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PLATFORM : A Problem

October 01, 1995| ROBIN WAGNER-PACIFICI | ROBIN WAGNER-PACIFICI is a sociology/anthropology professor at Swarthmore College. She believes language speaks volumes. and

"No problem."

You have surely heard it. You may even say it. I ask that you understand its power and its mendacity. "No problem" has swarmed across the moral landscape of our everyday interactions, replacing the generous "You're welcome" and the self-effacing "Not at all" with its flippant irony. It's a little thing: Why do I mind it so much?

I always thought that I was much too sophisticated to have such a pet peeve. So I'd like to make the case that this phrase is more than that. I believe that it represents the unfortunate, if however true, recognition that our social lives are crowded with casual, impersonal and fleeting exchanges. We need each other, but it's a shrugging, burdened, essentially problematic need. Perhaps we have simply relinquished the myth that such social exchanges among people are engaging or desirable in their own right. "No problem" makes me think immediately of the possibility of a problem, that any interaction or exchange is ringed round with potential problems waiting to reveal themselves and worse, that we are all essentially problems to each other.

"No problem" covers a lot of territory and does so with great efficiency. It sounds modern, conjuring up "problem solvers" who render complex situations simple and straightforward. It sounds American in its can-do optimism. But it's a hollow optimism that is focused not on the situation at hand, as the pragmatists advocated, but on finishing up with this situation and moving on to the next. And that's a problem.

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