Monday, 14 January 2019

Don't thank us for this post, it's really "no problem"


It’s probably not something you even think about. Someone asks you to pass salt or pepper at dinner, they say “thanks!” Someone is raising money for charity, and when you give a larger than expected donation, they say “thank you ever so much!” Or, maybe it’s Ariana Grande getting over Pete Davidson, and she says “thank you, next”. But what exactly would you say in response?


Aaron Dinkin of  San Diego State University decided to investigate exactly that. Aware that there is a perceived difference between older people using “you’re welcome” and younger people using “no problem”, and that prescriptivists are wringing their hands at the prospect of the latter replacing the former, he decided to take some results from an undergraduate sociolinguistic survey to see if this was really the case.

The methodology was quite simple. Students had to ask directions from people in the street or in shops, in and around Toronto. On receiving the directions they wanted, they had three levels of gratitude to give: “thanks”, “thank you”, and “thank you very much”. They were asked to note the response from a selection of categories, including a lack of response, “you’re welcome”, “no problem”, and other possible replies. They were also asked to note down demographic information about the person they asked, such as their ethnicity, rough estimates of their age, whether they were a native speaker, and whether they were someone in the street or a shop employee.

The results, not surprisingly, did not exactly match the stereotypes of “you’re welcome” versus “no problem”. While it was true that younger people were more likely to use “no problem” than their older counterparts, regardless of how they were thanked, there were more pertinent differences in the data. For one, 18% of the of the elicitations got no response at all, and this was found to correlate with using shorter forms – more people said nothing in response to “thank you”, and even more did not respond at all to “thanks”. However, if people did reply to “thanks”, they were more likely to use “no problem”. Meanwhile, when the students used “thank you” or “thank you very much”, all participants were more likely to say “you’re welcome” in response, irrespective of age.

There was also the response “no worries” – only younger participants used this, and they almost exclusively used it in response to “thanks” on its own. Dinkin concluded that in younger populations, “no problem” was beginning to lose its status as an informal response, and evolve as a broader reply while “no worries” was beginning to fill the informal gap left behind. However, “you’re welcome” still held its status as being pragmatically more polite to use with more elaborate forms of thanking.

He also wrote that more could be done to analyse the changes in response to thanks – for example, comparing the data here to responses in other communities, or even doing similar studies in the US to see how it compares to Canada. However, even the results as they stand leave a lot to consider. So how should we respond to “thank you, next”?

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Dinkin, Aaron. J. (2018). It's no problem to be polite: Apparent‐time change in responses to thanks. Journal of Sociolinguistics 22(2): 190-215. https://doi.org/10.1111/josl.12278

This summary was written by Marina Merryweather


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