The role of ‘you’re welcome’ in polite society

What “you’re welcome” means is less important than what it does. Even small favors can create a feeling of obligation on the part of the recipient.


What do you say in response to “Thank you”? For many Americans, the default is “You’re welcome.” I had never thought much about this common exchange until a reader wrote suggesting the reply was worth investigating.

On a literal level, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what it means. What is going on when one person says “Thank you for driving me home” and her friend replies “You’re welcome”? Welcome to what?  

Welcome derives from the Old English wilcuma, a noun meaning “a desired guest.” It acquired some of its more familiar senses in the Middle Ages, when it was used as an adjective meaning “agreeable, pleasing” (“His gift was welcome,” circa 1300) or “cordially invited to do something” (“You should be welcome to go home with me,” circa 1400).  

In the 15th century, “and welcome” began to be tacked onto the end of invitations to suggest that a person was freely permitted or warmly invited to do or have something: “Here are some cakes; ... take ’em, and welcome.” In these cases, the phrase seems almost to be a preempting of thanks, an answer to the recipient’s gratitude before he or she has even had a chance to express it. 

The first citation of “you’re welcome” in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1907, but others have argued that it can be found as far back as 1603, in “Othello.” These citations are few and far between, however, because this familiar phrase is an example of what linguists call phatic speech, language used for social purposes rather than to convey information. It is a stock phrase that greases the social wheels, and as such is frequently used in conversation but rarely recorded in printed material. 

When we say things like “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome,” we are communicating that we know and are abiding by the rules of politeness in English-speaking American society. What “you’re welcome” means is less important than what it does – it is a “minimizer.” Even small favors can create a feeling of obligation on the part of the recipient, as English recognizes by having “much obliged” as another way to say “thank you.” Our stock responses to such expressions of gratitude minimize this sense of indebtedness: “no problem,” “my pleasure,” and “you’re welcome.”

Now, though, “you’re welcome” seems to be losing its minimizing role. A 2015 New York Times article calls the phrase “a gloat,” and many online commentators agree that it sounds arrogant, implying that the thanks is deserved. For these speakers, instead of playing down the recipient’s obligation, “you’re welcome” emphasizes it. Unless, that is, it is used jokingly – for example, when you post a picture of your cat doing something cute and tag it “You’re welcome!”

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