“No Problem?”

“No Problem?”

A while back William Safire, in his “On Language” column in the New York Times magazine, commented on the shift from “You’re welcome” to “No problem”
as a response to “Thank you.” Actually, one of the places where I hear the “no problem” locution most often is from restaurant serving persons, where it is said not in response to a “thank you,” but rather in response to a request like, “And I’ll have the meat loaf special.”

There is something eerie about the shifts in the standard responses from waiters and waitresses. The phenomenon has almost led me to hypothesize that there is some organized national conference call for people who work in restaurants, where every two years they decide it is time to change their standard responses to what customers request. The language seems quite uniform, whether in Houston or Cedar Rapids or Newark. Nor is it confined to a culinary-class level; the waitress at Denny’s seems to abide by the same current rule as the waiter at Le Petit Bistro.

There was a time several years ago when, having heard your preference, the server would say “Excellent choice!”–whether you ordered oatmeal with sliced bananas or eggs benedict. Then–seemingly after some national consultation–there was a shift to “You’ve got it!” Then for a brief time the standard response was “Absolutely.” Now it is “No problem.”

I am especially interested theologically in the contrast between “You’ve got it” and “No problem.” The former has the feel of realized eschatology, which is how we designate the “already/not yet” tension in our hope for the Kingdom. The fullness of the Kingdom is not yet, but it is already here in terms of signs and first fruits. To be told that I already have my French toast, having just that moment expressed my preference, is apparently intended as a promise of hope. While I do not yet see the French toast, I can be confident that it will soon appear.

“You’ve got it” is of course a statement about the person being addressed. The serving person is offering a word of assurance and encouragement. In contrast, “No problem” is more about the server and the folks in the kitchen to whom he will be giving the order. In asking for French toast, you can be assured that you have not inconvenienced them or presented them with a challenge that is too difficult for them.

Okay, I have to say–because sometimes people fail to understand my tone in saying things here–that this is a bit tongue-in-cheek. But for all of that, there is something instructive about a service industry that moves from “You’ve got it” to “No problem.” And there is something indicative about a Christian community that makes a similar shift. “You’ve got it” can be an expression of a name-it-and-claim-it theology when it is preached to people who are longing for healing or financial stability or restored relationships in their families. But it can also be an already/not yet assurance, a word of encouragement for folks who need to know that they are already surrounded, in spite of serious trials and tribulations, with signs of God’s promise that a better Day is coming.

“No problem” is seldom a healthy Christian message. The world is full of problems and we ought to face them honestly. Serving others is no easy thing if we are really willing to enter into their lives. Solutions do not come easily.

Recently someone brought me a complaint about being badly treated by Fuller on some matter. They wanted me to offer a solution. I could not simply say, “You’ve got it.” Nor could I say, “No problem.” What I said was, “I’ll get back to you.” That probably is not a good response to my ordering French toast at Denny’s. But neither are the more standard responses.

If there really is a conference call for all of those restaurant folks every two years, I hope that this time around they will have an extended serious conversation about what is appropriate to say when someone chooses something from the menu. Maybe the rest of us could learn from what they decide!


  1. Do you think the “No Problem” response could possibly be an influence of the Spanish language on our culture?

    Since, “De Nada” would be the response to “Gracias” in Spanish, which means “It’s nothing”, then wouldn’t a native Spanish speaker feel more comfortable replying with “No Problem”, than, “You are welcome”?

    I enjoyed your article very much! -SW

    Comment by Susan Wohlfarth — June 6, 2007 @ 6:49 pm

  2. Thanks for an insightful commentary. I realize that “No problem” is simply a stock reply, mindless, actually.

    But every time I hear it, I have to keep myself from responding, “Oh. I didn’t realize that I MIGHT have been causing a problem. I’m glad I didn’t present you with any difficulty!” or “Far be it from me to want to trouble you by cooperating with your request for my order!”

    It just seems unnerving to have someone assure me that I haven’t created a problem. It’s like telling me they forgive me or something. Or it’s like saying, “I’ll choose not to be offended by what you just said.” Or like concluding a conversation with, “That didn’t hurt too much.”

    Yeah. Yeah. I know that’s not the intent, but that’s what the words “No problem!” sound like they mean.

    I’m almost getting used to it. What I have a harder time with, however, is the ubiquitous “Are you still working on it?” question about whether or not to clear my plate.

    No. I am still dining. At least I thought I was, until you made it sound like I was a jackal picking a carcass clean.

    Comment by Jim Berkley — June 7, 2007 @ 10:14 am

  3. I’m stunned I haven’t found this blog until today, Dr. Mouw. Greetings from various and assorted Schwyzers.

    Comment by Hugo Schwyzer — June 7, 2007 @ 6:27 pm

  4. I have just come across David Neff’s reference in his Blogwatch -http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog/ – to your “quirky” blog admitting that you are a theocrat. I thought you might be interested in my own defense of that label recently in Alan Keyes’ Renew America Forum http://www.renewamerica.us/forum/?date=070523&a=82 .
    It has sparked quite a debate. I think the word needs to be resuscitated and restored to its original Biblical power. Like the word “gay”, it has been perverted and degraded by today’s “common usage.”

    Comment by G.A. Rodgers — June 11, 2007 @ 8:28 pm

  5. I saw you preach at Solana Beach Pres earlier this year and am glad of it. I found your blog today and repeated the experience.

    I am struck by what might underly our perceptions of what you said. The first comment saddened me because I have seen the political right take opportunity after opportunity to sell their story to the American public in situations that have no direct bearing.

    Susan Wohlfarth’s comment may have been an innocent exercise in intellectual curiousity. These days it’s hard to tell if someone will use that as ammunition in their (unacknowledged) fight against brown people. I am personally touched by this as a white person who attended a largely latino church as a child and who now has a Mexican sister-in-law (cunada, but my keyboard doesn’t make it possible to add the tilde) and therefore, two Mexican-American nieces, one of whom is in college and plans to be a doctor.

    I believe our society keeps finding ways to condense down our language. That’s one factor. It’s not hard to see this phenomenon in our expanding list of initials that stand in for the actual names of organizations, procedures and positions. One comedian said we couldn’t possible take the time to speak the entire string of words.

    How and how much we allow our lives to be busied has an impact even on the words we speak. Have we finally reached a point in our progress that we absolutely and definitively must slow down? I would argue yes. I believe Dallas Willard already has in Divine Conspiracy.

    Another factor is the decreasing amount of decision-making power that businesses and other organizations allow their people at the basic, or even managerial levels. (We have also done this to judges, which seems ironic considering the title of their position.)

    If we don’t trust people to make decisions about their verbal (and accompanying nonverbal) interactions and learn from their mistakes, how healthy is that for their lives and their capacity for learning?

    There are a lot of avenues we can take from this junction.

    I suggest communication. Nonviolent communication.

    Comment by Charles Hicks-Moore – Dr.Network — June 12, 2007 @ 1:33 pm

  6. Very insightful, Dr. Mouw! I enjoy reading anything you write!

    As for the first comment. I’m a native Spanish speaker and I really don’t see how this can be pin on us (a rather common practice, I might add). De nada does not mean “it’s nothing” it means “for nothing” and the thought behind is a humble expression of “I have done nothing as to deserve your gratitude”. I don’t see any connection in the meaning of both phrases. Plus, there is no cacophony in both phrases.

    I think the answer has to be found in our mainstream culture that is getting ruder by the day. Another example is that before you would sneeze and you would receive a “bless you”. Nowadays, most people won’t say anything and it’s you who have to say “excuse me”.

    Comment by Xergio Chacin — June 15, 2007 @ 11:50 am

  7. My commends might be a little off the topic. Plus, I am so not a theocrat person, though, opens for the possibility to become one in the future. I would just like to share my thoughts on languages. One of my Japanese friends, RJ, jointed me to welcome my old friends, David and Kaz, to California for a visit. We met the couple, husband is an American, and wife is Japanese, and their little 5 years girl, I call her princess. The little girl speaks fluently in both English and Japanese. RJ made a commend about the little girl’s Japanese” She speaks as if she is from the royal family.” When I asked her why, she simply stated: “There is no trash words in her Japanese. They are so pure.”

    Innocently, replacing “I am excited” with “I am exciting” was one of the most “famous” jokes about me among my college friends when I first came to U.S. and struggled with my language barriers. However, I had never had anyone looked at me maliciously because of the mistake I’d made, even strangers. They just smiled and kindly corrected me “you mean you are excited, right?” By this day, this joke still put a smile on my face and reminded me how pure people can be. All to say, I believe, sometimes, it is not about what you have said out loud in verbal language, it is about what it is in the person’s heart. People can hear your heart beat.

    Comment by PofP — June 15, 2007 @ 10:16 pm

  8. Thought of this post as I was listening to an interview with an Army soldier recently returned from Iraq. A caller thanked him for his service, and he responded, “No problem.” Really?

    Comment by capnwatsisname — June 25, 2007 @ 9:53 am