“No problem!” “No worries!” “Anytime!” “Of course!” “Sure thing!” “Uh huh!”
These are some of the many ways people commonly respond to “thank you.” But what happened to the classic “you’re welcome”?
But the reasons for the decline do not necessarily come from a place of rudeness, nor is “you’re welcome” simply another thing that millennials are bent on “killing.” In some ways, it comes from a desire to be more considerate.
“I think people worry that with ‘you’re welcome,’ it’s an expectation that this person should have thanked you and they did in fact do the right thing,” Emily Post’s great-granddaughter Lizzie Post, co-host of the Emily Post Institute’s “Awesome Etiquette” podcast, told HuffPost. “People feel that it’s less humble. ‘You’re welcome’ also gets a snarky rep from time to time.”
Indeed, in 2015, The New York Times’ Amanda Hess asked “When Did ‘You’re Welcome’ Become a Gloat?” In it, Hess points to comedians’ uses of “you’re welcome,” like Stephen Colbert’s delivery of the phrase as his “blowhard alter ego” on “The Colbert Report” and Will Ferrell’s 2009 comedic Broadway play about President George W. Bush called “You’re Welcome America.”
“You’re welcome” has continued to act as a sort of comic brag or sarcastic remark. Even more recently, the 2016 Disney movie “Moana” featured a rather pompous song called “You’re Welcome” ― sung by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s arrogant-but-lovable demigod character, Maui.
These sorts of examples help explain why many people feel uncomfortable saying “you’re welcome.”
“We’re taught it’s good manners not to toot your own horn,” Diane Gottsman, founder of the Protocol School of Texas, told HuffPost. “People don’t want to appear as if they’re expecting praise. But in trying to be humble, what happens is that many of us have difficulty accepting gratitude or compliments. We tend to say things like, ‘Oh, no, it was nothing’ or ‘Oh, this old thing?’”
Gottsman believes it’s important to become comfortable accepting gratitude and responding respectfully, which she defines as using a warm, sincere tone and using the proper phrases. “If someone says ‘thank you,’ the appropriate response to show you’re accepting their gratitude is ‘you’re welcome.’ Of course we don’t want to sound pompous or braggy, but I think we can all find that sweet spot.”
The use of “you’re welcome” as a response to “thank you” actually doesn’t date as far back as one might think. Its earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary as a response to “thank you” comes from 1907 (though people apparently used “welcome” on its own in this sense as far back as the early 1600s).
“When someone responds to your ‘thank you’ with ‘no worries’ or ‘no problem,’ it’s kind of like you were requesting a pardon. But you weren’t asking for forgiveness ― you were just saying ‘thank you’ and showing gratitude,” said Gottsman. “So when someone says ‘no worries,’ it’s almost like, ‘Yeah, OK, I forgive you.’” She added that the responses can come off this way even if spoken in an upbeat tone or with good intentions.
“What I hear from older people is that they don’t like younger people saying things like ‘No worries’ or ‘No problem,’ and they feel like yelling back, ‘I never said there was a problem!’” Deborah Tannen, Georgetown University linguistics professor and author of You Just Don’t Understand, told HuffPost.
The shift away from “you’re welcome” is simply a matter of language habits changing, she noted. “Americans tend to value novelty,” Tannen said. “We don’t like saying exactly the same thing. We think we should say something a little different that has a little more character. We love our individuality and want to express it. So I think that’s partly why these new things develop.”
“Mostly, these politeness formulas are just formulas. They don’t mean that you feel anything.”
Like Post and Gottsman, Tannen said she recognizes the rationale behind the rejection of “you’re welcome” in certain instances.
“I’m told that some fancy hotels train the staff to say ‘certainly’ and not ‘you’re welcome’ if someone says ‘thank you,’ and I think there’s a subtle reason for that. If you’ve done something for someone and you say ‘you’re welcome’ after they thank you, the implication is kind of, ‘Yeah, I really did you a favor and you should be grateful,” she said. “So ‘certainly’ or ‘of course’ means you’re kind of belittling what you just did, which is more courteous.”
Tannen, however, cautioned against misinterpreting the purpose of language in polite exchanges. “We don’t use language literally. We use it the way other people use it,” she said. Indeed, phrases like “you’re welcome” fall into the linguistic category of phatic expressions, which are used for their social contribution rather than their literal meanings.
Jean Berko Gleason, professor emerita in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Boston University, echoed this sentiment, noting that “you’re welcome” is part of what’s known as formulaic language. “It’s part of a politeness formula,” she explained, adding that she’s found in her studies of child language acquisition that parents tend to emphasize this kind of communication.
“Mostly, these politeness formulas are just formulas. They don’t mean that you feel anything. For instance, parents train their kids to say ‘thank you’ whether they feel thankful or not. The important thing about ‘thank you’ is not that you feel thankful, it’s that you say it,” said Gleason. “So you shouldn’t worry about the truth value or deeper meaning of ‘you’re welcome’ if it’s just said as a formula.”
While this kind of language might feel inauthentic or wrong in some ways, Gleason said these formulas are “what make the world go round.”
“We need openers and closers for our conversations. We need to mark that certain things have happened,” she explained. “When you pick up the phone, you need to say ‘Hello’ and that doesn’t mean you have a strong feelings of greetings toward the caller. It’s just what you say.”
Of course, there are occasions when you do have deep feelings you’d like to express. You can mark the fact that you mean it by saying things like ‘My heartfelt thanks’ or ‘You’re so very welcome,’ said Gleason.
Generally, formulaic language depends more on the situation than on the sentiments involved. For instance, the level of imposition makes a difference. “If someone held the door for you and you thank them, that person isn’t necessarily going to turn around and say ‘you’re welcome!’” Gleason said. “But if someone thanks you for doing something big like moving their piano, you’re probably going to come back with something bigger like, ‘Of course, you’re welcome. I’m always happy to help!’ Something like ‘No worries’ would sound glib or bizarre.”
When you’re in a more formal setting, it makes sense to say “you’re welcome” rather than something like “No worries.” In more informal situations, like a text message conversation, the reverse is true.
“I’ve never seen anyone say ‘you’re welcome’ in a text message,” said Gleason. Given how much communication between younger Americans takes place in text format, it therefore makes sense that “you’re welcome” would decline in favor of more seemingly casual phrases like “No problem.”
So it seems the politeness formula may simply be shifting in many situations, from “thank you” → “you’re welcome” to “thank you” → “no worries”/”no problem”/”sure thing”/etc.
The “no worries” and “no problem” responses are actually rather in line with phrases from other languages.
“The response to ‘thank you’ in many languages has always been something along the lines of ‘no problem’ (I think of German’s ‘keine Ursache’ and Mandarin’s ‘mei guanxi’), and so ‘no worries’ follows in that tradition,” John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, told HuffPost.
“The change from ‘you’re welcome’ to that, plus ‘sure thing’ and the like, represent the fact that expressions tend to renew,” he added. “’You’re welcome’ has become a meaningless chunk, so empty it can almost sound abrupt. The new expressions have more connection to meaning and thus sound warmer, fresher. They, too, will get worn out with time.”
The etiquette experts who spoke to HuffPost all agreed on one thing: We shouldn’t throw out “you’re welcome.”
“Don’t be fooled: 'You’re welcome’ absolutely is still a good phrase to use.”
International etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore told HuffPost said she believes it’s more sophisticated than the alternate responses. “‘You’re welcome’ is a nice way to respond, it’s more traditional and it sounds more educated,” she said.
“Don’t be fooled: ‘You’re welcome’ absolutely is still a good phrase to use,” said Post, adding that people also have a tendency to respond to “thank you” with “thank you.”
Although it’s nice for everyone to openly express gratitude, “you don’t want to supersede or brush off someone else’s ‘thank you’ to put your own in place,” she explained. “The polite exchange would get ‘You’re welcome’ in there so that you recognize the other person’s gratitude. So it’s ‘thank you,’ followed by ’You’re welcome and thank you.′ Then the other person could respond, ’It was my pleasure.”
The “my pleasure” phrase is one that many people gravitate toward as a “softer” version of “you’re welcome,” said Post.
Gottsman said that while “you’re welcome” is a “classic, thoughtful and simple acknowledgement,” the phrase “It was truly my pleasure” takes things a step further.
“It lets the person know you were happy to cheerfully assist them,” she explained, emphasizing the importance of sincerity, warmth and having a pleasant tone of voice when using these kinds of phrases. You can achieve this by responding with a smile on your face ― a standard piece of advice in the customer service world.
Ultimately, the fact that a certain phrase has become part of the vernacular does not mean it should be used thoughtlessly, said Gottsman.
“Words are powerful and should be carefully considered before a response,” she said. “Graciously receiving a compliment or thanks is a way to honor the other person’s actions or effort. Consider your words thoughtfully as they will have a far-reaching impact.”
“From an etiquette perspective, you can never go wrong with saying ‘you’re welcome,’ said Whitmore. “It’s a standard response that’s been used for generations. And when in doubt, why not say it?”