01/22/2013 01:13 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2013

Is "No Problem" a Problem?

A shopper in a large grocery store for the first time asks a clerk where to find a certain item. Instead of telling her, the clerk takes her directly to the aisle and shelf where the item is located. The shopper, somewhat surprised at being so graciously helped in a large chain store, says to the clerk in a very pleasant voice, "Thank you. I really appreciate your assistance." The clerk responds, "No problem."

You're eating lunch at an upscale restaurant during the busy noon-hour rush. Without your asking, the waiter comes to the table and refills your water glass. You say, "Thank you." And the waiter replies, "No problem."

You see a young mother who is trying to open her car door and, at the same time, is carrying a bag of groceries in one arm and is holding her baby in the other arm. You open the car door for her, and she says, "Oh, thank you. I really have my hands full." You smile and say, "No problem."

All of us have frequently heard "no problem" used in this way--and some of us may be guilty of using "no problem" in this way. But replying to someone's gracious expression of gratitude with "no problem" is impolite, inappropriate, and grammatical incorrect.

When someone has graciously expressed his or her gratitude for something done, the response should be something like, "You are welcome" or "I am so pleased to help you" or "It was my pleasure" or "I am glad I was here to assist you." A gracious expression of gratitude deserves a gracious response, and "no problem" is not a gracious response. Instead, answering with "no problem" to someone's expression of gratitude for being assisted or helped is injecting the idea that a problem of some kind may be associated with what has just taken place. Of course, that is not the intention of the person responding with "no problem," but it can, nevertheless, be the unintended result.

The other day I was transacting some business "on-line" with a bank executive. The transaction was somewhat complicated and detailed, and when we were finished, I sent an e-mail to the bank executive thanking her for her assistance and patience. She replied by writing, "I am pleased I was able to be of assistance to you."

I was impressed with her gracious response and that she had not responded with "no problem." I referred her to a blog on my website about the appropriate way to respond to expressions of gratitude and complemented her on the way she had responded. Later she wrote back that the bank had trained her to respond in that way and that she was pleased now also to have an explanation of why it was inappropriate to respond with "no problem." I, in turn, wrote back, "Thank you."

Why was this important? Because her responding appropriately to my expression of gratitude for her assistance and learning that the bank had trained her to respond in this way made me feel really good about doing business with that bank. I figure that if the bank is that careful about how it trains its employees in saying things to its customers, it must also be careful about doing other things correctly. And the bank that does things correctly is the bank I want to do business with.

Using "no problem" as a synonym for "you're welcome" has only been around since the late 1900s and tends to be used predominately by people younger than forty. But regardless of one's age, all of us need to refrain from using "no problem" in this way. We need to do better than that. Besides, the result may be a happy customer, and that's good for business!