The Problem With “Not a Problem”

Many people seem to have adopted the expression "Not a problem" in place of "You're welcome." For example, if I thank someone in email, by phone, or in person for doing a favor for me, the response is often "Not a problem."

I am guessing you too have read or heard "Not a problem" or "No problem." You may be wondering what my problem with it is. 

The problem with "Not a problem" is its negative parts: not and problem. When it comes to tone, two negatives do not multiply to create a positive. "Not a problem" has, at best, a neutral feeling.  

Contrast "Not a problem" with these phrases in response to "Thank you":

  1. You are welcome.
  2. You are very welcome.
  3. My pleasure.
  4. Our pleasure.
  5. It's a pleasure.
  6. Happy to help.
  7. I am always happy to help.
  8. We are happy to serve you.
  9. We aim to please.
  10. I am glad you like it.
  11. Certainly!
  12. Sure thing!
  13. Enjoy!
  14. Thank you!
  15. Thank you for shopping [dining, staying] here.

The examples range from formal ("We are happy to serve you") to casual ("Enjoy!). What they have in common is positive language: welcome, pleasure, happy, please, glad, sure, like, enjoy, thank you.

Those positive words create a positive feeling between the writer and reader, or the speaker and the listener.

Are you ready to warm up the tone of your communication by replacing "Not a problem" with a positive phrase? Or have you always stayed positive? I look forward to your comments.

Lynn
Syntax Training

37 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve been preaching this one for years. “Not a problem” (or the similar “no trouble”) seem to imply that it could have been a problem or trouble, but fortunately didn’t turn out that way. Most of the times that I mention this, people react with some combination of confusion and eyerolls, so I may be out on my own limb. I’ll try your reasoning instead; maybe I can at least end the confusion!

  2. I, too, have a problem with ‘no problem.’ Sadly, in the past, I did respond with this silly phrase – until I became more aware of its true meaning. Thank you for posting the phrases: they will be a useful reference.

  3. What if it is a problem and you take it kindly as a courtesy. Isn’t it important to delimit things?

  4. Thank you for commenting, Darin, Onorina, and Seyey.

    Darin, I hope talking about “Not a problem” from the negative tone perspective will help you persuade people.

    Onorina, I am glad you like the alternative phrases.

    Seyey, using “Not a problem” focuses on the problem. I recommend focusing on a positive with a phrase such as “I am happy to help.”

    Lynn

  5. “No problem” is a problem for me too. I often hear this while conducting a retail transaction. I thank the cashier and get a “no problem” in response. My brain immediately jumps to “Well, I hope it’s not a problem since it is after all your job.” So the negative begets another negative response in my head and it sours the transaction a tiny bit.

  6. Hi Lynn,

    I agree with you that a positive response is more pleasant however I would point out that in Spanish “de nada” while commonly interpreted as “You’re welcome” literally means “Of nothing” or “For nothing”.

  7. I think perhaps focusing upon the negative is missing a possible point in the “not a problem” response: Have you ever heard of litotes? The example from Spanish is good, but there are also examples from related dialects of English. For example, in Aussie vernacular, ‘no worries’ is quite common. Also in Canada, I’ve been told there is no higher praise for a junior hockey player than to be told on the conclusion of his shift that he did ‘not too bad’.
    Clearly something beyond negativity is behind the use of ‘not’ and ‘problem’.
    Perhaps instead of correcting common and popular use, we should try to understand it.

  8. Hello, J. Randolph Radney. Interesting comment!

    My focus is on what works well in business communication. I believe positive words communicate more positively than negative ones.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Lynn

  9. Great topic! In general, I’d certainly agree that the list of recommended phrases is good. My personal favorite has long been, “My pleasure!” But like Phil, I started thinking about “de nada” and “no problema” or “sin problema.” The former, in particular, has a sense of “It was nothing.” In many cultures, downplaying one’s action is the proper response to praise; and thanks is a form of praise. So I’m beginning to think that just as “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” so too any perceived problem with “No problem.”

  10. Thanks for dropping by, Lester. I always enjoy your comments.

    I do appreciate the references to Spanish, but I find I still strongly prefer positive phrasing in business English. “My pleasure” comes across much more positively to me than “Not a problem.” However, I will keep thinking about your “eye of the beholder” idea.

    Lynn

  11. Lynn,

    I was looking for ways to improve my positive communication and stumbled across this. I work in engineering and construction and have a background in education, the issue I have with replacing not a problem with the phrases mentioned is that it tends to sound like the person saying the positive version is taking something away from the other person….. In education you are constantly trying to build people up and not make the student feel as though your efforts are a burden in order to get the best results, the positive phrases have a tendency to leave a feeling of I owe you something, which in the case I highlight would be on the student. Perhaps I just need to be a bit more ruthless in business and start using these phrases, my issue is they leave me feeling arrogant, which I naturally am not….

  12. Hi, Martin. I do not see how the phrases I suggest “take something away from the other person.” And I do not see their relationship with being “ruthless in business.” Yikes! That is not my intention at all.

    Why not try using a few of the phrases and see how people respond?

    Lynn

  13. I too am guilty of this, sometimes I say it when I did something for someone that I really didn’t have any pleasure/happiness in doing.
    I’m happy to have learned something new in my quest for being a better person to relate with.

  14. As a teen-aged cashier in the 1970s, I was instructed to say, “Thank you for shopping at XYZ” to each customer at the end of the transaction – because they could have chosen to shop elsewhere.

    Some employees are confused because the customer has already thanked THEM – but a customer’s good manners shouldn’t deter their own.

    The cashier ALWAYS says “thank you” to each customer – conveying appreciation on behalf of the COMPANY and encouraging further business in the future.

  15. Hi, Sue. I like the idea of expressing thanks. The challenge of saying thanks repeatedly is to make it sincere. If I am in line at a store and I hear the cashier say “Thank you for shoppping at XYZ” to each person, it sounds like a task rather than a sincere sentiment. I believe varying the words works well.

    I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

    Lynn

  16. Today I wrote my future brother-in-law, thank him for helping us with the affidavit of support. After a few minutes I received a response, “not a problem”.
    I am not good in english, but I feel sad after reading it. It sounds negative. And so I search for the meaning and found this! Now I understand. Thank you for posting this.
    God bless.

  17. Thanks Lynn. I thought “Not a problem” was same as ” no problem ” before I read your article. Thank you so much.

  18. Hi, Lynn.
    I read your note (and its comments). I found it interesting. Actually I searched the net for what the difference is between phrases “no problem” and “not a problem”. Fortunately, I haven’t ever been told “not a problem” instead of “you’re welcome” (or its equivalents). I thought “not a problem” is a short phrase for “it’s not a problem” to respond someone who asks a special request (that isn’t so easy for you to accept, but you politely do.) For example: A: May we meet right now?? B: Not a problem! (i.e, Yes, we can.)
    But, “no problem”, as many dictionaries say, is a way of responding to “thank you”. (Of course, some of these dictionaries point out to another meaning like “not a problem”, too.)
    I’m really interested in understanding real meaning(s) of such fixed expressions; but I wonder if I could have them altogether in a great book.

    P.S: I’m an ESL student (intermediate to higher level); my grammar and vocabulary are not too bad (for everyday conversation), but I feel I lack understanding of fixed expressions. (right words in right situations.) For example, although I know “thanks” is more informal than “thank you”; but I just found out an interesting (and ridiculous) convention between university professors and students (at least in the US in my field of study). Professors might use either “thanks” or “thank you” as they like, but students should use “thank you”; and if you, as a student, say “thanks” (e.g. at the end of email) it can be considered as an offence!!

    Ali

  19. Ali, you have learned how amazing and complicated language is. Thank you for sharing your observations.

    Yes, “Thanks” is an informal version of “Thank you.” Students should probably say “Thank you” to professors unless they have close or informal relationships with them.

    Good luck!

    Lynn

  20. Hi, Lynn.
    Yes. I was wondering if you could kindly introduce me a valuable resource (preferably a book) to learn common fixed expressions (both formal and informal)?
    Thank you
    Ali

  21. Hello
    Still on the “Not a problem” topic……
    It’s one of my pet hates. I was telephoned, today, by an insurance salesman who asked me various questions. Each time I replied, his response was “Not a problem”.
    In all, he asked about 30 questions and more than half of his responses were that phrase. Usually, it didn’t just grate because I dislike it; it grated because it was thoroughly inappropriate.
    “Not a problem” seems to be taking over in restaurants and cafes as well.
    “Could I have a cup of tea, please?”
    “No problem!”
    “I know it’s not a problem, this is a cafe. You serve tea. Why don’t you just say nothing and give me a cup of tea as requested. You could say ‘Certainly’ or ‘Coming right up’ or ‘Take a seat and I’ll bring it over’ or just ‘Yes’.”
    “Not a problem” should really be used, I think, when you are doing someone a favour/going the extra mile, but don’t mind doing so. “No problem” is literally what it says and is appropriate when what you are doing is effortless or simply what is expected of you.
    It’s not as simple as being an informal version of “Not a problem”. It’s more subtle than that. “No problem” is very like the Spanish phrase “De nada” or the Caribean phrase “Small thing”. Effectively, they all mean “It is nothing”.

  22. Hello, Charles. Thanks for your detailed comment. For the insurance salesperson you talked with, using “Not a problem” must be an unconscious habit. But being stuck in a verbal rut does not sell products.

    Thanks for your ideas about the difference between “not a problem” and “no problem.” I still recommend taking a positive approach, something like “I would be happy to.”

    Lynn

  23. When someone else says “You are welcome”, it is about the other person, who is likely a customer or at least a person of interest. When someone says “Not a Problem” it is about them, saying they weren’t inconvenienced. This emotionally excludes the other person in the dialogue. We all like to feel that we are part of the verbal transaction.

  24. Re: “Not a problem” , Knowing the person can make all the difference of this phrase. I feel like when coming from the younger generation it has negative connotations.
    When I ask for them to do something and say Thank you and they reply Not a Problem.I get the sense that what I just asked them to do is in fact a problem. Especially when reading body language with it.

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