Pleasantries

In the July issue of The Rotarian, the official magazine of Rotary International, circulated to over 500,000 English-speaking Rotarians worldwide, frequent contributor David Sarasohn, in an article titled “Wishful Thanking,” ranted about the use of “No problem” instead of “You’re welcome,” “I’m good” for “No, thank you,” and “My bad” for “I’m sorry.”

The October issue of the magazine published a letter to the editor in which I had written:

It seems to me that David Sarasohn’s objection to “No problem,” “I’m good,” and “My bad” (“Wishful thanking,” The Rotarian, July 2019) is based primarily on their novelty. He is thus striking a blow against progress and modernism and the natural development of the language. I confess that, as an old fogey myself (75 in September), I’m also not a fan of these phrases, but I think he did an injustice to “My bad.” In an era in which individuals and, more importantly, institutions (such as hospitals) are loath to express sympathy by saying “I’m sorry” lest their concern be construed as admitting culpability, we should be celebrating “My bad,” which, although it does not express sympathy, does assume responsibility, unequivocally acknowledging error (“My mistake” or “I was wrong”) or guilt (“My fault” or, in confessional terms, “Mea culpa”). There are still plenty of occasions for “I’m sorry,” but if “My bad” is merely equivalent to “Oops” or “Pardon me,” it seems to me unobjectionable. (I should add that the form in which I often hear it is “Sorry, my bad.”)

I was not the only respondent. One wrote, “As a 30-year-old Rotarian, I do not appreciate it when the well-meaning language of my generation is dismissed as insincere and rude.” Another wrote, “As a millennial Rotarian who has spent many tedious years working in customer service, I was quite disappointed with the negative attitude toward service staff in ‘Wishful Thanking.'” Both suggested that the magazine would do better to emphasize Rotary’s good works rather than alienate the younger members Rotary is trying so desperately to attract. [This problem extends to the magazine’s advertising as well; no matter how hard the editorial content boasts of how up-to-date Rotary has become, with smartphone apps and other high-tech improvements, younger members can’t help but be turned off by ads for walk-in tubs and ED drugs.]

I have been giving the matter further thought. I have no defense of “no problem,” which Sarasohn accuses of creating a putative problem where there should be none. He admits it is the equivalent of Spanish and French phrases with similar usage but dismisses this excuse, and I tend to agree that, until “No problem” becomes as invisible as “You’re welcome,” it will cause problems.

But I’m not so sure about “I’m good.” I’m coming to believe that a naked “No, thank you” has come to be regarded as a rejection almost as unacceptable as “I’ll pass” or “I’ll take a pass” or “I’ll give that a miss” (the subject of a Miss Manners column and follow-up). Naturally, if, when offered a second helping, you reply, “No, thank you. I couldn’t eat another bite,” your intent will be understood. But “I’m good” (with perhaps a pat on your stomach) conveys the same meaning. And I have rarely heard “I’m good” used in response to other sorts of offers and invitations (the sort that might elicit “I’ll pass”). I say, “I’m good!” with vigor in response to the drive-through bank teller’s inquiry after my health, but this is a different situation.

Bottom line, though, we should be grateful that anyone uses any of these phrases intended to grease the wheels of social interaction.

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