May I ask you a question?

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Lately my more formal, stiff students (mostly undergrads) have been using the expression "reach out to you" when they want to ask me a question.  I also notice that I'm receiving random inquiries from people I don't know who approach me with this opening.

There's definitely a surge of "reaching out".  Two or three years ago, I only received messages with that beginning rarely, almost never, but now I get at least one a week.

Does anyone know when this way of couching a question started to become popular?  Any idea of the context in which it began to be used so routinely?

Four or five years ago, "quick question" fulfilled a similar function.  I didn't mind at first, but after receiving a flood of "quick questions", some of which actually required quite a bit of time on my part to answer, I became annoyed whenever I received a message that began:  "Quick question".

As "reach out to you" waxes (of that I am personally certain), "quick question" seems to wane (at least for me it does).  I don't hear "quick question" much anymore, for which I can be grateful. On the other hand, I'm now faced with the prospect of so many people "reaching out to me" that it is cloying.

In terms of emotional effect, "quick question" is precipitous, whereas "reach out to" is unctuous — quite the opposite.

Nancy Friedman has a valuable "state of the phrase" article on "reach out" as of 2011:

For what it's worth (and do take it with a grain of salt because both expressions have meanings / uses other than the one we are interested in), here's a Google Ngram of "reach out to" and "quick question".



48 Comments »

  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 5:17 pm

    "Reach out" was a stock idiom on NYPD Blue in the 1990s. I don't know if that accounts for its current popularity, but that's when it first came to my attention.

  2. Rube said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 5:25 pm

    Gregory Kusnick got here ahead of me. I totally associate "reach out " with NYPD Blue. I have no theory as to how a 20 year old cop show would link up with the usage of students who weren't born when it premiered, though.

  3. Dave Orr said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 5:42 pm

    Relatedly, inside Google, over chat people used to say: "quick question". Then they started just saying "qq". Recently I had someone open a chat with, "Hi Dave, I have a quick qq."

    I wasn't sure if she thought that qq meant question and she had a quick one, or if she was saying she had an actually quick quick question.

  4. maidhc said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 6:00 pm

    If someone said QQ to me I would think they wanted to go for some noodles. But then we have a chain called QQ Noodles around here. (It's slang for chewy noodles).

    When I hear "reach out" my first association is "I think it's so groovy now that people are finally gettin' together" ("Reach Out in the Darkness", 1968) and second association would be "a href="">Reach Out (I'll Be There)" (1967). And my wife's first association was this commercial (1979).

  5. Jonny said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 6:01 pm

    I take "reach out to" as providing acknowledgement that you are not closely acquainted, i.e. "reaching out" of one's network of acquaintance to make a connection. This explains the use by people contacting you who do not know you well. Likewise, people may use it to acknowledge their contact aiming to shortening the social distance/to preface their contact, and it acts as an introduction.

    It's definitely common in the context of networking in business and with young people who, especially as students, are probably being told about the importance of "reaching out" to people in order to expand their network for better career opportunities. At the same time, "reaching out" is a fairly casual phrase to denote this subtext. At least, this is my experience in the UK.

  6. maidhc said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 6:02 pm

    Sorry, I messed up the link on the Four Tops:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EaflX0MWRo

    Killer bass line on that song.

  7. DonBoy said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 6:25 pm

    I always say, "The question may be quick, but you have no idea about the answer."

  8. Brian Spooner said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 6:36 pm

    We all know that language usage changes and that the change has something to do with social context. We also know that the social context of English usage has been changing at an accelerating rate over the past 50 years. What we need is a systematic study of the use of new expressions, like "reaching out," "quick question," "have a good one," "cool," "going forward," "you know what I mean," etc., none of which were said when I first came to this country fifty years ago. What sort of people started each of them? and how fast did they spread to the rest of the English-speaking world (which since two decades or so ago includes Paris, Berlin and Rome, as well as what we are used to thinking of as the English-speaking world.

  9. bratschegirl said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 6:39 pm

    I'm accustomed to hearing "reach out" used as a way of indicating that there is another person, not currently involved in whatever interaction is under discussion, who is likely to have knowledge/information/power/clout that would be useful to those who already are involved, and therefore someone intends to "reach out" to ask them for assistance. It seems odd, then, to use that in a face to face conversation, because both participants are obviously already involved in the discussion.

  10. Nancy Friedman said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 6:46 pm

    Thanks for the link to that long-ago Visual Thesaurus column! I'm reaching out now to ask if you would correct the spelling of my last name.

  11. Thorin said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 7:12 pm

    If someone wanted to reach out to me, it would make me think they believe I'm suffering from an addiction or have just experienced some trauma. Is there anything you'd like to tell us all, Mark? It's okay.

  12. Thorin said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 7:12 pm

    I'm sorry, Victor*

  13. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 7:25 pm

    @Nancy Friedman

    Fixed now. By having you down as "Nancy Friendman", I think that I was subconsciously reaching out to you.

  14. Rebecca said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 7:51 pm

    At least your students are not trying to "catch up with you", which seems to be the way that more and more journalists reach out to ask a quick question or two of their subjects.

  15. JB said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 7:54 pm

    "Reaching out" certainly sounds like they're seeking psychiatric help, which, in the case of contemporary students, is most apposite.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 8:46 pm

    The first two comments traced "reach out" to NYPD Blue. Since I didn't watch NYPD Blue, would somebody explain to me how it was used in that cop show of the 1990s?

  17. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 9:35 pm

    Victor: A few minutes of searching didn't turn up any relevant clips on YouTube (though I'm sure they're out there somewhere). But typically the detectives would talk about "reaching out" to potential witnesses, DAs, social workers, colleagues at other precincts, etc. in the course of building a case. Sobriety was an ongoing theme, so Detective Sipowicz might also "reach out" to friends and AA sponsors when under stress.

    In a nutshell, initiating communication with pretty much anyone outside the squad was stereotypically phrased as "reaching out".

  18. Davek said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 9:36 pm

    I first heard it as business jargon around 2000, with the meaning "try to contact". It's a usefully vague term since it doesn't specify the means and doesn't promise actual communication–only that you'll send an e-mail or leave a voice message and if the other party doesn't reply, it's not your fault.

  19. ===Dan said,

    June 12, 2017 @ 11:21 pm

    It took a few seconds for this song to reach out to my consciousness. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OapWdclVqEY

  20. Jan Freeman said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 1:57 am

    I wrote about "reach out" in 1997, including a couple of examples of its use on "NYPD Blue"; it's reproduced on my blog here since the Globe original is paywalled:
    http://throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com/2011/10/reaching-out-nypd-blue-connection.html

  21. Cecilia Moore said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 2:14 am

    Just curious about the table. It says that they data was gathered by searching through books- but I can't think of when the phrase "a quick question" would be in a piece of literature. It's definitely most often used in emails/conversationally. This makes me think that the use of "a quick question" was actually much more widespread than the table implies.

  22. Ray said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 5:42 am

    I've only encountered "reaching out" in the workplace, and it's almost always used by women. I've always thought it odd, borderline creepy, because it implies some kind of "embrace" but at "an arm's length" — intrusive yet distant (kinda like "pick your brain"). maybe students are using it now because they associate it with "business english"?

  23. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 7:08 am

    Pretty much exactly what Davek said, though I'd put the date about five years later, which could just be a US/UK lexical delay.

  24. Rube said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 7:47 am

    @Victor Mair: My memory is the same as Gregory Kusnick's. (And a quick Google for "NYPD Blue reach out" shows that the phrase is intimately connected with the show.)

    I'm too busy at work to go searching for transcripts at the moment, but something like this would have been fairly typical:

    "You think she's a hooker?"

    "Maybe. I got a friend in Midtown Vice, you want me to reach out and see if he knows her?"

    "Yeah, reach out, see what you can find."

  25. Riikka said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 8:59 am

    @maidhc:

    Less QQ, more pew pew!

  26. cameron said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 9:19 am

    Jan Freeman's link above points to the old AT&T slogan "reach out and touch someone" – the business jargon sense might have started as an ironic reference to those TV commercials.

  27. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 9:33 am

    When someone asks, "Can I ask you a question?" is it rude to reply "You just did"?

  28. Jeremy Knight said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 9:33 am

    I'm surprised no one mentioned AT&T's "reach out and touch someone" commercial campaign in the '80s.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OapWdclVqEY

    That would certainly help embed the phrase in the public consciousness.

  29. Robert Coren said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 9:37 am

    @Dan Lufkin: How about "I'm sure you can"?

  30. Robert Coren said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 9:38 am

    @Brian Spooner: "Cool"? When did you arrive in the US? "Cool" has been around at least since my childhood (born 1946).

  31. Roscoe said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 11:55 am

    Hands
    Touching hands
    Reaching out
    Touching me
    Touching you…

  32. Stephen said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

    @DonBoy

    'I always say, “The question may be quick, but you have no idea about the answer.”'

    For example, "What is the solution to Fermat's Last Theorem?".

  33. Nick Kaldis said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 2:53 pm

    This topic causes an interesting related neologism to come to mind: when did "outreach" come into currency? Our campus has, for instance, a "Community Outreach" office.

  34. bt said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 4:22 pm

    First time I heard it was on a construction job.

    We were designing a data center for AT&T in California. The New York real estate guys from AT&T who would visit us often used the "Reach Out" to so and so. Usually to get some assistance or guidance. This was in the late 90's.

    So, yes, it very well may be an AT&T thing.

    Now it's gone national.

  35. DWalker07 said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 4:43 pm

    In cop shows, I have heard detectives asking each other to "reach out" to an informant, to see what they know about someone's whereabouts and recent activities… and even to "reach out" to an acquaintance of the deceased to ask him "where he was on the night in question".

    As others have said, I hear "reach out" at my company a lot. We are asked to reach out to department X to find out what they think about some initiative or process, or to ask for their help with something.

  36. DWalker07 said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 4:45 pm

    And… I missed Rube's answer earlier, about how cop shows use this. Yep, that's exactly typical use.

  37. AntC said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 5:19 pm

    @Davek I first heard it as business jargon around 2000, with the meaning “try to contact”.

    Yes, I'd say it's managementspeak.

    @Ginger Yellow I'd put the date about five years later, which could just be a US/UK lexical delay

    Yes, in my case a US/NZ delay.

    (I never watched NYPD.)

  38. aka_darrell said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 6:14 pm

    "May I ask you a question?"

    Once a co-worker approached and asked "May I ask you a question?" I replied "You just did." Others laughed. My co-worker stormed off. I never knew what he wanted to ask.

  39. Peter Taylor said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 1:42 am

    LinkedIn, a social network for recruiting for white-collar jobs, has templates for replies to unsolicited job offers which all begin "Hi {name}, thank you for reaching out". This might have helped to spread the phrase.

  40. Ed Rorie said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 7:54 am

    I seem to remember that the AT&T slogan “reach out and touch someone” became a snowclone that generated, most brilliantly, "reach out and crush someone." (Back when "the phone company" was a thing.) Could it have been Lily Tomlin who did that?

  41. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 9:50 am

    I never heard it until I started working at a corporate job. In my experience, it seems to be a favorite coinage of business-speak. I can't think of a single instance in memory where a friend said it conversationally in a non-business setting.

  42. Brett said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 3:52 pm

    I definitely also associate "reach out" with NYPD Blue. One example that I remember very specifically went like this:

    Det. McDowell: I'm thinking about reaching out to her.
    Det. Sipowicz: Don't.

  43. B Rambo said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 5:09 pm

    In the early days of the TV show NYPD Blue, the detectives were always talking about "reaching out" to ask, or consult, or to otherwise investigate. That's back in the 90s.

  44. Victor Mair said,

    June 15, 2017 @ 4:18 pm

    Everybody who wants to reach out and ask somebody a quick question should be required to read this first:

    "How to Ask for Advice Over Email"

    Nick Douglas, Lifehacker (6/15/17)

  45. Nathan said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 11:23 pm

    I telecommute. My main medium of contact with the office is an instant message system. The system tracks a small set of statuses that each of us is expected to update accurately. I can see when my supervisor or a colleague is in an "available" status, but I start nearly every chat with "May I ask a question?" Indeed, I get both positive and negative responses. My practice seems to me the perfectly natural and courteous approach. I don't think I would do much differently in person.

    But I don't think I use "reach out to" with a second person complement.

  46. Victor Mair said,

    June 17, 2017 @ 2:09 pm

    Reaching out and connecting

    "I reached out to Columbia, Dylan's record label, to try to connect with Dylan or his management for comment, but as of publication time, I have not heard back."

    From Andrea Pritzer, "The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan: Did the singer-songwriter take portions of his Nobel lecture from SparkNotes?" (Slate, 6/13/17)

    http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2017/06/did_bob_dylan_take_from_sparknotes_for_his_nobel_lecture.html

  47. Francis Boyle said,

    June 21, 2017 @ 1:40 pm

    @Robert Coren

    I can (just about) remember when 'cool' became uncool and when it became cool again.

  48. a George said,

    June 24, 2017 @ 4:56 pm

    For me, 'reaching out' has always (?) been associated with being a good samaritan, never being the asking part. You could say that it corresponds to 'push' in an information exchange that may be caused by 'pull' and/or 'push'. Hence, if I were to approach Victor Mair in order to ask a question and were to use the construction under discussion, I would be compelled to say "would you reach out to me and answer a question I have?"

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