My problem is 'no problem'

Wouldn't it be interesting if we could pinpoint the exact moment a new phrase was introduced into our conversational lexicon?

The occasion I would seek is when the first automatic "thank you" elicited the first cool-as-a-cucumber "no problem." That transformative time is one I want desperately to identify.

Today, it seems no "thank you" may be offered to a person under 30 that doesn't trigger the Pavlovian "no problem" response.

My problem is ... I didn't ask if there was a problem.

In fact, my cue was as far from problematic as could be: I offered a heartfelt expression of gratitude. (Well, OK, an unremarkable, maybe even laconic, thank you.) But regardless of my degree of sincerity, the response I drew, the response I inevitably draw, is "no problem."

So, as a lady of a certain age who can notice an aberration in a simple stimulus-response pattern such as "Thank you - You're welcome," I wonder what, in fact, the problem is.

Is it that "welcome" has been withdrawn as verbal currency because it has become a sappy concept, a generational identity tag? Is the best I can hope for in a transaction with someone 20 years my junior the reassurance that I have not caused a problem?

Or is it perhaps that in an increasingly age-segregated society, I'm likely to meet most under-30s in service capacities, during commercial exchanges?

To wit,

"May I have a straw with my Frappucino?"

"No problem."

"Thank you."

"No problem."

Perhaps they're harboring a certain resentment about our relative status as consumer and purveyor of Frappucino. Perhaps this isn't about "no problems" at all, but about a great unabridgeable abyss that my own booming generation would have illuminated with a Marxist subtext.

But wait, there's my server person, now interacting with an equal - another 18-year-old.

"I think you owe me another dollar."

"No problem."

"Thanks."

"No problem."

No it wasn't my unwelcome seniority upon which she was subtly commenting. After all, she had just shortchanged a co-generationist with that same monotone response.

Should I then, perhaps, feel flattered? Yes, after all, I too was included in this cooly emitted, almost hip "no problem."

In fact, perhaps within that very coolness lies hidden not the unconcern and apathy that my generation was trying to combat with the civility of thank yous and you're welcomes.

Perhaps we've arrived at a stage in human development - in world culture - where passionately zealous Baby Boomers and Post Gen X-ers can finally extend a hand across the decades, and with these two little words, bridge the generations.

So, how does that sound?

No problem.

Sounds OK, then?

No problem.

Is that a yes?

No problem.

But wait. I do have a problem with this vacuous verbal embrace.

Yes, there is a problem.

*Anna Shaff is a part-time elementary school teacher, a writer, and the mother of a teenager.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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