Emotionally unreachable

An early example of an American person reaching out

An early example of an American person reaching out

As the chief solution advocate of Talk Normal I am familiar with the rudiments of business communication on both sides of the Atlantic. But one thing I can’t understand: why do American businesspeople thank me for reaching out to them when I send them an email asking for something?

Note to American readers: I’m not having a pop. The phrase is quite poetic. Satisfied yearnings, a sense of shared destiny, that sort of thing. It’s just that to British ears it’s a bit much when all I’ve done is ask for five minutes on the phone with the product marketing manager.

I’ve been back in Factiva, looking at how often we talk about reaching out at each end of our special relationship. Here are the results: a graph of how often reach out is mentioned in the news pages of magazines and newspapers in each country. It is clear that British people are saying hey! don’t go there, about the phrase. At least we would, if we knew what it meant:

Reach out 1
Americans are currently about three times as likely to reach out, and when you look deeper into the data, many of the examples in British publications involve grey (gray)-import reaching out: US news articles republished in the UK. The Phillips Weasel Index shows that reaching out isn’t currently trending upwards in the US, but it’s pretty firmly embedded, as you can see.

In the UK things are different. We don’t like reaching out much now, but back in the 1980s we didn’t do it at all. When I couldn’t find a single mention in 1980 I thought it must have been due to a small sample size, so I took five-year blocks. And when I looked at the mentions one-by-one, the mentions of reaching out were almost all in imported features. We have never been, it seems, a nation of reach-outers. Look at the graph between 1980 and 2000:
Reach out 2
There are two competing explanations for this. Maybe we Brits aren’t swayed by faddy and meaningless psychobabble and so we prefer descriptions of business communication that don’t pretend that some emotional need is being satisfied by doing our tedious, underpaid jobs. Or maybe we’re just snooty and emotionally repressed.

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