Opinions, Column

Millennials, Are You Really “Welcome”?

Are You Really “Welcome” When There’s “No Problem”?

Etymology is a curious concept. It asserts that at the root of each word there is an origin that can be explained and universally understood through other words. Essentially, etymology seeks to define the limitations of language by using language as its vehicle. It assumes a general acceptance of words as a means of communication that overlooks the man-made origins of language itself.

The fact of the matter is words did not always exist. It boggles the mind to contemplate the reality that, at some point in time, every word was nothing more than a sound, a primal need for understanding made audible out of the desperate need to communicate. From these moments of distress came frustration, agony, misunderstandings—probably some pretty lethal misunderstandings—and then, finally, the evolution of the miraculous social phenomenon that is universally known as language. Since the founding of human civilization, communication has been an essential part of survival and words the identified solution.

In many cases, words are the best available form of expression. While love and anger and gratitude can be conveyed in actions, people are busy, so words become the more than adequate shortcut to reaching a mutual understanding. This would all be well and good if words did not change. But the reality is, changing societies change words and words change societies.

Just like fashion trends and diet fads, expressions that used to be ‘in’ fall by the wayside to make room for something new. What used to be “groovy” now is “lit”, and “peace out” is now “later.” These words are expected to change, and who cares? They never really meant anything anyway.

But what about words that do carry important meanings? “Please” and “thank you” continue to monopolize their respective sentiments and are respected as such, but not all kind words have stayed so consistent. In recent years, there has been a cosmic shift in the rules of etiquette. Where “you’re welcome” used to be the only acceptable way to accept a person’s gratitude, “no problem” is gaining in popularity, and quite frankly, some people are not very gracious about the change.

Regardless of good intentions, words are only as good as their reception, so what matters the most in this debate is how the recipient reacts to the expression. Is it the cynic who perceives hidden meaning behind a genuine smile, or is it an apparent generational shift toward an attitude of entitlement that stems from a lack of gratitude? The question stands: who is to blame for the miscommunication?

Not only did the older generations favor “You’re welcome,” they also provided contemplative answers that showed thoughtfulness with respect to the question and its value. Donald Bagnoli, a well-read 80-year-old man, provided a reflective answer to the question regarding what his natural response is when someone says “Thank you”: “My response is to return the kindness and thoughtfulness with a similar gesture. I would say: you’re welcome.”

The younger demographic provided less elaborate replies, favoring the interchangeability of the two phrases. “I guess I think of it casually. Like I would say both to anyone,” said Abigail Bagnoli, Donald’s 16-year-old niece. Her response bolsters the idea that the “no problem” phenomenon is part of a generational shift.

For the supposed sake of convenience, some people have gone so far as to shorten the already controversial “no problem” to “no prob,” cutting the already underwhelming expression of gratitude down to two syllabus. Could this just be another symptom of the rise of the digital age and the shortening of attention spans, or is this new trend an expression of the cheapening of values that is endemic to newer generations? Is the older generation holding on to an important core value of humanity, or are they simply out of touch with their iPads? The debate seems to divide the ages.

This begs the question: who decides what stays and what goes? A person could dedicate his whole life to acting as a pioneer for a new phrase to no avail, but, for whatever reason, when Farmer Joe slurred his morning greeting to the neighbors one day, the dominos fell and soon enough the whole town was yelling “Howdy!” after each other. And just as fast and mysteriously as a word or phrase can attain the status of ubiquity, it can disappear altogether, as though society had collectively wiped it clear from conversation with a figurative eraser. But this curious phenomenon leaves one to wonder—when words shift meaning and gain new weight, how can the bridge between the old and the new be crossed and reconciled? Who can be trusted as a reliable translator and can etymology make up for what is lost in translation and how much damage has been done?

At the end of the interview, the young Bagnoli naturally expressed her gratitude for the interview,

“No problem!”, she gushed witfully.  

So reader, in the spirit of good etiquette, thank you for reading…

March 24, 2019