From our automatic “thank you” as we grab our caramel latte at Starbucks to the genuine “thank you” when a stranger lets your two items go ahead of their full basket in the grocery line, “thank you” is bandied about a lot in daily life. But what seems to be waning is the well-worn “you’re welcome.”
Instead, what we hear are things ranging from “no problem” to “you bet” to “sure.” But whatever happened to that old standby, “you’re welcome,” and why do we need so many other ways to respond to thanks?
A babe in the woods
Although it may seem like we’ve been saying “you’re welcome” forever, this expression is actually surprisingly recent. In Old English, “wilcuma” meant “pleasing guest,” and it was used to express good will toward a visitor. It was not used as a courteous invitation to do something until the late Middle Ages (as in, “You are welcome to join us”).
Even once we get to Shakespeare’s time, known as the Early Modern period, a study looking at the way thanking was expressed and responded to in written materials (including personal letters) turned up only two examples of “you are welcome.” As we get to the 20th century, responding to thanks overall becomes more common, and “you’re welcome” had morphed into the conventional response, no longer carrying its original meaning.
As well as not being all that old, “you’re welcome” is also not all that common outside of American English. Several studies that looked at the most frequent modern ways of expressing thanks or gratitude found that saying “you’re welcome” is much less common in other English varieties, particularly those spoken in Britain where nodding your head is popular instead.
Another surprise is that responding verbally in any form is not a particularly prevalent habit among British or American English speakers, and researchers find verbal “thank you”-type responses more when they look in other languages such as Swedish, Russian and German. And, if we wanted to point fingers, one recent U.S.-based study by linguist Aaron Dinkin might surprise you because he found that older speakers tended to respond less often than younger speakers in routine encounters like when they are thanked for telling someone the time.
But even if we don’t respond in the same way, thanking, and accepting thanks, are pretty routinized speech acts in most languages. What this means is that we have developed idiomatic ways of expressing appreciation and deflecting that appreciation so that they are automatically recognized as doing that specific social work when we utter them. After all, if we didn’t have guidelines or strategies to guide how we thank each other – and how to respond – it would be harder to easily identify specific speech acts quickly and easily.
With gratitude expressions, the academic label for such thanking routines, a “thank you” serves to recognize some favor or benefit that was bestowed upon a speaker. The response to that thank you then serves to help restore any social imbalance that doing that favor may have created. In other words, it acknowledges the thanks and lets the thanker off the hook of holding some debt for that favor.
In her research on gratitude expressions, Swedish researcher Karin Aijmer discovered that there are three main strategies that people tend to follow when they are thanked. One option is to show mutual appreciation for the thanker by saying something that indicates they are admired and worthy of the effort like “you are so welcome” or “you’re welcome.” This makes the thanker feel valued, and thus restores social equity.
Another strategy is to indicate that the favor one did was also pleasurable for the giver, and so did not incur any debt. This usually inspires “pleasant” expressions like “It was my pleasure” or “the pleasure was all mine.” Clearly, we understand that this is a merely polite, not literal, response since bringing someone a dinner order is really not anyone’s favorite activity.
Finally, people being thanked can try to defray any thought that there is a debt owed by denying that there was any imposition, a strategy referred to as “minimizing.” It is this final strategy that drives a large and growing set of formulaic terms designed to be recognizable as such thanking minimizers — things like “No worries,” “Not at all,” or “No problem.” Some may find these responses rude as they suggest there was the potential for there to be a problem, but just like “my pleasure” or “you’re welcome,” these responses no longer carry literal meaning but should be understood simply as formulaic expressions designated to perform a social task. In fact, younger people have been known to view “you’re welcome” as pompous because they see it as emphasizing or pointing out that “Yes, indeed, I did do you a favor.” We can see this sentiment expressed in the song “Your Welcome” in the 2016 Disney movie “Moana,” in which the demigod Maui is so full of himself that he sings “You’re welcome” about his many accomplishments without the need for anybody’s thanks.
Now how about the familiar “okay” or “sure thing” we sometimes hear? Maybe unexpectedly, this minimizing category of responses also includes what on the surface seem like simple affirmatives such as “sure,” “you bet,” or “absolutely.” Such answers offset the sense of imposition as they suggest that the favor or good deed was simply part of an agreeable exchange between equals, in other words, not a big deal. The takeaway again being that you don’t owe me anything.
A cornucopia of choices
But why do we have so many types of responses in this final category but only a couple of variants on the same single theme in the first two categories? The answer likely has to do with the fact that “thank you” is often used for very routine favors (like handing someone a coffee or telling them the time) and to close down conversations. In such cases, the traditional “you’re welcome” can seem to be too formal or even a bit gloating. A short little affirmatory response, in contrast, casually responds without this risk. And, since we have a lot of routine ways of affirming in English (“okay,” “all right,” “sure,” “you bet,” “yeah,” etc.), we have a lot of affirmatory thanking responders to choose from.
Also driving the popularity of such terms, there appears to be a shift, especially for American English speakers, away from the mutual appreciation strategy that was preferred until very recently toward the minimizing strategy. This has led to the rise of terms like “No worries” and “you bet” where “you’re welcome” once reigned supreme.
So, whether it’s pleasing, minimizing, or appreciation you are aiming for, it looks like the time has come to “welcome” a few new tricks into our gratitude repertoire.