Language is vibrant, varying, and viral. Without us being aware of it, vocabulary and style of writing can become common in different cultures, whether that culture be a domain of science on Twitter, an industry, or a family.

There are pros and cons to this. A benefit is that it can lead to more efficient communication. If there is a word or phrase that does well to summarize an idea, it’s great you can use the word-thing instead of having to re-articulate the idea. But on the other hand, If you take things very literally, there are some commonly used phrases that might drive you nuts. I think it’s a good practice to think over some of the phrases that we might use to the point that we don’t even think about them anymore. This post is about two of those phrases.

Thanks for reaching out

Thanks for reaching out

A reach is a physical extension of an arm to physically grasp or touch something. I get it, when someone thanks me for reaching out, they are alluding to this. But I take this literally. Whenever someone thanks me for “reaching out” they are likely thousands of miles away, and I imagine myself with Stretch Armstrong super arms flying across the midwest to tap them on the shoulder. If I tried to reach out, really, I wouldn’t actually get very far.

Then I am suspicious. I just contacted support because my cocoa powder was exploded in its arrival box. Why would you thank me? Here is the real meaning of the phrase. The support staff want to start the conversation in an empathetic way. The person on the other end of the email or phone isn’t really thankful in the same way he or she is thankful for health and happiness - a “thanks for reaching out” is a template that is the known and professional way in this implicit support staff culture to start a correspondence. It sometimes is followed with an assertion of the company culture:

We take our server pancakes very seriously. Your pancake quality is important to us.

Why should the conversation open in this way? It frames me to generally think of the company or support as being helpful and on my side before any of the actual interaction has started.” If I’m an ornery, unsatisfied customer it might alleviate some of my inner Cruella Deville. You could never jump into the main point and say “Hi Customer, you can’t log into your account because you deleted it three months ago. Cheers!” because in the scope of an email that sounds curt and cold. If I’m ornery enough I might post in some reviews section that my cocoa was exploded and look how terrible it is all over the place, and hurt future sales. But I might not do that because this little phrase is telling the other party that he or she is valued. Do I feel valued when someone thanks me for reaching out? Maybe some people do, but I usually am mostly aware that the person is using this template phrase, and wondering if he or she is aware of it too.

Whether you run a company or a Github issue board, the most important thing is to be consistent. If you break someone’s expectations, then you might either come across as cold and dismissive (He didn’t thank me for reaching out!) or overly superficial (What? Why is he thanking me?).

The correct response lives somewhere along the dimension between meeting expectation, and setting a new one. The established culture of your domain, somewhere along that dimension, might not also be the best. If you think a manner of interaction might be different and improve the experience, give it a go to try! It might be liked and slowly trickle into mainstream culture.

The Lesson: Reaching Out

Whenever you get the urge to say “Thanks for reaching out” ask yourself if the sentiment is truly felt. If so, try to be more specific about why. If it’s not, but part of a culture of communication, challenge yourself to empathize with the person on a level deeper than thanking them for some question or complaint. If it’s not part of the culture, then decide how the culture might be, and practice that. Talk to other people about your ideas, and show them of the responses, and maybe they can try the practice too. It might slowly become that. If you are a minion plugged into a support model, you aren’t allowed to change what you say, and you don’t feel genuine about the template respondes, then ask yourself if this is really the kind of work you want to do.

The RoadMap

Oh lord, the RoadMap. I don’t run a company, but when I hear someone going on about a RoadMap all I hear is “I have nothing to really show you, but I want to impress you anyway,” or “We don’t really have solidified ideas, but will pretend that we do to get your reaction to our span of desperate ideas.”

Roadmaps are unfortunately on the same level as Fibromyalgia or reactions to anything that cannot be seen or measured. It could be that you do have in fact a very real thing. But if you had a real thing, couldn’t you just tell me about it directly? The simple mention of the roadmap to begin with thus implies that there is no tangible thing. Power Point slides don’t count. All I could do is trust that you are being genuine. I understand the rationale for the term. You want to communicate that you have lofty and desirable future plans. You decide to call these plans a “roadmap” because you are implying you must embark on some journey to get there. But I don’t find roadmaps convincing. You could, theoretically, at any moment claim that something stated is on your roadmap.

So, your competitor is working on AI for toilet paper, have you heard of that?

Percy the Presenter

OH yeah, it’s on our roadmap.

If you want to do better, how about actually making direct statements about the tasks that you’ve done or are actively working on. Or being straightforward? How about this:

So, your competitor is working on AI for toilet paper, have you heard of that?

Percy the Presenter

We think this is an interesting idea. We are working on a model to predict TP squishiness from images, but it hasn’t broken 70% accuracy yet.

What is clear is that from the first interaction, the presenter is forcing the interested party to ask for more details. Maybe they won’t. It feels very controversial, like a “me versus you,” or “I’ll reveal only the positive things I think you want to hear” interaction. But from thesecond interaction? There is room to work together! The next line could be:

Interesting! Have you tried including metadata about how it was manufactured?

Percy the Presenter

We didn’t think of that! We were starting with unwrapped rolls. Do you want to step back and talk about how we can do this better - maybe what the inputs are, what information we might derive, and what models might be best suited?

The conversation would go on! Maybe you would bring out the whiteboard and it would get fun! The point is that the straight forward approach leads to better communication, and likely more useful interaction. The “I want to impress you with my roadmap line” might only create a sense of conflict between the two parties. Telling me specifically what you are doing, to a level that I can ask questions about it, is useful. Even better, don’t waste time making a PowerPoint about your roadmap. Draw something on the whiteboard, or prepare something tangible to show. It’s okay if it’s a duct taped together thing that is missing ears, I’ll still listen and care. Telling me it’s on your roadmap just makes me suspicious that you don’t have anything at all. You probably don’t.

The Lesson: Road Maps

If you feel the urge to utter or write something about a roadmap, challenge yourself to express the same idea without using the general phrase. Either you will provide more tangible and useful material for conversation, or realize that you haven’t really thought about the idea. If there is something you haven’t thought about, that alone is an interesting conversation.