Quiet Desperation

'No problem' really means 'no thought'

Column by Craig Marshall Smith
Posted

I have a problem with "No problem." I have a big problem with "No problem." The only time someone says "No problem" is when there is a problem.

The same goes for "No worries." I'd like to get rid of both of them. They mean nothing, and are generally said as a casual dismissal. Let's try to think of something else to say when something unexpected happens, or when something doesn't go on exactly as planned or when something has been done on someone's behalf.

Almost anything would be better. Try these. Instead of "No problem," perhaps you could say "A wet bird does not fly at night," or something else that is vaguely Zen.

Instead of "No worries," how about "Breathe deep the gathering gloom"? Anything but a generic cliche.

I am having a big problem. Arrangements were made for someone to be here on Monday to pick up some extra large paintings, drive them into Denver, and install them in three new showhomes.

At the last minute the project coordinator asked if we could reschedule everything for Wednesday. I said possibly not. Then we were able to agree on Tuesday.

In the midst of all of this, of emails and phone calls, trying to reach the outfit that will pick up the paintings, and the installer, she said, "No problem."

I let out a yelp. I closed my eyes. I drank from Smitty's water dish. I ordered pillow cases I don't need. I vacuumed the parrot. I booked a flight to Ithaca.

I ate macaroni without cheese.

I listened to "Teddy Bears' Picnic" on repeat.

I watched Bill O'Reilly and kept a straight face.

I don't have any original thoughts. Just when I think I do, I will hear something or read something that matches identically with my thinking. Someone somewhere wrote about vacuuming his parrot today.

I decided to do a "No problem" search, and sure enough, others have the same dislike for it.

The New York Observer columnist Kristen Richardson wrote, "I've come to believe that 'No problem' is a seemingly benign expression run terribly amok, to the point of destroying what vestiges of civility we have left here at the beginning of the 21st century."

Richardson did a search too, and called Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Tannen said that a general casualization of language is responsible for the expression.

Tannen said that "No problem" is dismissive, overcasual and makes light of a favor.

Then I found out that "No worries" is the preferred expression in Australia and New Zealand.

Language takes millions of hits every day. They are called "tweets." I have yet to tweet. I plan to get out of here without ever tweeting. I am not going to waggle a finger, but the truncation of language into some kind of abbreviated drivel is for the unwashed.

I am glad that Charles Dickens didn't live to hear "No problem." Oliver goes up and asks for more? And the master says, "No problem"? There's no chance of that. Dickens manicured his thoughts and expressions, and I will never let that go, or give in to what goes around simply out of carelessness.

Am I a language snob? Absolutamente. Muttering fractions of words and exhaling generic expressions is fine when you are lifting a car off of a teenager. The rest of the time I want to hear wording that follows thought and does not precede it, or is thrown at a situation because it has been before, and it's handy.

There's someone who is stationed at the self-checkout at my store. Without looking up, she invariably says, "Have a good one."

I take that as a question, and always say, "I do."

Craig Marshall Smith is an artist, educator and Highlands Ranch resident. He can be reached at craigmarshallsmith@comcast.net.