Everything was satisfactory. Your steak was well done — just the way you ordered it — and the millennial waiter kept your diet soda sans ice constantly filled. Then it happened. It happened so quickly that you were blindsided by his lapse of humanity as your server answered your expression of gratitude not with a proper “you’re welcome,” but with that odious phrase:
What’s his problem? you’re thinking. This egregious transgression seems an atrocity, a glaring indication of a societal dissolution of norms and values.
Or maybe you’re overreacting.
Before asking to speak to the manager — who is probably another millennial — take a moment to reflect on whether it matters if an underpaid service worker uses the same lexicon you do.
The dispute over how to properly accept gratitude seems to be, as with many linguistic disagreements, a proxy war for generational superiority.
Who is acting entitled now?
“You’re welcome,” “no problem,” “no worries,” and “don’t mention it” are different facets of the same stone. The last seems to be the most acceptable among welcomers despite its adjacency to saying “shut up.”
These phrases, short, everyday expressions that actually convey next to nothing of value, are called phatic communications. The call-and-response sector of conversation, like a daily game of Marco Polo, maintains social solidarity and politeness, so a subversion of the typical “thank you” and “you’re welcome” interaction could seem jarring and perhaps rude. But when you consider that they’re mostly meaningless courtesies, the actual words themselves seem far less important than the intent behind them. If one kid in the pool cries out “Rubio!” instead of the typical response, gameplay can still proceed.
What does “you’re welcome” even mean? The phrase has been used to answer gratitude at least since Shakespearean times, but no one can be sure of why. It’s a nicety, probably meant to indicate one’s pleasure in the opportunity to help someone else. But has it ever been accurate? When a teenager at Chick-fil-A hands over your waffle fries and says “it’s my pleasure,” aren’t you really just taking part in some guise that she is delighted to be serving you fried food and milkshakes instead of vaping with her friends and performing stunts for YouTube? At least when she says “no problem,” you know she’s being honest.
As far as “thank you” responses are concerned, “you’re welcome” is an oddity, globally speaking. French and Spanish both opt for “it’s nothing” (de rien and de nada), and Germans use bitte, which also means “please,” “here you go,” and “oh no, it’s the picky American again.” In Ethiopia’s Amharic tongue, a service provider would say menem aydelem, which means — you guessed it — “no problem.” They’ve been saying it since at least the 13th century.
For cranky baby boomers demanding recourse for the subliminal suggestion that they could possibly be the cause of a problem, my best advice is this: Get over it. While our word choice usually carries importance, this is an instance in which it simply doesn’t. The dispute over how to properly accept gratitude seems to be, as with many linguistic disagreements, a proxy war for generational superiority, and those rarely end in victory for the status quo.
*“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.” —Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
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