reproach. (On the other hand, tearful remorse is a lot to expect from the server who brought you mashed potatoes instead of fries.) In their book When Sorry Isn’t Enough, Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas break down the components of contrition: expressing regret, accepting responsibility, making restitution, choosing to change behavior, and requesting forgiveness. It’s hard to translate “My bad” into more than two of those elements, and it may achieve only one. Far from making restitution or pledging a change in behavior, “My bad” is somewhere between a grudging concession and a gloat.

“My bad,” as the Urban Dictionary entry explains, signifies “a way of admitting a mistake, and apologizing for that mistake, without actually apologizing” — because actually apologizing is, you know, a bummer.

That last comment may have dismissed the apologizer’s sincerity too casually. My bad.

One theory is that “My bad” may have originated among basketball players, who may have used it in pickup games to acknowledge making a bad pass. This seems fitting; “My bad” is about right to cover malfeasance on that level. Or, as a New York Post sportswriter recently did, to atone for his erroneous prediction that the Mets-Nationals rivalry of 2017 would be intense and close. (It wasn’t.) But for misdeeds any greater, the phrase offers less coverage than a dish towel in a sauna.

It might be argued that even these minimal acknowledgments are preferable to the reflexive grunt of someone whose focus is not on the exchange but on his cellphone. But the popular phrases of courtesy all carry an underlying tone that unsettles the communication. Traditional polite expressions all involve, at least implicitly, a second person: “You’re welcome” and “No, thank you” actually mention the other individual. Even “I’m sorry” implies a recipient; like prayer, apology assumes that someone is listening.

But “No problem,” “I’m good,” and “My bad” are as auto-focused as a selfie, another term unknown before etiquette gave way to affirmation.

I’ve identified our problem with politeness. It is the same as our problem with politics: We no longer actually speak to each other.

You’re welcome.

David Sarasohn, a longtime columnist for The Oregonian in Portland, has written for the New York Times and the Washington Post. He has published three books, including Waiting for Lewis and Clark: The Bicentennial and the Changing West. This story originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.