Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Am I Rude?

I recently read an advice column in which a person was complaining about how rude it was for people to respond with "no problem" when someone says "thank you." The columnist agreed with the complaintant, saying that people should just say "You're welcome."

As a chronic no-problemer, I immediately began analyzing situations in which I utter these somehow offensive words and wonder if I have been, well, offensive. After saying "no problem," I would suddenly become hyper-aware of myself, and in two instances I told the person about the column. (Both people said that my "no problem" didn't bother them.)

I finally came to the decision that there are some thank you's that are no-problem-appropriate and some that are not. For example, my roommate saying thank you because I am taking her mail along with mine to the post office is no-problem-appropriate, because it really is no problem. My friend saying thank you after I compliment her new skirt is not no-problem-approriate, because that somehow makes the compliment seem less genuine. I could continue dividing up comments into these two lists, but I have other issues at hand today.

Prior to my reading of the aforementioned column, a good friend of mine told me that she hates it when people invite her to things by saying "You're welcome to come." She was surprisingly adamant about this point, and again, I became hyper-aware of myself when I realized that I say this relatively often. My friend argues that it doesn't sound genuine, even when she knows the person really means it.

I could see that my friend might have a point, so I did a little test. When I was with a friend and was about to leave for other plans, (really the only case in which you would say "you're welcome to come,") I would instead say "Come. You'd have so much fun," or "Come, you'd love so-and-so." By simply making it an enthusiastic command, I experienced a one hundred percent rate of return on the invitation. I don't know the exact return for my you're-welcome-to-come invitations, but I know these interactions were not nearly as nice as the direct command type.

In a not-so-popular song, John Mellencamp once sang "These are just words, and words are okay." Could Mr. Mellencamp have been (gasp!) wrong? People can be surprisingly particular about words, myself included. And the words that we consider to be appropriate evolve and change, sometimes with such speed that few people even know what is considered correct anymore.

But I'm also of the mind that we should say what feels natural to say, whether it's appropriate or not. What's the point of analyzing our word choice to the degree that we never really say what we mean? It's impossible to go through life without offending anyone. The only thing worse than offending someone by saying what you mean is offending someone by saying what you don't mean. And maybe that thought is the only one I should keep in mind while choosing my words.


Me said...

Anyone who thinks this much about being rude or not being rude doesn't really need to worry about the whole thing. I say no-problem yourself away; I will take no offense.

And, in response to the thanks I know I will get for posting a comment, "No problem."

Anonymous said...

I was looking for that article--I'd read it a while ago and I just got pissed off about it all over again. "No problem" is rude because that makes it about me? If someone thanks me and I say "You're welcome" that's just as "about me." It means that as far as I'm concerned, I'm happy to do the thing you thanked me for. Perfectly polite British people say "Not at all" in response to "Thank you" which means exactly what "No problem" means. If someone thinks that "no problem" is rude, the only thing that should logically mollify them is to say "Yes, sir" like you are their butler.

Saying "no problem" isn't rude. Anyone offended by that is merely a fossil offended by the lack of formality in your speech and your failure to conform to what they regard as the status quo. I believe this viewpoint is rare. If I knew someone would be offended by "no problem" I wouldn't use it, as that would be as rude as saying nothing, of course.

BTW, to say "no problem" after someone thanks your for a complement just makes no sense. Naturally it didn't cause you any problem to just say something.

Well, off to find that column to replicate this rant there...

robin said...

These people act as if there's a stone parchment out there, etched by the hand of God, decreeing all social etiquette, of which they are somehow privy. The fact is, etiquette totally depends on the situation and people involved. If the people you're interacting with find the response acceptable, then... it's acceptable. These old ladies get a bug up their rear because etiquette has changed since their day, then they do some backwards reasoning to create a rationalization for how their way is absolutely the right way, and they go around shaming everyone like they're the empresses of etiquette. In the meantime, they get the majority of people-- who have been using the term without a bit of reflection-- thinking: "Oh my gosh, I didn't know I wasn't supposed to say it that way!"-- which is just silly, because, everyone is simultaneously wondering the same thing and doubting themselves, which means it wasn't a norm. Just look at evidence from other languages-- the standard response in Spanish is, "De nada"...translation "it was nothing"...basically the same thing as "no problem." How can it be a standard response in another language if it's so inherently impolite?