A lapse in conversation

I have a problem with “no problem.” The ubiquitous phrase has insinuated itself into dealings with store clerks, office assistants, even professional occasions. Say “thank you” for some service rendered and the likely response is “no problem.” I detest the words; they smack of smart aleck and smarminess all in one.

Other cultures have similar expressions but they somehow seem worthy. When we lived in Washington, D.C., the equivalent was “uh-huh,” always spoken in a languid manner. I vividly remember the day I held a door for a stranger, she said “thank you,” and I automatically said “uh-huh.” I was pleased to have finally learned the local lingo.

So, too, when we lived in Florence. Initially, my Italian vocabulary was limited to twenty words and six of them were “prego.” The most common use occurs when a person says grazie, thank you, and you say prego, for “you’re welcome” or “not at all.” If you open a door and indicate to a woman she should precede you, you say prego. When you enter a restaurant, a waiter may say prego, as in “come in” or “at your service,” or he’ll say prego when he delivers dinner, as in “there you go.” In a store, if there are several people waiting, the clerk will say prego for “who’s next?”

In Washington, “uh-huh” brands you as belonging. In Italy, you can’t get by without prego. In Toronto, “no problem” needs to be replaced by something more pleasant. I just happen to have a happy candidate. It’s “you’re welcome.”

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