OK, if you know me well, you already know this: I have a big problem with the way the phrase out of pocket is used in the office today. In fact, this phrase was the inspiration for this weekly rant. A long time ago -- maybe not so long ago, but definitely before the Internet age -- in the office, out of pocket had only one popular meaning: it was an accounting term for "expenses that an individual incurs for either business or personal usage. These expenses are tax deductible." Like many great office cliches, out of pocket was easy to remember because it was simple and descriptive. It was also easy to remember because it conveyed a physical experience ("hey -- it's coming out of my pocket -- it better be tax deductible").
Then came an odd mutation on the phrase. Over the past few years, I've heard many people -- even smart people -- use out of pocket to mean "out-of-reach, not available for some specified period of time." At first, I was merely annoyed (not enough to write something about it). Then I was intrigued. Seems a lot of people today, especially in Silicon Valley, are using the phrase this way. Putting aside the question of whether this is permissible -- that's not my beat -- is there some unconscious reason why people persist in doing this? The unconscious use of annoying office language is my beat , so I pressed on ....
After numerous conversations with the guilty and the innocent (many people still adhere to the older, squarish definition), here's what I think: out of pocket in its new, annoying form, does in fact betray under-the-surface thinking about the office. When your colleague says, "Hey, I'm gonna be out of pocket between 1-3pm today," what you are hearing, on the surface, is that your colleague will be out of reach. But what you might be hearing, if you paid closer attention, is "hey -- don't even bother -- you can use email, phone, IM, SMS, carrier pidgeon -- there's nothing you can do to reach me at that time -- hah." Yes, you are detecting a tone of satisfaction in her voice, because with this one innocuous, though annoying expression, she has taken herself out of your pocket ... at least for the time being.
That's the nub of my argument: in today's world, where everyone is expected to be available to almost anyone, at anytime, it's a pleasure -- if guilty -- to be out of reach. But the sheer physicality of the phrase is quite revealing. In the old days, it was our pocket that concerned us. Today, it is someone else's pocket that persists in our deepest thoughts. Why, we protest, should we be in someone else's pocket, like a wallet, a cell phone, a set of keys? We never belonged there in the first place, so how can you blame anyone for wanting to get the hell out?
NEXT WEEK ON OFFICE TALK: "NET NET"