I grew up the daughter of a high school writing teacher and an engineer whose career demanded precision, so it won’t surprise you to hear that my parents emphasized the correct use of words. I was once scolded for answering the phone with, “This is she” rather than “This is she speaking.” Polite expressions were ingrained in me early: “please,” “thank you,” “pardon me.”
Yet despite the rigorous training, I developed a habit of swapping “you’re welcome” with “no problem” in response to thank you. I didn’t think much of it until a friend remarked to me that I wasn’t very good at accepting praise. Immediately, it occurred to me how often I resort to “no problem.”
Sure enough, communication expert and fellow Fast Company contributor Judith Humphrey recently listed that phrase among five others that can diminish your credibility in professional settings. “At a level just beneath consciousness awareness, it telegraphs an underhanded resentment,” Humphrey writes. “The speaker implies the possibility that somebody has created an issue that they’re willing to let slide.”
I think I knew what she meant, but to find out for sure, I decided to eliminate “no problem” from my vocabulary for a month. Here’s what happened.
What To Replace “No Problem” With?
I eased into the experiment by trying out “my pleasure,” but that felt way too eager and, for some reason, kind of creepy. After quickly abandoning this tactic I went with “all good,” which felt so smarmy I scratched it off my list in short order as well. So I did what I always do when I’m confused: I turned to research.
While researching etiquette, I discovered “phatic expressions,” which are social in nature rather than informational. These are the types of phrases and questions that pepper most of our small talk (“How are you doing?” “Have a nice day”), in which the speaker isn’t necessarily looking for a response or sharing any crucial data themselves. That doesn’t make them worthless, of course; social lubrication is crucial to getting along with people. But while “thank you” at least conveys appreciation, the response–whether “you’re welcome,” “my pleasure,” or “no problem”–doesn’t really add much.
I liked how that seemed to lower the stakes a little. So I decided to go back to another phrase I’ve used: “You got it.” I liked that it wasn’t typical or expected, and it felt more genuine than a robotic phaticism like “you’re welcome.” What’s more, “you got it” made me feel like I was honoring the relationship, being authentic, and not sending mixed messages.
By the second week or so, I tried to get more specific. In my work as an executive coach and organizational strategist, I often get thanked for providing insight on thorny professional situations. I tried responding with, “I’m happy if it was helpful.” But this actually felt worse–as though I were backing away from the compliment–and might even make the thanker second-guess their appreciation. I shifted to, “I’m happy to support your professional aspirations” and “I’m happy to help,” both of which felt better.
Finally, I tried out the standard option that seemed pretty dry: “You’re welcome.” I stumbled several times, one time even saying, “No, you’re welcome.” It was pretty awkward. I found using this phrase incredibly challenging. Sometimes it felt too formal. But mostly, it felt like I was bragging (rather than being humble like my Midwest upbringing taught me). Using it made me feel like an impostor, especially when it followed an acknowledgement of my expertise. I worried (perhaps needlessly) that people would see me as full of myself; it just felt easier to play down my role.
Focusing On The Relationship, Not The Words
Then I realized I didn’t have to, and probably shouldn’t anyhow; there was a third way.
When I asked my friend, writer Oritte Bendory, about my use of “no problem” she reacted immediately (and right in line with Humphrey’s word of caution): “When someone says ‘no problem,’ it makes me question if my request was a problem to begin with. It turns what was a positive interaction into a negative one.” Bendory’s drawing attention to the interaction, though–this was a revelation. When I deflected someone’s acknowledgement of gratitude, I thought I was leveling the playing field and preserving the relationship, but in fact I was doing the opposite.
Instead, I was subtly making myself seem superior by characterizing their request as a burden. I vowed never to use “no problem” again. It became much easier to say “you’re welcome” without wincing. I could refocus on our interaction–on my hand in shaping the relationship rather than on how the words I said made me feel.
During the last week of my experiment I started to pay attention to how others responded when I thanked them. And in most cases, my thank you wasn’t acknowledged–and I noticed that I didn’t even expect a response. I’d done what was most important: to thank them. Their reaction was inconsequential. Since they’d taken the time to do something for me, I already felt honored by them. I discovered that I enjoyed it when someone said “you’re welcome,” but it wasn’t something the health of our relationship depended on.
Words are important, but the underlying relationship matters even more. Now, rather than fumble with the right words, I focus on genuinely connecting and building a strong rapport. I haven’t come up with a go-to reaction phrase, though. Instead, my responses are more varied and authentic, depending on the situation and the person I’m speaking with. However, I have managed to permanently avoid “no problem” whenever someone thanks me. My parents would be proud.