Reach out and touch somebody

It’s nearly 200 years since Darwin first came up with his theory of evolution and yet, even now, evolutionary scientists can not fully explain how new species arise.

In the 1980s in Australia, there were reported sightings of a previously unknown animal. These reports increased throughout the decade, probably because the creature was easily identifiable due to a unique combination of traits, particularly the sound it made.

By the late 1980s, anywhere you went in Australia, whether hiking in the bush, mucking around at Bondi Beach, or trekking by camel across the remote sandy desert, sooner or later you would stop, and turn your head towards the breeze, on which you could faintly hear, wafting, the melodic strains of this distinctive creature, floating through the air.

Sometimes a new category of species is created through breeding processes, and although it was still 20 years before we would all go crazy, mating our labradors with the neighbor’s poodles to make a batch of warm, fluffy labradoodles, it seems that some sinister laboratory cross-breeding experiment went horribly wrong and resulted in a new species that was a cross between UK band Simple Minds and Aussie band INXS.

The newly-emerged creature was a specific category of male homosapien, about 6 feet tall, with dark hair, that was always curly – if not genetically, then through chemical means – usually worn in a long mullet. The creature’s normal garb was black leather trousers and a black leather jacket, and his natural habitat was on a stage in front of a drummer, a bass, lead and rhythm guitar, and – since it was, after all, the 1980s – the optional but highly likely additions of a synthesiser and a saxophone.

These creatures seemed to be capable of multiplying at an astronomical rate, and during this period, a plethora of Aussie bands flooded the airwaves with the Simple Minds-X-INXS sound – much as, 20 years later, dog-rescue centres would be flooded with an oversupply of labradoodles, cavoodles, schnoodles and schmoodles.

Anyone who has studied the history of this animal (the mullet-headed band leader, not the poodle-cross) knows that the most significant practitioners of this sound were two particular Aussie bands, Noiseworks and Boom Crash Opera. (Another trait these bands had in common, apparently, was to ensure that loud noise was synonymous with their very identity.)

Below follows a taste test, so that you can make your own decision about the similarities. First, the originals:

  1. INXS – Melting in the Sun (1984)

 

2. Alive and Kicking – Simple Minds (1985)

 

And next, their progeny:

Boom Crash Opera – Great Wall (1987)

 

Noiseworks – Touch (1988)

 

Anyone interested enough to check out a portion of each, will find evidence that definite cross-breeding occurred.

Inevitably, just like a labradoodle, Boom Crash Opera and Noiseworks never quite managed (in my humble opinion) to reach the same level of success that their forebears had. Back in those days, I loved INXS (did I tell you about the time I met Michael Hutchence?) and I guess I liked Simple Minds well enough. Whereas to me, the most interesting thing about Boom Crash Opera was that one afternoon in 1988, guitarist Richard Pleasance called hello to me and a friend from the window of an upstairs apartment in St Kilda. Despite the thrill my 19-year old self felt at that event, the relationship between myself and Pleasance never progressed any further, and nor did the relationship between myself and the music of Boom Crash Opera. As for Noiseworks, I was never interested in their sound. It was not that I had developed more sophisticated taste by then (I hadn’t) but just that in 1988 I preferred the gentler melodies of The Pet Shop Boys and Aussie/New Zealand band Crowded House.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that they only ever seemed like a weak imitation of a better band, and even the fact that a few days after starting this post I thought of at least 2 far better songs with the lyrics “reach out” in them, it was the Noiseworks song above that I thought of when I received an emailed response to some negative feedback I’d given about a food product I’d ordered.

Aha! You thought this was a post about 80’s bands, but it’s really about corporate catch-phrases. Gotcha!

So anyway, three days after I sent my feedback, I’d received three emails from this company. The first was an automated reply to say my feedback had been received and that they’d be in touch with me shortly. The next email, about 48 hours later, was to say that they’d received a high amount of contact this week and there would be a further delay in responding to my feedback. The third was an actual response, written by a human being, that opened with the line, “Hello. Thank you for reaching out to us.”

The scariest thing on reading this was, that this was the second time in one week, I’d been thanked for ‘reaching out’. The other instance was equally as ridiculous. At work we use Dropbox for all our electronic files, and I knew our Dropbox Business Account was due to be renewed, I wanted to confirm what the charge would be, so I checked our account online, where I could see our 15 Dropbox accounts – and the total cost that we paid last year. I thought there might be an increase in the cost for the next financial year, so I filled out the online form to ask what the cost would be this year. In response, I received an email from a staff member at Dropbox, that began, “Thank you for reaching out. I understand you would like to know how much your annual charge will be” – and then pointed me to the link I’d already checked, to our account, showing me what the current charges are.

From these two emails I gather that suddenly we are not able to simply “ask how much our bill will be” or “give some negative feedback”, and heaven forbid we should be perceived to be “making a complaint.” No, all of these interactions and more can now be summarised under the touchy-feely, feel-good umbrella of “reaching out.”

This is where we come to another, more insidious sort of cross-breeding, that of terms and concepts from psychology and psychotherapy, bred most unfortunately with terms and concepts from New Age theories, for the purpose of creating a brand new Marketing and Communications Strategy.

The result is watered-down terms that have lost their original meaning. To describe someone as “reaching out” traditionally implies that they are asking for help in really dire circumstances. If you Google “reach out” in Australia, the first page of links are all for a youth organisation called Reach Out. That makes sense to me, because community organisations encourage people to reach out for help or support in a time of need.

It’s now common in Australia, that after any story on TV, radio or in print media that touches on topics like depression or anxiety, suicide, mental illness, or any other issue that could cause distress, phone numbers for organisations like LifeLine are listed, along with a message that says “if anything on tonight’s program has caused concern please phone the numbers below.” That’s because we try to encourage people to reach out, and let someone else know that they need some help. It’s a phrase that relates to circumstances a million times removed from checking on an annual bill, or complaining that a meal was not edible.

So I really find it repulsive that corporate-type companies have begun to take over the term “reaching out” and use it, apparently, for any and all customer contact. On both occasions, my reasons for contacting the companies in question were mundane, and it is a manipulative use of language to describe those interactions as me “reaching out,” as if I reached out needing help in a time of distress, or perhaps just needing some friendly contact to stave off loneliness, and, lo and behold, these corporate-type companies came to my rescue.

I’m glad to report that I’ve unsubscribed to the first company. I can’t unsubscribe my workplace from Dropbox but I’ll avoid “reaching out” to them again if possible.

If I do feel the need to reach out to somebody, I’ll probably start with my family, my friends, or even write a post here, as writing a post feels far more personal than emailing a supplier to ask how much my bill will be.

Or maybe I’ll just put on some bad music from the 80’s and imagine I’m reaching out to touch somebody.

*

“Reach out, reach out, reach out and touch somebody.” – Noiseworks, from The Noiseworks Marketing and Communications Strategy, 1988.

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7 Comments

  1. You have a great way with words my friend!

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    • Thanks Tandi! I would have preferred to tie the two topics together somehow at the end but I ran out of time and it would have become too long. So I’m glad if you liked it as is!

      Like

      Reply
  2. If you’ve been affected by anything in this response, please call my customer service line. Your call is important to us.

    Like

    Reply
  3. And of course, given the era of music, I couldn’t help but think of the Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” with its line “Reach out and touch faith.”

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • Exactly, that was one of the better songs I thought of after I’d already started the post. Perhaps I was reminded at first of the more mediocre song because it’s a mediocre tactic to describe a routine customer query as ” reaching out”.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  4. Pop bands, boy bands, rock bands, or whatever they call these things nowadays, have never figured on my mental, let alone aesthetic, landscape and I wouldn’t know an INXS or a Pet Shop Boy if I bumped into one or, worse still, had to listen to one. I therefore cannot comment on that aspect of your post.

    With regard to ‘reaching out’, I regard such meaningless and formulaic phrases as a symptom of the machine age in which we live, in which processes have become mechanized and people running them have become robotized. Communications between customers and organizations, commercial or otherwise, are these days scripted. That is to say, the representative you email or contact by phone has a prepared set of verbal responses, form letters or form emails, which they slightly adapt to the exact details of your particular ‘reaching out’. It can be fun to attempt the knock them off the script and leave them floundering – a game best played on the phone.

    ‘Reaching out’ is only one of the multitude of inappropriate and illogical script-phases dreamed up by semi-literate hacks with no understanding of grammar or inter-personal relationships. The main point of the exercise is the create a defensive wall between you and anyone in the company who actually has the power to help. You are sent round and round in a circle until you give up. It is very frustrating and it is virtually impossible for the individual customer to break through.

    Another such phrase often occurs at the end of a call to a helpline (a misnomer if ever there was one). Having spent a considerable amount of time carefully avoiding helping you, the operative cheerfully enquires ‘Is there anything else I can help you with today?’

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • You’ve hit the nail on the head there Silver Tiger. All most customer helplines seem able to do these days is to send you round in circles until you either a. give up or b. do the leg work and fix the problem yourself – if that is at all possible.

      And yes, I recently wrote about a situation where, after giving a clearly unsatisfactory answer to three separate queries in a row, the person asked if there was anything else they could help with. What can you say to that?? The final insult is when, after that interaction, they swiftly email you a survey to ask you to rate the service you just received. Or once, on the phone to Telstra, our telecommunications provider at work, I was transferred through to an automated voice asking me to rate the service I’d just received – even though I’d asked to be transferred to someone else who could help me!

      For your own sanity, all you can do in these situations is laugh.

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      Reply

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