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Jewish World Review May 13, 1999 /27 Iyar 5759

Bob Greene

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And now even saying "thank you" creates a problem

(JWR) ---- (
DAYTON, OHIO -- In the restaurant, the young waiter handed the woman -- who appeared to be in her late 60s or early 70s -- her check for the meal.

The woman -- being of the generation whose members were taught to be gracious to everyone just because to do so makes the world nicer -- said to the young waiter:

"Thank you."

Now -- as we approach the end of the century -- here is a quiz for you.

When the older woman said "Thank you" to the young waiter for giving her the check, how did the waiter respond?

If your guess is "You're welcome," then you haven't been paying attention to social discourse lately.

What the waiter said in response to the woman's "Thank you" was:

"No problem."

Which was not a surprise -- "No problem" is rapidly becoming the standard response to "Thank you." The end of the world? Obviously not. Just one more step along the way to lowered expectations in the way we all treat each other.

A few weeks ago, we addressed in this space the "You need to" phenomenon in contemporary life. Traditionally, if, say, an airline employee wanted to advise a customer that the gate for a flight had been changed, the employee would most likely say: "The new gate is C-24. Please go to that gate for your flight."


"You'll be able to board your flight if you go to gate C-24."

Something like that. Today, though, the standard approach has become:

"You need to go to gate C-24."

There's a difference. Instead of treating the person standing there as an equal -- or, heaven forbid, as a customer who should be treated with some professional deference -- the balance of power has shifted. In the "You need to" culture, the person doing the speaking is announcing: I will command you. I will tell you what to do. You may think that you are a valued customer, paying money to my company for its services -- but don't presume that. You need to listen to me. You need to do as I order.

Another manifestation of this is the "You guys" phenomenon, in which employees of companies -- usually young employees -- for some reason address all their customers, including older customers, as "You guys." A group of people in their 50s or 60s will sit down at a table in a restaurant, will be looking at the menus, and will be told by the waiter or waitress:

"I'll be with you guys in a minute."

After which the restaurant employee will return and say:

"Have you guys decided what you'd like yet?"

What is wrong with this? The sad thing is that there are probably a lot of people who truly don't know. What's wrong with it is that customers are not "You guys" -- the employee has never met the customers before, the familiarity is unearned and in many cases unwanted. "You guys" is an announcement to the customers: We don't really consider this a business here. We don't regard your choice to spend your money here very seriously. We can take you guys or leave you guys.

And now comes "No problem." "You're welcome" was for so long the accepted way to respond to "Thank you" because it was a constant reemphasis of the thin veneer of civility that helps make a society run. "You're welcome" was a synonym for "Thank you, too -- thank you for thanking me." It was a ladies-and-gentlemen type phrase -- one that elevated the person who said it and the person who heard it.

"No problem"? As a response to "Thank you," "No problem" translates to: "Yeah, I heard you." It translates to: "You ought to thank me, buddy -- I interrupted my busy schedule to help you." It translates to: "Huh? Oh -- yeah. You gave me your thanks. No problem."

It's as if the person saying it, instead of being an employee of a company being paid to do something, is Clint Eastwood in a particularly cocky movie role.

"Thank you."

"No problem." Meaning: "No problem, you insect."

Of course, you can always hit the trifecta. You're in a ticket line at the airport. You're waiting for someone behind the counter to acknowledge that you're alive.

Finally the person says:

"You guys need to move down to the next counter."

Out of habit -- or fear of offending -- you say to the airline employee:

"Thank you."

And the employee, without looking up or making eye contact with you, says, as if on cue:

"No problem."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


05/11/99: The answer was standing at the front door

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