Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Reaching Out About Reaching Out

Words change, and their meanings change, too. That much is obvious; or, not so much obvious, as undeniable. I sometimes imagine some 1500-year-old guy, who habitually sits on a wall somewhere in southern England (let's say on the dock of the bay of Clausentum / Hamwic / Hamtun / Southampton), who has witnessed the gradual change in the language from a few flavours of Anglo-Saxon through various shades of Middle English to the sleekly expressive noises we currently use. How slow or how sudden, for example, was the Great Vowel Shift? Did everyone wake up one Wednesday morning in or around March 21st 1550, with all their long vowels irreversibly altered? Or was there a period of infuriating chaos ("You say tomato...").

The picture is complicated by the spread of various "Englishes" around the world. Curiously, around the time specimens of Solanum lycopersicum were crossing the Atlantic one way, a subset of Brits with shaky pronunciation skills was crossing it the other way. It was the beginning of a confusion that could only get worse with time: as Oscar Wilde was already putting it in 1887, we really have everything in common with America these days, except, of course, language.  You say /təˈmeɪtoʊ/ but you are so wrong.

Of course, differences in meaning are more profound than mere pronunciation. It was recently pointed out to me that to "frown" is, to an American, an expression primarily involving the use of the corners of the mouth, whereas in Britain it is all to do with the eyebrows and forehead. Which is weird, to say the least. Which brings me to my real point. Back in 1966, when songs were songs and trousers were trousers, the Four Tops had a hit on both sides of the Atlantic with "Reach Out (I'll Be There)".
Now if you feel that you can't go on
Because all of your hope is gone
And your life is filled with much confusion
Until happiness is just an illusion
And your world around is crumblin' down
Darling, reach out, come on girl, reach on out for me
Reach out, reach out for me
I'll be there, with a love that will shelter you
I'll be there, with a love that will see you through.
The passionate soul-shout of lead singer Levi Stubbs is full of desperate yearning, as if he's shouting through a wild storm to a drowning girl: reach out, come on girl, reach on out for me! Like so many of those mid-sixties Motown hits, it's a little jewel, where all the parts – words, music, performance, and, yes, even the trousers – just fit, perfectly.

So imagine my amusement, the first time I called an American customer support line, to be told that the relevant engineer would reach out to me that very afternoon. I was well aware of the taste for hyperbole in the language of business, Stateside, but this was genuinely OTT. The image of myself floundering in the waters of Unix confusion, waiting to be saved by the extended hand of a software specialist dangling perilously from a cable lowered from a rescue helicopter, was truly hysterical. I went around telling colleagues about it, the way you do.

Until someone said, no, that's just American for "get in touch". What, really? No stretched-out arms, no desperate measures, no heightened emotional pitch? You mean Levi Stubbs is just saying: get in touch, preferably during office hours, I assume you have my number? I don't believe you!

But I've seen it used so frequently now, in so many different contexts, that I have to believe it. I suppose it may hinge on the preposition: reach out for, versus reach out to. But this is, uh, reaching out for straws. It really does seem that "to reach out" is American for "get in touch". Or, at least, it is now. Which makes me frown, English-style...

So, help me out here, my American friends. Is "reach out" a standard usage of long-standing, or is it some absurd, voguish hyperventilation, similar to "leverage" or "out of the loop", perpetrated by the business community on our beloved language? I'm reaching out to you!


26 comments:

Mike in San Diego said...

It's the latter. Nothing wrong with a little reaching out among friends. But when the customer service associate at the call center uses the expression, I shrink a bit inside like my personal space was just violated. "I don't know you! Don't touch me!"

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Mike, that is genuinely good to know! It is creepy, isn't it, that presumption of intimacy from people who want to sell you stuff, or pretend to fix the stuff they've sold you?

Even worse is the faux-naive baby-talk of hipster enterprises. I'm having a particularly annoying post-sales exchange at the moment with some people who claim a "100% happiness guarantee", and have to grit my teeth every time I deal with the otherwise excellent people at Blurb.

Bah, humbug!

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

Brighton-based American linguist, Lynne Murphy, author (as "Lynne Guist") of the excellent Separated By A Common Language blog (which, in fact, I first heard of in a comment to Idiotic Hat), takes this one in her post "Anti-Americanism, Part 2", and (to my surprise!) agrees with you, blaming this Bell Telephones ad (aaargh!).

Elsewhere on that blog, a commenter makes reference to a most amusing flowchart for correct usage of "reach out" which you will find totally in harmony with your own view.

Gerard Wickham said...

The use of the that phrase may have its origins back in the late 70's when Ma Bell had an ad campaign which promoted the use of long distance calling. The slogan was "Reach Out and Touch Somebody". The ads pictured family members getting on the horn to call Grandma in Virginia, the twin brother away at college etc. all bathed in a warm incandescent glow. My guess is that the phrase made its way into common usage as so many advertising slogans do. Not really as horrendous as you make it out, Mike. Rest easy; nobody's really going to touch you.

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

I wish I hadn't followed that Bell link. Suddenly I feel quite violently anti-social (not least because most of our landline calls these days are people reaching out about PPI and house insulation).

Gerard,

It's not so much the prospect of being touched (once we've been properly introduced by a mutual acquaintance, touching is fine, although intimate touching will be discouraged) as the idea of some corporate geek in a suit and tie imagining that filling me in on the proper use of certain magic Unix spells is like Levi pledging eternal customer support to his girl. It's just funny...

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

Hey, Mr Suit, reach out all you like, but ...

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

That video was more fun, but also a perfect illustration of the decline in trousers since 1966...

Mike

Gerard Wickham said...

Glad to hear that you're okay with the occasional, inadvertent, nonintimate, consensual elbow jostle in the subway. After Michelle Obama's hugging your queen almost touched off an international incident, I was concerned that Britain might be a nation of germaphobes.

davidly said...

Hey Mike. I remember the commercial Gerard's referred to. I can't discount the possibility that the reaching out in the advert, having taken the form of getting in touch, has led to the subsequent customer support usage overlap. Still, even in business when one speaks of reaching out, it is often in a more, say, Levi-like context of fulfilling a need, in this case, seeking to expand or shore up a customer base, actively reaching out both to and for: to the customer for their additional business.

Zouk Delors said...

Of course, while Americans perhaps like to touch (how do you do that on the phone, anyway?), we more restrained (hung up?) Brits are mostly of the mind that talking* will generally suffice. As for touching the Queen ... words fail me.

*Americans, please note: this is how Dick Van Dyke was supposed to talk in Mary Poppins

Struan said...

I'm delighted to have reached the age where I get to grump about usage. A particular tooth-grinder for me is how a 'schematic diagram' has become a 'cartoon' in scientific seminars and talks. I wait with 'baited' breath (fish guts?) for the speaker to punch holes in the whiteboard and dapple carbon black through them.

I used to tolerate 'reach out' when it seemed to mean 'contact with the aim or reaching an understanding', but recently Swedes have been using it instead of 'talk to', as in 'I reached out to him and he said no'.

Most weird though, is 'kindly'. Even UK companies seem to use it as a meaningless flag when they're pretending to be polite. 'Kindly refrain from grabbing the cat' has garboglified into 'We kindly request that you refrain from grabbing the cat'. Word.


Mike C. said...

All,

Good to see that this blog has rediscovered its curmudgeonly mojo just in time for Christmas! I think I've already done "sadly died", but may revive it as a seasonal treat.

Mike

amolitor said...

As an American, I hate the current usage of 'reach out' to mean 'get in touch with'. Even the ATT advert/tagline was warm and intimate. The current, and I think fairly recent, usage literally means 'to initiate contact via some means or another'

Mike C. said...

amolitor,

I'm interested that no-one has picked up on the astonishing "frown" thing. As with "reach out", my feeling (hope, perhaps) is that the "mouth-centred" interpretation is a recent deviation, predominant amongst the young, quite possibly based on the use of eyebrowless emojis...

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

The frown issue was also dealt with, in its own post, Frowns, by Lynne Guist, who was as shocked as you, me and almost every one of the people making the 160 (so far) comments it attracted. As far as I recall, the consensus was that the culprit was a 1920s(?) song which urged the listener to "turn that frown upside down", reinforced by the sad-face emoticon.

Omer said...

I did wonder where the "mouth-centered" frown version had come from. As an old guy, I too considered it an eyebrow, forehead expression. But the emoji interpretations (there are a few) alternate between what I see as sadness and anger. Well, those smiley things don't have much of a forehead, so.... :-1 (Whatever)

Mike C. said...

In the end, it seems that the generalisation "Americans" may often best be understood as "young Americans who spend too much time on social media" );1 (attempted frown).

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

"young Americans who spend too much time on social media" );1"

... and all those young people all over the world doing likewise, and using the young Americans'* usage as a standard, don't forget. ع:-O>>>

* The question becomes: when he laid her down and she frowned, were her eyebrows involved, or not?

Gerard Wickham said...

Not to beat a dead horse, but I am surprised no one challenged the concept of "proprietorship" of language. English is a living thing, influenced by waves of immigration and emigration and a multitude of languages. Language is a fluid thing which doesn't respect national borders and, much to my chagrin, any attempt to standardize it. (I would prefer to think that in 500 yrs people would still be able to understand my words, but that's not realistic.) Strangely enough, because America's New England was colonized during the Great Vowel Shift, it is believed that the classic Boston accent is closer in pronunciation to Shakespearean English than contemporary Britain-speak. So maybe there's a blogger in Vermont who is scratching his head and wondering why the Brits can't speak English properly. Maybe there's a Berliner wondering why you can't get German right.

Mike C. said...

Gerard,

With all due respect, I think you are missing the ironic tone of my post. I thought I had set out my stall fairly clearly in the first paragraph or two, but perhaps not. That very first link (to a TED talk) is meant to establish what I *really* think, the rest is just for fun.

Mike

Gerard Wickham said...

As Roseanne Roseannadanna would say: "Oh? Sorry."

Zouk Delors said...

I liked Struan's comment (especially "garboglification", which I will adopt) but didn't understand the technical stuff about dappling carbon black.

"We kindly request" etc is typical of the sort of faux-polite rubbish corporate communicators put out these days -- except it would probably be "refrain to put out the cat".

Struan said...

Thanks Zouk. When bored, I sometimes put random right-sounding but made up words into Google, looking for ones with zero hits and no suggested spellings. It's surprisingly hard.

Cartoons were originally full-sized drawings made prior to painting a fresco. After a series of pin-pricks was made along the major lines, the drawing was held up against the freshly-plastered wall, and soot dappled through the holes. It made painting much faster (it needed to be) as you had a ready-made set of outlines on the wall.

Given the state of world politics, I suspect I'm going to be 'retching out' quite a bit from now on....

Zouk Delors said...

Cheers, Struan. A bit sketchy, but I get the outline.

Gerry said...

All of these expressions stem from a desire on the part of the speaker to be special, different and unique. Our current office champion is:
"I'm reaching out to you to review my deck and then revert to me"

A deck is a large number of Powerpoint slides,and the direct question is "Are my slides OK?"

Mike C. said...

Gerry,

I like "revert to me". It has the perfect combination of pompousness and malapropism...

Mike