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5 June 2023

Why we hate the phrase “reach out”  

It’s redundant, self-congratulatory and twee. Among all the staples of customer service speak, this one particularly grates.

By Peter Williams

Last summer, on moving into my charming, fun-sized new tenancy in a Victorian railway cottage, I found outside the front door a cardboard box that, although securely taped up, was exciting intense interest from the local insect community. Inside was a generous selection of vegetables in various states of repair, from still-fresh beetroot and broccoli through to some sad cucumbers transitioning into a puddle. The alpha of the box was a vast, bomb-headed marrow which, if hollowed out, could have comfortably housed a chihuahua.

I emailed the company responsible, informing them that the previous, long-gone tenant had forgotten to cancel or redirect their veg box subscription. I eventually received a chirpy response from Sarah, a member of the “customer happiness” team, who wrote, “Thank you for reaching out to let us know about this and apologies for the unexpected boxes of veg!” adding, “We subsequently reached out to Mr S… I have gone ahead and cancelled the subscription… Should you ever need anything in future, please don’t hesitate to reach out…”

Fortunately for Sarah, I didn’t need anything in future. I attributed my irritation at her bubbly, pleasant message to her use of the chillingly superfluous “gone ahead and” (a staple of Mike Judge’s brilliant corporate satire Office Space) and to the fact that, in the spirit of “waste not, want not”, my diet for the last week had almost entirely consisted of an improvised stew that I christened “marrow surprise” (the surprise being that, however much you ate, the turgid, flavour-free plateful never seemed to diminish). And of course, as a grumpy old sub-editor, I was especially annoyed by her “reaching out” thrice in short order. 

But it transpires that many of the British public, some of whom are well-balanced individuals, find “reach out” just as irksome as I do. In a recent Twitter poll, the lexicographer and Countdown regular Susie Dent asked her 1.1 million followers which words or phrases they would like to be banned. “I wanted to reach out” was number five in her top ten. Why, among all the other staples of customer service speak, does this one particularly grate?

First, it’s redundant. During the performative (in the old sense of the word) act of reaching out, the reach-outer is taking the time to tell you, the reach-outee, that they are reaching out to you. Second, it’s self-congratulatory. They didn’t just reach out, they “wanted” to, as if summoning up the desire were an act of noteworthy largesse. Third, it is almost always used in clumsy constructions such as “I wanted to reach out to tell you…”, as opposed to something simple and to the point: “I am contacting you because…”.

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And just as babbling executives attempt to sound dynamic through reflexive use of “going forward” (which was number one on Dent’s poll, for good reason: time is not, so far as we experience it, in the habit of bolting backwards), “reach out” is a product of the matey, twee, Innocent Smoothie school of capitalism: a style of marketing and branding that brings us nauseating sentences along the lines of, “This little ol’ bottle contains sunbeams, cuddles and all the good stuff!” Here, companies that have all the drives and urges of red-blooded capitalism style themselves as cutsey, benign and socially responsible – as local, small, DIY, even fundamentally philanthropic enterprises, rather than machines for perpetuating their own existence and turning a profit.

But I suspect that what really annoys us most of all about “reach out” is that its ingratiating tactility exposes something about consumerism. In the act of “reaching out”, the company representative is active and you are passive, the recipient of their imaginary touch. It tells us that consumerism – presented to us as a series of acts by the free individual, as agency conferred by infinite choice – is about being the object, not the subject. That it’s about manipulable human beings being bombarded by advertising, marketing and other tactics engineered to compel them to buy as much stuff as possible, regardless of whether they need it, or whether it adds to or takes away from their store of happiness. That this is passivity and conformity dressed up not merely as choice, but as the dispensing of individual fulfilment. The perfectly nice Sarah and the probably perfectly nice company she represented weren’t satisfied with presenting themselves as mere grocers: no, in reaching out to me they were peddling contentment in its highest, most sublime form – customer happiness.

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[See also: Sick Britain: where have all the workers gone?]

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