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There was an article titled “Forget Leaning In, Let's Talk about Leaning Out” in Forbes magazine (April 2. 2014) in which the author, Caroline Mayer says:

“I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard way too much about Sheryl Sandberg and her new book, Lean In, encouraging women to be more assertive, especially in the workplace. At this stage in my life, I simply want to Lean Out.”

I was in understanding both “lean in” and “lean out” simply refer to bodily actions as defined by Oxford English Dictionary: to move the top part of your body in a particular direction. Example: Don’t lean out of the window,” until I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

I understand now the word, “lean in" is used to mean to get aggressively involved in business and ambitious career development, and “lean out” as its opposite word.

As far as I checked Google Ngram, both “lean in” and “lean out” have been used since well before 1840 with predominant incidences of “lean in” over “lean out.” However, usage of “lean in” made a remarkable increase coming into 2000 (from 0.0000085329% in 1980 to 0.0000118571% in 2000), possibly for its extended meaning.

I’m curious to know (1) from around what time the word “lean in” started to be used in Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” context other than proper “body actions,” and (2) whether the word, “Lean out” is now commonly understood as a pair word of Sandberg’s “Lean in.”

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Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is a 2013 book written by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. According to the New York Times (Making a Word Meme):

“Lean in” is the idiom of the moment for headline writers, the Twitterati and New Yorker cartoonists. ...An avalanche of publicity accompanying the book’s release in March helped the expression gain a toehold in the cultural vernacular, but the phrase seems to have taken on a life of its own, even among (perhaps especially?) those who have not read the book.

The phrase had a life before Ms. Sandberg used it. It was frequently invoked in sports (lean in to the slope, lean in to the wave) and evolved into a metaphor for embracing risk, said Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, and language columnist for The Boston Globe.

Ben Zimmer writes:

In winter sports like snowboarding and skiing, you might want to "lean into the turn." And "leaning in" is also seen as a good move in sports as diverse as rowing, boxing, football, baseball, horse-riding, riflery, motorcycling, and running.

From these different activities comes a general picture of "leaning in" (or "leaning forward") as a stance that suggests embracing risk and not shying away from difficulty or obstacles in one's path. It's not surprising, then, that "leaning in" should get applied to the business world.

He stated that the earliest use he could find to this metaphorical transfer comes in a 1941 issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Dave Walton of Wordorigins.org states:

A possible progenitor for the Sandberg's use of the phrase is from interactive television, which has for at least 15 years been describing the difference between 'lean back' and 'lean forward' to denote the difference between TV and the Internet.

That might explain the Ngram takeoff in 1965 (with lean forward leading the pack).

Is lean out paired with lean in? Most likely, seeing the above.

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    I take this an example of professional dissection and diagnosis only available from this site. Commented Aug 9, 2014 at 7:21
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  • 'Lean in' is a physical activity, and did not have the metaphorical meaning that Sandberg gave it before her book (at least not to my knowledge).

  • 'lean out' is also physical. It is a pair with 'lean in' grammatically, but Mayer is using it in a jocular fashion. The metaphorical meaning of 'lean in' is so new that a parallel metaphorical meaning for 'lean out' needs to ride on its coattails. That is to say that, even in the appropriate context of not wanting to stand up for oneself, if you used 'lean out' by itself with no mention of 'lean in', it would be hard to understand, people wouldn't get the idea.

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It's a bit shocking to me that none of the major explanations that come up when you search for this expression online make any reference to what I think should be the primary scenario that comes to mind when you interpret this as a business-world expression:

Obviously to me, the translation that was made of "leaning in" to make it about (women's) success in office jobs references the scenario where the people with the real power (i.e. men in various managerial positions) are having a meeting where those with less power are not invited, and someone from outside the circle who wishes to assert themselves will either briefly open the door and lean into the meeting room to provide a last-minute update that just so happens to (also) be their personal pitch or contribution to the discussion, or will lean in over the table and insert short contributions into the discussion while ostensibly just bringing in some documents or other trivia as someone not allotted a seat at the table.

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  • That's a good sociological analysis that should be helpful in understanding the term as used in the book. The term has much broader uses (as anongoodnurse showed in her answer).
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 16:32

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