Why we should remember Bill Lumbergh

Douglas Cole, WG '08

Issue date: 2/12/07 Section: Perspectives
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I am one of many who laughed uproariously at the movie Office Space, and especially the Lumbergh character who brilliantly exposed the emptiness of linguistic conventions at work. Since then I've been mindful of the evolution of language, watching out for the latest variations on "go ahead and," "that would be great," "mmkay," and other bland idioms that make up the modern professional's repertoire. Just the other day, in the midst of DIP week, I realized what the new front-runner is: "reach out."

I had seen the phrase a few times in emails from companies I had applied to, but I continued to believe these were rare and isolated instances. It wasn't until I heard an employee from one of the world's top consulting firms actually say to a group of students, "We'll be reaching out to you later today," that I realized the expression had become entirely mainstream as a synonym for "to call" or "to contact," especially in the early stages of a business relationship.

Let's pause to consider why this latest coinage is so annoying. Harkening back to the fabled Lumbergh, we can see the basic problem is that certain default rhetorical devices communicate precisely the opposite of what is intended. Take the well-known appendage "that would be great," for example. This is typically thrown in at the end of a sentence to inject some positive energy into an otherwise cold directive. Thus, one might say, "If you can make sure you have it done by tomorrow, that would be great."

But does anyone actually believe the listener warms up to the idea of performing the task simply because he is told it would be "great" if he did so? Hardly. In fact, more often than not it is the person who lacks an ability to establish a connection with his employees who feels the need to avail himself of such trite formulations. In essence, the phrase functions as a superficial substitute for rapport.

This starts to get at the heart of what's wrong with the "reach out" business. It too plays up the pretend emotion, but to a preposterous degree. Consider: one reaches out to re-connect with a long-lost loved one. One reaches out to help heal the wounds of a downtrodden soul. One doesn't reach out to a professional peer or prospect, for God's sake. To suggest one does is to conjure up a ludicrous image of the speaker with arms outstretched, eyes closed, and lips pursed as he leans in for a tight embrace.

Beyond a primary instinct to appear as nice as possible, the common recourse to these expressions stems, I think, from an underlying insecurity. There is a pervasive sense that the business world is cold and impersonal--that it's all about profits and losses. Acutely aware of this, people within that world struggle to project the opposite image. They attempt to incorporate emotionally-laden metaphors into everyday parlance to show they really do care. In truth, however, they really don't. Or rather, they care mostly about how others perceive them, and they choose their words to ensure the right impression is left. But at the end of the day they don't much care about someone with whom they've had very little contact. The irony, then, is that "reach out" and the like are ostensibly designed to put a more human face on one's dealings with others, but they actually present a false front. They are an exercise in image management that is a far cry from the authenticity or sincerity they seek to convey.

My recommendation is simple. Let's start a cheeky countertrend with the term "reach-around" as a replacement for "reach out". Those who remember the movie Full Metal Jacket - and particularly the Sergeant's diatribe that ends with "I bet you wouldn't even have the common courtesy to give him a reach-around!" - will perhaps see where I am going with this. Think of how one might work it into a piece of official correspondence: "Dear Mr. Smith, Thank you so much for giving me a reach-around the other day. I am truly excited about starting my summer internship with [Firm X], and I look forward to returning that reach-around in due course. Best regards, Douglas Cole."

Over the top, you say? Well, desperate times call for desperate measures.
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