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The dictionary explains this as:

To show somebody that you are interested in them and/or want to help them

The explanation indicates the subject of the sentence is the one that offers help, but I think this one is also correct:

I'll try it first, and if I can't handle it, I'll reach out to you for help.

I am confused about who offers help because I saw my native speaker colleague write this in an email:

Thanks for reaching out to me.

Is this a "thanks" for helping or being asked to help?

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You might need to provide more context but yes, he seems to be thanking you just for contacting him. –  djm Nov 12 '12 at 15:32
    
One thing I wondered is if "Reaching out" is the new "Touching base"? Most of the times I hear this phrase it's from warm fuzzy silicon valley startups. –  QF_Developer Feb 15 at 12:17
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4 Answers

up vote 24 down vote accepted

The definition shown in your dictionary is unnecessarily narrow, which has led to your confusion. More broadly, "to reach out" means to initiate contact with someone, with the usual implication that the contact is helpful or beneficial.

For that reason, either the helper or the person requesting help can be said to "reach out" to the other. The only stipulation is that the subject of "reach out" is the one who initiates the relationship. If you ask someone for help, then it is correct to say that you reached out for help from them; but if they offered help without you asking, then they reached out to help you.

(Note also this difference: you reached out for help, they reached out to help.)

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+1: This is spot on. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 12 '12 at 17:30
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“Reach out” is just so much mindless business twaddle. There are lots of web pages excoriating its promulgators.

For example, John Smurf’s MBA Jargon Watch defines it as follows:

reach out (v.)

To call or email. For this one, we can blame those old AT&T ads that encouraged folks to "reach out and touch someone." Obviously, you can't actually reach out and TOUCH anyone due to your company's stringent sexual-harrassent policy. But you can "reach out" (but, again, no touching) to a co-worker for information, support, or to start one of those crucial conversations. But keep any interaction to a phone call or email just to be on the safe side.

And here, from the Ridiculous Business Jargon Dictionary:

Reach out [v.]

To contact. A dramatic way of saying a very mundane thing."I'll have my people reach out sometime next week."

And here from Forbes Magazine no less, in their now very famous and frequently cited page of Most Annoying Business Jargon or via this link of the most annoying, pretentious, and useless business jargon, where reaching out made it to position #7 in their 32-bracket run-off:

The next time you feel the need to reach out, shift a paradigm, leverage a best practice or join a tiger team, by all means do it. Just don’t say you’re doing it, because all that meaningless business jargon makes you sound like a complete moron.

And here from the Daily Muse’s Business Buzzwords to Banish from Your Vocabulary:

Reach Out

“Let’s reach out to someone in accounting to get those numbers.”

“If you want to follow up, feel free to reach out to me by phone.”

“Reach out” is one of the best examples of how corporate jargon makes things unnecessarily complicated. The English language already has lots of useful words related to communication. “Reach out to me by phone?” Seriously? How about just “call me?” In an age when most people are overwhelmed by crowded email inboxes, it’s best to be brief and clear. Never use “reach out” when “email” or “contact” will do just fine.

Whereas Forbes Magazine put the phrase at position ⁷⁄₃₂, at Lackuna.com’s site for Tech and Language News, “reaching out” made it to the #2 slot in their article on Business Language — is it all just mumbo jumbo?. In fact, only “blue-sky thinking” outranks it:

#2 – Reaching Out

This one seems to be popular with American workers. Given today’s global economy, with businesses doing more and more international trade, you’re probably no stranger to receiving speculative emails saying something along the lines of: “Hi there! I’m reaching out to you in the hope that….”

They want to say they are getting in touch. You think they want to touch you, literally. It’s ok…really…

Why they can’t just say “I am contacting you because?”. There’s no need to use such ridiculously emotive language, especially if you’re emailing me for the first time and that we’ve never met before. It won’t make me like you any more, so stop it.

On the Hot To Write Better website, their article on Do you speak Touchy-Feely? writes:

Reach out

Means contact. Reach out suggests to me an almost-drowning loser grasping unsuccessfully at a life-saver ring. I suspect this is not quite what the originators of this term had in mind. Why does anyone have to reach out merely to get in touch with someone? Why can’t you just contact them?

On a somewhat more reflective and perhaps linguistically relevant note, Global Results Communiations’ article on Word Up: Having Fun with Business Jargon observes:

Even when geography, culture, gender, social class and age group are relatively similar, two people can find themselves speaking entirely different languages if their professions are different. For example, one of my closest girlfriends is a college professor, and I am in public relations in the technology industry. She once asked me what “close the loop” meant and under what circumstances someone would say it. She had literally never heard the expression! She said that there are certain expressions used in “business” that she and her academic colleagues never use or have never heard of, such as “ping,” “reach out,” and “circle back.” These words make her laugh. I am equally amused by the words she and her academic colleagues regularly use in their field, like “rigorous” and “empirical.” Once you’ve heard the same expressions so many times, you become inured and take for granted that if you know and use these expressions, just about everyone else must know and use them, too.

To people coming from a different background, these in-group and in-vogue expressions sound ridiculous. But if you are part of that in-group, they mark you as being just that to the others who are there. To you, it may sound funny if they use that language, while to them, you may sound funny if you do not. I’ve observed first-hand the mismatch between academic and business language when groups from those respective communities interact, and it really does take them quite some time to figure out what each other are saying.

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I agree. I really dislike reach out being used instead of a clearer contact or email but it's unfortunately becoming more common. Keep it simple. –  Hugo Nov 12 '12 at 16:28
    
Well, it seems to me that the problem here is not with the phrase itself, but that some people use it in an inappropriate context. We have lots of colorful and poetic phrases that we use when we want to emphasize something or make extremes clear. "I called Bob and asked for help, but he said no" conveys a very different meaning from "I reached out to Bob and begged for help, but he kicked me in the teeth." Yes, marketing people often use dramatic language for routine things. Usually this just ends up sounding dumb. I'm often amused by TV commercials that portray someone's love life ... –  Jay Nov 12 '12 at 17:23
    
... being ruined because she used the wrong brand of hairspray or someone suffering horrible back pains because he had to bend over to tie his shoe laces instead of using the whiz-bang-shoelace-tier, etc. –  Jay Nov 12 '12 at 17:24
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Reach out, implies not just contact, but contact in relation to altruistic assistance -- you would not reach out to ask if your spouse will be home for dinner, or you coworker will complete a project on time, or to see if a plumber will take accept you as a customer for a healthy profit. If someone is "reaching out" in order to sell you something, then by all means kick them to the curb as liars. If on the other hand, their car broke down, they have a two month old baby, and it's the middle of a snow storm, by all means reach out and offer them a ride, or if they reach out and ask, say yes. –  jmoreno Nov 12 '12 at 20:59
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AcademicSpeak is a jargon, designed to exclude impostors (not so much the laity as the administration) and ensure that one says what one means. BusinessSpeak is largely phatic, designed to smother participants in warm-and-gooey and ensure that one has something to say. Rigor and empirical, for instance, actually mean something; circle back and reach out are trying to sound like they mean something. –  StoneyB Nov 13 '12 at 0:06
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Leaving aside the twaddleity of reach out, the matter of who is helping whom is resolved thus:

  • reach out for help signifies “get in touch with in order to obtain help”
  • reach out to help signifies “get in touch with in order to offer help”
  • thank you for reaching out signifies “I feel gratitude toward you because you got in touch and offered help”
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+1 for twaddleity. –  tchrist Nov 12 '12 at 23:41
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Hard to tell what exactly he/she means without more of the context.

In general, I think when someone says "Thanks for reaching out to me", they are both taking it as a compliment that you would consult their help (when you are obviously working on something or in the process of doing or researching something), and simply thanking you for, when reaching a point where you need some sort of help, seeking help and being responsible enough to ask for outside help.

I'm glad you're taking the time to consult someone about your problem, and I take it as a compliment that you value my opinion and insight on the particular topic.

...is how I translate this. Sounds like something a professor would say!

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protected by tchrist Nov 19 '12 at 15:46

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