I work for a nonprofit that matches volunteer mentors 1:1 with kids. The other day, as I spoke with one of our mentors over the phone, he reminded me of an important lesson on language. “I’m here for the family if they need me,” he said. “I mean, if they ever feel like…I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but it seems more and more common these days, so here goes: If they ever feel like reaching out…”
When the volunteer used that particular turn of phrase, he didn’t just sound irritated. He sounded like he might barf. I shared this story with my husband JR, and he said he’d had a similar interaction with my father recently. I guess my dad had called someone and left a message, and when the guy called back, he said, “Thanks for reaching out,” which did not sit well at all with Dad. Recounting the unpleasant experience later, Dad explained to JR, “I wasn’t reaching out. I just called him.”
“Reaching out” is one of many bits of therapeutic lingo that counselor-types throw around with reckless abandon. Last week, I received an email from a school social worker, and she used variations of that (apparently) egregious phrase three times in one paragraph. I’m sure she meant no harm by it, as I mean no harm when I use similar jargon like “circle back,” “checking in,” “on the same page,” or any reference to an individual’s “toolbox” or “path.” (In my defense, I never mention categorical “buckets” or the need to “unpack” anything, so I’m not a total loss.)
I suppose I can understand why some people take exception to “reaching out.” Perhaps to them, those words imply that the speaker believes the listener requires help, like a toddler who’s fallen down and hurt himself, and they don’t appreciate the phrase’s insinuations of vulnerability and neediness.
Or maybe they think of it in a more sinister way, like:
AAAAAHHHH!!! Save yourselves! She’s reaching out!!
Regardless of their reasoning, what I’ve learned from all of this is that it’s possible to annoy someone to the point of abject disgust when all I’m really trying to do is say hi. While that’s pretty damn funny, it also speaks to the power of language. My new plan is to take the time to say what I mean with less of a reliance on jargon. Used consistently, this strategy should reduce the number of times I horrify people completely by accident.