Monday, December 7, 2009

"No Problem" a Problem

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.”


  1. Very clever.

    & it's not just American. What about your projects in Russia? I came to realize when I was doing all those concerts and recordings in Russia in the '80s that the only time we might have a problem was when someone said, "Nyet problemy."

    PS: Thanks for linking to Charity Checks. They offer a fun way to take care of real problems- gift giving ones and the world's. :-)

  2. Lisa, re: " Russia... the only time we might have a problem was when someone said, 'Nyet problemy....'"

    In Israel, it was "Ain ba'ayah"--as in, "No problem, we got your faxes and we have plenty of helium for the balloons." See "Mickey Mouse's Pass-over in the Holy Land," [April entry] for the outcome of that one.

  3. Thank you for addressing this! My newest (non) favorite is "no worries." I think it's the new "no problem". It drives me nuts. In the common vernacular it does communicate something, but it's like a clothing trend, everyone wears it, but no one really cares. I think it made it over to the mainland from Hawaii, where it's used among the locals, and it makes (a little) more colloquial sense.

  4. Haha! Nice sign-off.

    Incidentally, I never gave much thought to "no problem" until you mentioned it. Now that I think about it, it is a pretty useless expression. I am going to share this with my siblings, and see what they have to make of this "no problem" problem.

    What you shared alone makes me glad that I have used "certo" for as long as I can remember.