I was getting a cup of coffee the other day when I was at the receiving end of one of the great injustices of our time.
I’ll start by telling you that I’m known for being wildly inconsistent with the milk and sugar I take in my coffee — or perhaps I’m not known for this, if I’m playing my cards right — and I’ve concocted many excuses to explain away whatever coffee circumstances others catch me in. Black coffee is the easiest to explain, as it requires no personal moral concession; black coffee is a drink that inspires awe and respect, and elevates a person’s image in proportion to how many times they are seen with it. Starting from black with no sugar, coffee grows weaker and less impressive with each sugar or milk added, and excuses grow more creative and disingenuous the sweeter it is. God forbid I’m ever caught dumping sugar into my coffee (as happens on occasion) and have to talk my way out of it. It’s a shameful thing to be caught doing, and I fully believe it ought to be so.
Imagine my double loss, then, when I had to reach across someone else at the cafe to get hold of the sugar before shamefully pouring it into what was probably a fine cup of coffee on its own. Fully aware of the mess I found myself in, my cleverness disappeared, and all I could muster was a quiet, stuttering “sorry.”
The woman’s response came naturally: “No worries.”
My shame instantly gave way to loathing, but she was unaware. As I stirred my sweet shame, the dark clouds of self-righteousness gathering in my head, a bit of coffee spilled over the rim. My counter-mate smiled and handed me a napkin. Never one to let enmity get in the way of courtesy, I thanked her. She responded, “No problem!”
I’m not sure what happened next or how I got home; maybe I blacked out, my mind being wholly consumed by this perversion of manners and language that had been thrown at me.
The proper response to an expression of gratitude is “you’re welcome.”
No worries? No problem? The proper response to an expression of gratitude is “you’re welcome.” For an apology, you can offer any variation of “it’s okay,” “it’s alright,” or even the more formal “I accept your apology.” Honestly, the words don’t matter, as long as the message acknowledges the speaker and does not propagate a dismissive, devil-may-care philosophy built on falsehood, self-importance, and a poor command of communication skills.
“No worries” and “no problem” reject the courageous vulnerability that live at the core of gratitude and apology. I don’t hear a difference between these responses and saying, “your worries are a sign that you don’t know how to confront life dispassionately,” or “I didn’t do anything worthy of thanks, so your gratitude is misplaced.” These are pieces of advice, and nobody wants unsolicited advice. Besides not following the basic script of common courtesy, these judgements don’t even properly respond to the thing that was first expressed. My understanding of conversation holds that a person’s response should actually address the thing said to them.
Beyond this, I find “no worries” and “no problem” to be factually incorrect. No worries? The human world is built on worry; were worry to disappear, most human endeavors would cease. And there is plenty to worry about, not mentioning your awkward inability to acknowledge another’s pain with the words “it’s okay.” No problem? I never claimed anything to be a problem. Why would I think your handing me a napkin was a problem? Was it a problem? Should I apologize?
The world is filled with problems. Not the least of which is that I embarrassingly use these phrases all the time without thinking, and then afterwards feel terrible. Because I should feel terrible. Because they are awful responses to real human concerns. So I’m truly sorry for using them.
But please, there’s no need to reply. Because a writer is nothing without a generous combination of self-loathing and anxiety, both of which I assume I have in equal measure, so really my weaknesses can be parlayed into a kind of strength. So again, I’m sorry, but there’s no need for a response. No worries at all.