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Does "Reach Out" Overreach?

If you want to stir up interest in your blog post or online article, start a discussion about "corporate jargon we all hate" or "buzzwords to be banished." Your readers will oblige with a flood of submissions: "best practices," "value proposition," "change agent," "metrics," and so on. Eventually, and inevitably, someone will offer up a verb phrase that, to innocent ears, sounds like ordinary English: reach out. And the yelps of outraged affirmation will commence.

From Inc. magazine: "It makes my skin crawl when someone uses the euphemism [sic], 'reach out,' as in, 'we wanted to reach out to you making you aware of our new product' or 'we've reached out to John Doe to join us for our meeting on the 30th.' Ugh!"

From Bnet.com: "Every time a prospective vendor tells me they are calling to 'reach out' to me I have to bite my tongue to keep from telling them to keep their hands to themself [sic]."

And from AskTheManager, a business blog: "The image of someone reaching out to us is more than a little creepy. ... [L]eaders should use: Contact."

What is it about reach out that makes so many people retch? Why do they think it's jargon, a euphemism, "unnecessarily complicated," "useless verbiage," or "a dramatic way of saying a very mundane thing"? Why, when thanked for "reaching out," did a tetchy reachee respond: "Did not reach out; contacted you, wrote, dropped by. Arms still at sides metaphorically and literally."

Although the animus is hard to explain — and although, as we'll see, contact has a tainted history of its own — the reasons for reach out's steady rise are easier to, well, grasp. For one thing, reach out  fills a need that isn't addressed by any synonym. "The prime minister reached out to members of the opposition party" may mean that he phoned, emailed, or wrote letters — or it may mean all of that and more. What's suggested by reach out are the intent and the effort.

As for why reach out has become more widespread (the Google Ngram shows a steady rise in usage beginning around 1970), I've identified three factors: popular music, a long-running ad campaign, and Marshall McLuhan. More about those influencers in a bit. First, though, try to overcome your aversion while we take a closer look at the phrase itself.

Reach out doesn't fit the pattern of other widely loathed business words. It isn't one of the -izes (e.g., incentivize, monetize, productionalize). It isn't a neologism (user-centric, near-shoring, proactive). It isn't borrowed from a specialized vocabulary (bandwidth, Six Sigma, synergy). It isn't misleading (actionable, conquesting, agile, and other words I discussed in a 2010 Candlepower column, "Weird Words from the Corporatese Lexicon").

On the contrary: reach and out are two of the oldest, commonest words in the language. Both have Old English roots, and reach has had figurative meanings — "to understand," "to arrive at a destination or goal" — for centuries. Far-reaching, to mean "extensive," was first recorded in 1824 ("the dusky heath far-reaching"); overreaching speech appeared in print in 1579. And reach out in the sense of "communicate with" is at least a century old; the OED gives this 1912 example: "Groups and agencies which are planning to reach out to low-income families with educational efforts in the area of sound family life." Note, too, that we use many other tactile words in figurative senses: Our feelings can be hurt, we're seized by terror, a story touches us.

But apparently it's one thing to hear Robert Browning's "Ah, a man's reach should exceed his grasp/Or what's a heaven for?" and quite another to open an email from a colleague and read, "Let's reach out to Sales for feedback." It's not the message; it's the corporate medium that contaminates reach out.

English speakers, and especially Americans, have long had a love-hate affair with the language of commerce. In 1909 the American writer Ambrose Bierce, best known for The Devil's Dictionary, published a usage guide, Write It Right; in her annotated edition of the book, published in 2009, language columnist Jan Freeman wrote that Bierce was "especially sensitive to money-related language; he invented reasons to dislike even 'pay a visit' and 'spend time.'" Bierce insisted that in the figurative expression "I take no stock in it," stock was "disagreeably commercial." Bierce preferred faith.

Bierce was silent on reach out, which may have been waiting in the wings during his lifetime. But the word many 21st-century critics would substitute for reach out was once as despised as "run a company" and "spend time." That word is contact, which the OED tells us was originally an American colloquialism. It was first documented in the sense of "get in touch with" in 1927, but it was still controversial enough in 1966 that an entry in Wilson Follett's Modern American Usage included this caveat:

If in doubt, contact your physician — this locution is as natural to the American of thirty as it is grotesque to the American of sixty, for whom the idea of surfaces touching is the essence of contact. The elderly can therefore see no fitness and no use for the word in its new sense, when the vocabulary already provides consult, ask, approach, get in touch with, confer with, and simply see.

Forty-five years later, the contact-haters have presumably gone to their final repose, and a new generation has seized on reach out as a grotesquerie. What happened? A few things.

Pop song lyrics, for one.  In 1966, the Motown group The Four Tops had a #1 hit with "Reach Out (I'll Be There)"; in the lyrics, "reach out" is both literal and figurative. Then, four years later, the pop diva Diana Ross recorded "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)," her first single as a solo performer. A modest hit when it was released, the song became an anthem when Ross performed it in concerts: the singer would ask audience members to "reach out" to their neighbors and touch hands.

But what really turned reach out into a popular idiom — not to mention an earworm — was an ad campaign developed by the N.W. Ayer agency for AT&T.


Source: Porticus

Michael J. Arlen, whose 1979 New Yorker articles about that campaign were later published as a book, Thirty Seconds, quoted an Ayer executive, Jeffrey Pfiffner, as saying that AT&T wanted "to overcome the negative emotions associated with long-distance ... the high cost of long-distance, the bad news in the middle of the night. ... AT&T wanted us to emphasize the casual, positive aspect: long-distance is fun, it's easy, it's cheap." Two slogans were tested: "Keep in Touch, America," and "Reach Out and Touch Someone." The final vote went to "Reach Out," Pfiffner said, "because the consensus seemed to be was that if there was one thing America didn't need at that time it was more America-oriented advertising." Pfiffner went on:

I guess you could say I came up with the basic line, though when you work in a group you get a lot of input from everyone else. The thing about writing theme lines is that, creatively speaking, they almost never just happen when you sit down at the typewriter — not like body copy. Sometimes, though, they come up and surprise you, and that's where the magic is.

Pfiffner may have taken the credit, but the spark came from outside the agency. In the middle of the 20th century, the Canadian-born media philosopher Marshall McLuhan posited that audio and video communications had "tactile power": "With telephone and TV it is not so much the message as the sender that is 'sent'," he wrote. McLuhan supplemented his teaching income with speaking engagements at IBM, AT&T, and other technology companies, where he lectured on the meaning of media. In an email, McLuhan's son Eric told me although the details were "hazy," he recalled "Dad's advising someone that the telephone would extend touch (as in 'contact')." In fact, Porticus, a website devoted to memories of the Bell system, credits Marshall McLuhan with creating the "Reach Out and Touch Someone" tagline.

So in this, the centennial of McLuhan's birth, I propose that we make peace with reach out. It's a fine idiom with history, etymology, and metaphor on its side. And, of course, it has that jingle — famously sung by Phoebe Snow, Roberta Flack, Ray Charles, Jose Feliciano, Tammy Wynette, and Paul Williams. And now, perhaps, by you.

Reach out, reach out, and touch someone!
Reach out, call up, and just say hi!
Reach out, reach out, and touch someone!
Wherever you are,
You're never too far.
They're waiting to share your day.
People from coast to coast,
Calling up friends to keep them close.
Families who care so much,
Keeping in touch —
Reach out, reach out, and touch someone!
Reach out, reach out, and touch someone!


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday October 4th 2011, 7:21 AM
Comment by: Dr. Dyspepsia (NY)
The only time I "reach out" is to strangle the person who said it.
Tuesday October 4th 2011, 7:45 AM
Comment by: everaldo L. (rio de janeiro Brazil)
It all depends on who is reaching out, why and maybe more so, when. It may sound false, if it comes from someone you are not in such good terms with, and surely awful if you get a phone cal from someone who wants to sell you something. But in a poem it may also mean something beautiful worthwhile keeping forever.
Tuesday October 4th 2011, 7:49 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Great article, Nancy! I think there’s an age-related component to the verb as well; I don’t use it much, but I have a 30-something, Washington-based friend (a lobbyist for a nonprofit) who uses it often. As well as contacting, when he uses it, it seems to imply an attitude of helpfulness and good will on the part of the reacher.

It’s also interesting to see the recent eclipse of “reach out” over “outreach” in the ngram viewer: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=reach+out%2C+outreach&year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=0&smoothing=3
Tuesday October 4th 2011, 9:11 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I think you're on to something with the observation that the language of commerce is often suspect to people who don't speak it natively, so to speak. And I think everaldo's point about the seeming falseness of the phrase echoes the kind of discomfort one can feel when a salesperson uses your first name a little _too_ often to counterfeit familiarity.

Although I don't have a particular aversion to "reach out," I personally would be about as likely to use that as I would to use the extended meaning of "share," and for the same reason, namely that it seems a bit ... feel-y ... to me.
Tuesday October 4th 2011, 10:36 AM
Comment by: Derek B. (Moorpark, CA)
I thoroughly enjoyed this piece of....well, this piece. Honestly, I have heard and seen this in areas other than Commerce, such as Education and Politics, too. (remember, "too" and "also" that have been replaced by, "As well"?

I also agree that a list of banished words from readers would be a fun excercise. I heard a story about a journalism class that generated a list of 100 words, that when bumped against newscasts, campaign speeches, and opinion blogs-and then subsequently redacted in black blockout-was left with nothing but pronouns and prepositions.
Tuesday October 4th 2011, 11:28 AM
Comment by: Randall C. (Montgomery, AL)
I'm afraid this eloquent defense has not softened my aversion to "reaching out". It's users always strike me as too lazy to take the time to select the proper word or words for the circumstances. Not to worry, however...I'm confident that "reach out" will soon be surpassed by "shoot me an e-mail".
Tuesday October 4th 2011, 2:16 PM
Comment by: Jan Freeman (MA)
Great column, Nancy! And here's another "reach out" thread: The first peever to peeve about the phrase to me cited "NYPD Blue." And since she was the executive editor of the paper, I promptly wrote about it (back in 1997, when my column was young). I just retrieved a copy and posted it at my blog: http://throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com/2011/10/reaching-out-nypd-blue-connection.html

Thanks for the memories!
Tuesday October 4th 2011, 2:19 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Dr. Dyspepsia, who made the first comment above, took the words right off of my keyboard (he said "strangle", I was thinking "throttle" - close enough). Really, these people have some nerve thinking they can ...

Hmmm ... Maybe many of us who have commented are older than most of the people who use "reach out" as it's described in this article. While I was writing this comment, my daughter called and we discussed the matter. We were each surprised to hear the other's opinions ("Really?" ..."REALLY?"). She is in her 30s, and definitely doesn't have the negative reaction that I have to "the new reach out." In fact she often uses it herself in business and organizational communications, and she is a very smart, nice person, not at all devious, manipulative, phony, dishonest, not-to-be-trusted, sleazy, creepy or lazy! I'll be darned!

>sigh< OK, so ... I have revised my opinion of the new brand of reacher-outers, and softened my judgement of their motives, intentions, and character. Now I'm going to take a deep breath and delete most of my indignant, ranting comments. This won't be easy; the comments were also insightful, profound, well-written and rather clever, if I do say so myself - I sort of hate to see them go! Oh well, they were too long anyway ...

...Done! Note to self: language is always evolving, and no one can stop that process, no matter how much we want to. We might as well accept the fact, get on board, hang on and enjoy the ride!

The Happy Quibbler

{note to my daughter: if you're reading this ... you're welcome, and thank you!]
Tuesday October 4th 2011, 2:40 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Jan: Thanks for filling in the gap in my knowledge! I did come across an NYPD Blue lexicon but your 1997 column didn't come up (though it certainly should have). In the future, I will reach out to you when I begin my research!
Tuesday October 4th 2011, 10:35 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
The misspelling of "judgment" by a writer above surprised me! Is that a point of interest to anyone?
...the Spelling Police!
Wednesday October 5th 2011, 12:48 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Roger: "Judgment" and "judgement" are both correct; "judgement" is the preferred spelling in Great Britain and its former colonies, while the e-less variant is standard in the US. See http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/judgement.html
Wednesday October 5th 2011, 12:58 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Roger, the misspelling of "judgment" is definitely a point of interest to me! I researched it just a bit, and you're right; I had no idea that the word not only could but usually should be spelled without that first "e", unless one is British, which I'm not. Thanks for letting me know I had spinach in my teeth!

The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday October 5th 2011, 2:11 AM
Comment by: Carlos A. G. (Maroochydore Australia)
I am reaching out to all of you
and hope to do it well
Mind you, in my 'out reaching'
I have only a good intention
I don't mind at all
as long as love is transmitted
in the reaching out aspiration

(Impromptu poem)
Wednesday October 5th 2011, 12:34 PM
Comment by: Sandra C. (Atlanta, GA)
I like to say "reach out." In context it almost always implies asking for help. As in, "Hi! I am reaching out to all of you to not be so prickly and picky about how other people talk and focus on being helpful to them."

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