Why “No Problem” Is a Big Problem

By: Joe Burton
garage door open with Thank You in stencil on it

Here’s a challenge for the day. Every time you or someone else says “Thank you,” make a mental note of their response. You may notice the overwhelming response is likely to be, “No problem.” And that sucks.

“No problem,” has become one of the most overused throwaway lines.

Saying “Thank you,” is generally a sincere sign of appreciation; an opportunity to show gratitude to someone who helped you, made your day better, or simply did their job well.

In the not so distant past, we used to respond to “Thank you,” with phrases like “My pleasure,” or “You’re welcome.” And if we really mean it, we have multiple connection points throughout the day of people helping each other and exchanging sincere appreciation. That’s dozens of uplifting points of energy; little boosts of righteousness. Rocket fuel for tired souls.

Instead, we seem to have adopted “No problem,” as the most popular response to “Thank you.” We’ve gone from an expression of appreciation and gratitude to one that says “Don’t worry, you’re not annoying me that much,” or “No big deal, I have to do this to keep my job.”

Why has the phrase “No problem,” become so common? Are most of us so steeped in problems that we like to label things that are not a problem? Maybe we spend so much time in distracted awareness, that “No problem,” is easier than thinking and responding with the appropriate feeling. Maybe we just have too much sh*t to do these days that “No problem,” is our internal trigger to just keep moving, it will all be over soon enough.

Science suggests our brains remain wired for problem/no problem thinking. Our brains haven’t changed much since cavemen days. We’re still constantly scanning for threat/no threat. That makes it easy to fall into a ritual that labels instead of engages.

“No problem,” has become such a pet peeve, that I recently did a highly non-scientific study that was not funded by some of the top research firms in the country. During Christmas week, my wife and our two sons were travelling to my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA (don’t be jealous). I thought it would be interesting to log responses to the phrase “Thank you,” for four days, two in San Francisco and two in Pittsburgh.

Note 1: Involving multiple cities in no way adds to the scientific integrity of this research.
Note 2: This is what uptight nerds do when travelling over the holidays.

In every encounter with friends, family, restaurant staff, flight attendants, folks at Macy’s, Best Buy, people on the phone, you name it, I logged the response to “Thank you.” In four days, in response to 98 “Thank yous,” from me or anyone in my party, the overwhelming response was “No problem”. To be precise, it was the response 78% of the time.

I also found that the body language of “No problem,” is very different from the body language of “You’re welcome,” and “My pleasure.” “No problem,” rarely makes eye contact and is usually walking away; moving on to the next thing. “No problem,” is the definition of distracted awareness. I’m kinda here, but not really.

On the other hand, “You’re welcome,” and “My pleasure,” takes a moment to engage, make eye contact and usually extends the interaction. I have a theory that it triggers the thinking brain; an awareness that you’re speaking with another human being. Kindness begets kindness. Energy creates energy. Thought requires you to be present.

As we start the new year, wouldn’t it be nice to drop “No problem,” as a canned response, the same way we want to drop other problems in our lives? Even better, this resolution doesn’t require a trip to the gym.

Thank you. And you’re most welcome.

About the Author

Headshot of Joe Burton

Retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace

Joe is an entrepreneur in the digital wellness space, retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace, and spent fifteen years as a global COO in public companies. He’s an alumnus of Harvard Business School and a regular contributor to Forbes, Business Insider and The Huffington Post. He’s worked in over 50 countries and travels the world speaking on topics including disruption, culture, resiliency and mindfulness.

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