Every once in a while, a new catch phrase appears that you hear or read rarely at first. Then suddenly you meet it everywhere, and it progresses rapidly from novelty to irritant.
The latest phrase to reach the active loathing stage for me is “reach out”. In the past few weeks it seems that everybody–mortgage brokers, politicians, you name it–wants to reach out and make sure I’ve heard the special message they have for me. Generally this message presages an attempt to separate me from some amount of money.
The spiel typically goes something like this: “Dr. Sibert, I wanted to reach out to you and let you know about…” Whatever it is, I can virtually guarantee I don’t want to know about it, and it will make me recoil like a cat from a lawn sprinkler. What’s particularly annoying about this introductory gambit is its implication that I was in need of being reached out to, or rescued. In effect, the message suggests that the writer is in possession of valuable information without which I will flounder or sink.
This brings me to a point about modern manners. Often, phrases that are used to convey politeness or helpfulness today contain a veiled insult, and aren’t genuinely polite at all. Take, for instance, the greeting you often hear on the phone or from a receptionist: “How may I help you?” Consider for a moment what this question actually conveys. The person asking the question makes two presumptuous assertions. The first is that I am a hapless individual in need of help, and the second is that he or she is uniquely qualified to offer any of the many kinds of help that I might need. This is very different from the simpler and more courteous question that was usually asked in times past: “May I help you?” This query simply asked if the speaker might offer any assistance. It did not imply that the other party was incompetent or helpless, or that the speaker possessed superior powers.
When my husband and I traveled in Japan, we were particularly struck by the difference in manner between the salesclerks in Japanese shops and department stores compared to many in America. If a wait of any length takes place in Japan, the staff members seem genuinely regretful and say “Thank you for waiting” as soon as they are able to attend to you. In the United States, if salesclerks even notice that you have been kept waiting, they are more likely to say, “Thank you for your patience.” I’ve always found this annoying. The assumption that I have waited patiently is nearly always wrong. I would react much better to a simple “I’m so sorry that you’ve been kept waiting,” and acknowledgement of the fact that waiting is generally irritating and inconvenient.
There are so many other misuses of the English language in print and other media today. So little that is labeled “amazing” actually is. The words “affect” and “effect” may not be used interchangeably. The word “impact” is a noun, not a verb. And a tire or a diaper may need changing or it may need to be changed; it does not “need changed”. Texting may in fact augur the death of elegance in the English language as we have known it. But that, dear reader, is a topic for another day.