‘Reaching out’ over the holidays

A verb that had a glory run a generation ago seems to be making a comeback.

The holidays usually are filled with news features and other discussions about people “reaching out” to the poor (aka “the less fortunate”), the homeless, the newly (or still) unemployed, or even cranky relatives. God bless us, every one! as Tiny Tim would say.

We also hear things such as, “Before the end of the year, we reached out to our donor community,” that is, everyone in our database who had ever contacted us for any reason at all.

But I’ve been noticing reaching out in more general usage over the past few months. I’ve been hearing it in some of my professional communication as a multipurpose substitute for “getting in touch.” And I’ve heard it from the lips, or the keyboarding fingers, of some of my hipper interlocutors. It comes up in contexts like “Thanks for reaching out,” as another way of saying “thanks for calling.”

To reach out, whether to offer something or even to ask for something (help), is, obviously, an outward, other-directed action. Perhaps especially in a time when the job market still seems frozen and for a lot of people, “it’s all about me,” at least until they can get their own personal economy jump-started, to thank someone for “reaching out” is a way of reframing supplication as a gesture of generosity. To thank the other person for “reaching out” is to turn his or her “ask” into a “give,” in other words. It’s a gracious thing to do, and that may be why people are doing it.

Reach out is one of those umbrella terms that suggests any of a number of different actions but no one thing in particular. Reach out skates across the surface of phone calls, e-mails, couriered envelopes. You can tell when the action is complete, but you can’t be sure beforehand what form it will take.

Anyone who was a sentient being within the American media and cultural space during the early 1980s surely remembers the AT&T ads of that era urging us all to “reach out and touch someone.” No less a media eminence than Marshall McLuhan is credited with that tag line. The campaign was created by the advertising agency N.W. Ayer in the last years of the Bell System telephone monopoly. The subtext of the campaign was the phone giant’s desire to soften its corporate image with a literally more “touchy-feely” message.

The campaign was a huge hit; an entire book was devoted to it, “Thirty Seconds,” by Michael J. Arlen. The title phrase came from the length, or rather the brevity, of the commercials that made up the campaign. (A wordsmith’s digression: The corporate division of the phone company that handled long-distance services was known simply as “Long Lines.” The brevity and simplicity of that phrase in a technology world otherwise cluttered with polysyllabic jargon and initialisms are still wonderful to contemplate.)

My initial thought about reaching out was that it was coming back into use because a new generation that didn’t remember the AT&T ads had grown up into positions of responsibility. But on further reflection, I think it may be coming back because people do remember, in some folk-memory sense, the old ads. And Verizon Wireless, one of the Bell grandbabies (step-grandbabies?) brought back “Reach out” as an ad slogan in 2003. In an era when YouTube bestows immortality on skateboarding cats, nothing really slips from memory.

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