On “You’re Welcome”

I find social norms interesting especially when it isn’t entirely clear why they exist. One I was pondering in a state of half-sleep last night was the norm of saying, “You’re welcome” after “Thank you.”

Why do we say it? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites the first documented usage in W.W. Jacob’s 1907 Short Cruises. And, OED defines it as “a polite formula used in response to an expression of thanks.” While “you’re welcome” is sometimes used as a “polite formula,” those who use “you’re welcome” often have a more precise intended meaning. When someone responds, “you’re welcome,” they are acknowledging that thanks is owed. Let’s call this type of response to “thank you” a category one reply.

How do I justify this? Well, when thanks isn’t owed, there are other common replies (let’s call them category two replies): “no problem,” “my pleasure,” “don’t worry about it,” etc. These replies generally indicate that the person giving thanks is being overly gracious, that gratitude is not necessarily merited. Or, let’s take the example of your going with a friend to a movie she wants to see (which may be extra gracious given my critique of this sort of activity). You may end up enjoying the movie too, so when the friend says “Thanks”, you respond “No Problem.” You appreciate and accept her gratitude, but acknowledge that you too got something beneficial out of the transaction.

I find it interesting that “you’re welcome,” a category one reply, is the norm in English. In Spanish, “de nada” (meaning “of nothing”) is the norm: This is certainly a category two reply. French’s “de rien” (“it’s nothing”) is similar. So, interestingly, the replies to thanks differ based on language. For those fluent in French and Spanish, is there a way to distinguish between category one and two replies (e.g. through tone)?

I’d say tone actually plays a significant role even in English. Some people, due to habit, will simply say the same reply all of the time. They will always say “no problem” or “you’re welcome.” That doesn’t mean, however, they have the same intention every time. A quick and concise “no problem” may be indicative of category one while a more emotive “no problem” accompanied by a head tilt (especially for women) may be indicative of category two. Or, people may simply use category two inordinately often in order to appear nice.

Before concluding, let me acknowledge a category three type of reply. This category tends to signal rudeness and apathy towards a person’s gratitude. “Yep” is an example. Please don’t say this.

Thank you for reading this post.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dan on July 19, 2009 at 8:11 PM

    Yep

    Reply

  2. Posted by Jen on July 21, 2009 at 5:38 PM

    Could you describe what this womanly head tilt looks like, please?

    Reply

  3. Posted by Jen on July 22, 2009 at 5:56 PM

    AH. got ya

    Reply

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