The lab technician I called this morning to ask if he could fax a radiology report to an MD’s office in advance of my appointment said, “No problem.” The data never arrived. Did I have a problem? A taxi driver, responding to my hasty instructions to take the fastest way, said, “No problem,” and promptly turned into a gridlocked street that indicated “No Exit.” Because I was late, I practically barreled into someone on the elevator who responded to my chagrin with, “No problem”—but although I was late, the doctor’s receptionist made light of it by saying, “No problem.”
This is what language has come to: the answer to everything is “no problem.” Music is no longer loud enough to drown out our inability to communicate. Now we have to obfuscate it with a ubiquitous non-sequitur so easy on the ear you don’t have to hear it to hear it. Read my lips, it says. Or my shoulders. Don’t you speak Shrug?
What the hell does “no problem” mean? Does it mean there was a problem? If I dispute that, does it mean let’s take it outside? Does it mean if anyone has a problem, it’s you, not I. If I can’t resist saying it’s I instead of me, does it mean now we have a problem?
Is “no problem” an answer? Then what is the question? Do you come here often? How long have you been having these attacks? Are you howling because I just slammed the car door on your fingers? As a ready answer to everything, “no problem” is a problem.
Most commonly, “no problem” seems to be a way of saying, “You don’t have to apologize” or, “I don’t need to apologize.” What happened to?:
“Excuse me.” Thank you.
“Sorry to take so long.” That’s all right.
“Believe me, I wish it were me under those wheels instead of your dog.” I understand.
“I didn’t know the gun was loaded.” God forgive you.
Multiple definitions come to mind—too many for three syllables. “Just doin’ my job.” “No big deal.” “It was nothing.” Nothing? From there, it becomes a somewhat condescending dismissal. “No sweat off my back.” “Don’t blow it out of proportion.” “Buzz off.”
“No problem” is not the answer to anything except “Problem?” As in, “Is there a problem, officer?” or “You there on the ledge… do you have a problem?”
Imagine. “Houston, we have a problem.” And Houston answering, “No problem.”