Most weeks I try to arrange things so that I am in my car on a Monday morning when the BBC World Service’s Business Daily is on, specifically so I can hear Lucy Kellaway reading her weekly column for the FT.
This is unfailingly good listening for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because of Ms Kellaway’s ability to skewer the nonsense that accompanies so much of business life, while never questioning the fundamental importance of business itself.
One of her pet hates – and mine – is the insidious drivel that is management jargon. For several years now she has awarded annual Golden Flannel Awards to business leaders who use words not to communicate, but to obfuscate, confuse and above all to make bewildered listeners believe they are hearing something clever when they are not. This week, for example, Lucy and others have taken Barclays CEO Jes Staley to task for expressing a wish to unlock shareholder value, rather than simply to make more money.
This stuff isn’t new to most of us. Blessed is the fortunate being who has not endured bum and mind-numbing hours in meetings talking about alignment, helicopter views, value added and scalability. Meetings that end, more often than not, with agreement that some of those present will reach out to others not in the room.
Is there a more absurd and detestable expression? What managers mean when they say they will reach out to someone else is that they will contact them, or maybe talk to them. There is nothing wrong with using these words. They are simple, clear and have the inestimable benefit of having been in use for some time, so are widely understood.
There are, of course, times when it is perfectly legitimate to say reach out, but never in a business context. Reaching out is a physical (or at a metaphorical push, emotional) action that implies either the offering or receiving of comfort, love or reassurance. The Four Tops sang ‘reach out, reach out for me, I’ll be there…’ for a reason. They did not mean ‘contact me and I’ll be there’. Nor, for the same reasons, did Diana Ross urge people to make contact with somebody’s hand to make the world a better place.
But at least such nonsense is confined to the workplace, leaving us in our personal lives to plough the furrow of language that actually communicates meaning.
Or at least I thought so until this week.
I had sent an email to a woman held in the highest regard in her field and someone I am proud and honoured to call a friend. Since it is over a year since we last saw one another and since her daughter and mine have been friends for almost 20 years I filled her in on family news and on the minor joys, stumbles and anxieties therein.
To my delight she replied with an email just as newsy and gossipy, and I read it with a smile on my face until I reached the final paragraph, in which she thanked me for reaching out. I was stopped in my tracks. What could she mean? Why would she say such a thing in a personal communication? It suggests a horrible distance and formality. You don’t reach out to a friend; you contact them; you talk to them.
Since then I have given more thought to that single phrase than it probably deserves. My friend is constantly, frenetically busy and in demand professionally, so perhaps she simply switched into work mode and used the expression from habit as she became aware it was time to finish the email and move on to something more productive.
But what if that isn’t the reason? What if the use of this dreadful expression by this clever, talented, sensitive woman who is in possession of one of the most refined BS-detectors I have ever encountered, marks its passing into ‘civvie’ life?
We need to take a stand. This is the thin end of the wedge. If we accept reaching out then it can only be a matter of time before we are progressing issues as we drive to the supermarket, incentivising our children to do their homework, and delivering solutions over the dinner table.
It’s a fate too horrible to imagine.