It's No Problem to Be Polite: Apparent-Time Change in Responses to Thanks

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University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics
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Dinkin, Aaron J

This paper reports a rapid and anonymous study of apparent-time change in progress among the use of variants such as you’re welcome and no problem as responses to thanks. Data was collected by undergraduate students in Toronto as an assignment for an introductory sociolinguistics class; students asked passers-by and local business employees for directions to nearby locations, thanked them for their help by means of one of three thanking expressions of varying degrees of elaborateness (thanks, thank you, thank you very much), and noted the responses to the thanks. We observe change in progress toward no problem, with a significant interaction between age and the degree of elaborateness of the thanks expression. For younger speakers, thanks, thank you, and thank you very much all have about the same effect, each eliciting no problem around 40% of the time. For older speakers, no problem is used as a response to thanks but is strongly disfavored by the more elaborate expressions. This interaction may explain the intensity of the negative attention no problem attracts from prescriptivists and in popular media: older speakers appear to use no problem as a less polite variant than you’re welcome, suitable principally as a response to more perfunctory expressions of thanks; younger speakers have no such restriction. The change in progress, therefore, is not merely a change in the frequency of one variant over another, but a functional change in the level of politeness associated with the variant; no problem is changing from perfunctory to polite as a response to thanks.

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