For most of my life the social contract for some small kindness shown to me or for the rendering of a service called for an expression of gratitude as follows: “Thank you.” And the response was always: “You’re welcome.”
To me this had a nice sense of equality and symmetry — an expression of gratitude and an implication that the provider was happy to render the service. All very civilized and upbeat.
Then the rules changed (whose rules? and why did everyone agree to the new rules?) to the response: “No problem.”
That odd reply implies that there might have been a problem; lucky for me there was not or the service would never have been rendered. It also seems to leave something unsaid: "I am busy but I consent to help." Or maybe: "you jerk." “No problem” has a slightly annoyed undertone. It is not equal or symmetrical with “Thank you.” It is not civilized and it is downbeat. It's got problems.
Then a week ago in a visit to a bookstore, the rules changed again. Inexplicably, the response to my thank-you had morphed into: "No worries.” Who would be worried and why? Why should there be an assumption that I would be worried about the clerk that I have happily allowed to serve me?
Do I now need to escalate the problems and the worries? Next time, should my response be: “I am not worried. It is you who should be worried. Borders is on the brink of bankruptcy and you will soon join the ranks of the unemployed.” Or, “It is you who should be worried that the Kindle and the iPad will put Barnes and Noble out of business and you will be collecting unemployment.”
I hate to be this way, and it will take a little forethought to have a rejoinder for each situation. But I must respond in kind, since “No worries” implies the superiority of the lowly clerk serving me and I must clearly demonstrate my elevated position in the world — or at least the fact that I am paying and he or she should be grateful, if not also "worried."
The new rules spread fast as Swine Flu. A generation ago everyone in the nation decided on the same day that Bloody Marys required a completely useless stalk of celery. We continue the downward spiral that began when penmanship was eliminated as a skill to be mastered.
In less than a decade we have gone from “Casual Fridays” to gardening attire every day in the workplace. But it only took a few months to descend from a graceful response to “Thank you” to a reply conveying annoyance to the next step, a reply manifesting superiority. What will be next? “Thank you,” and then the sound of a gunshot?
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