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Growing up, I became accustomed to using the phrase "that's okay" to mean "no" or "don't bother." For example:

Waitress: Yous guys want any dessert?
Patron [shaking head to mean no]: That's okay.
Waitress: Here's the check then, hun.

In other words, the patron is really trying to say, "That's okay, but I am already full."

Later on in life, when traveling to areas with other dialects of English, I was often met with confusion when trying to use that phrase to mean "no". When I got to thinking about it, the phrase itself is quite ambiguous, because it is unclear to what "that" refers. In fact, "that's okay" could very well be taken to mean "yes" in the above scenario, if interpreted literally. I have since taught myself to avoid this usage.

Having first learned English in the Philadelphia dialect, I attributed this weird usage as a regional fluke, like our use of "anymore", et al. However, I have since heard other people in other dialects using this phrase to mean "no".

Questions: Is this usage of "that's okay" a regionalism? Is its etymology as simple as just dropping the end of the phrase, e.g., "That's okay, but I am already full," or is its etymology more complex?

Edit: This is completely anecdotal, but I seemed to meet the most resistance to this construction on the West coast of the US, and particularly in the Pacific Northwest, e.g.,

Waitress: Would you like any dessert?
Me [shaking head to mean no]: That's okay.
Waitress: Does that mean "yes" or "no"‽

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I remember being told that if you were offered something in France, the answer "merci!" ("thanks") meant "No, thanks". –  Colin Fine Jun 20 '11 at 14:25
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In france we say "non merci" for "no thanks", simply. –  BiAiB Jun 20 '11 at 14:26
    
@BiAiB: But you usually say "s'il vous plait" to mean "yes, thank you", right? Would people just say "merci" to mean "yes"? –  Peter Shor Jun 20 '11 at 14:35
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@Peter yes then no –  BiAiB Jun 20 '11 at 14:42
    
In Japan, people often say "hai" (usually meaning "yes") to mean "I heard you" rather than "yes, I will." For example, "Please have some more cake." "Hai" here might mean, "I heard your offer (but I won't necessarily have more cake)." –  Eri Jun 20 '11 at 15:45
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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I don’t think it’s a regionalism. I’m from Tennessee and it sounds perfectly natural to me. And there’s evidence from the movies:

Nicky: [after being sick in Andy's face] I'm sorry. I'll still have sex with you if you want.
Andy Stitzer: That's OK.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin

(Of course, real people don’t talk like movie characters, but here the joke only works if the audience understands “That’s OK” the way you and I do.)

Apparently Canadians say it too:

Bob: Sorry I ralphed, Pam.
Pam: You shouldn't have had that chocolate milk.
Bob: I know. Sorry about your sweater. You can take it out of my pay if you want.
Pam: That's OK.
Bob: Geez, you're real nice. If I didn't have puke breath I'd kiss you.
Strange Brew

It might be a North Americanism, I guess, but I suspect it’s not even that, just the sort of counterintuitive idiom non-native speakers naturally have trouble with.

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+1 for finding two puking references. –  Callithumpian Jun 20 '11 at 16:27
    
"She was like, oh, no, that's ok" — I wouldn't blink hearing this. –  aedia λ Jun 20 '11 at 16:53
    
I'm from the US Pacific Northwest, and it sounds normal to me. I wouldn't question whether it meant yes or no - it means no. There is an inflection as it is said, which emphasises the no answer. –  thursdaysgeek Jun 20 '11 at 17:36
    
We use this in the UK too, so it's not just an Americanism. Having said that, I think saying "I'm fine" is more common over here; it's quite British :) –  DisgruntledGoat Nov 12 '11 at 21:07
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I use this construction, and the related "I'm good", and I'm from England. I have friends who also use the same constructions. While I wouldn't say that it's a universal usage, I would expect people here to understand it.

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And here. Although sometimes "That's okay" mean piss off and don't bother me anymore - in a polite way :O –  mplungjan Jun 20 '11 at 16:44
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