The Art of the Out-of-Office Reply


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Tom Bloom

Ah, the feeling of excitement and gratification that someone has replied to your email so quickly, followed milliseconds later by the deflating realization that what you have actually received is an out-of-the-office automatic reply.

If you have tried to accomplish work in August that requires outside assistance (work like scheduling, deal making, or, say, researching an article about out-of-office auto-replies), you probably ride this particular emotional roller coaster several times a day.

Even in an era of perpetual electronic availability, these automated missives land in our inboxes with shocking frequency.

While most vacationing email recipients keep it simple (listing the contact information of their next-in-command and making a vague promise to get back to you by a certain date), some cannot resist the opportunity to inject a bit of their personality into their correspondents’ inboxes in absentia.

Some use the moment as an opportunity to tacitly brag about their importance: It takes three people to cover for me! Here are their email addresses. (Of course, when you write to those people, especially in August, you may then get their out-of-offices.)

There are poetic out-of-offices and humorous (or supposedly humorous) out-of-offices. There are out-of-offices that boast or complain about the person’s likely whereabouts (Bali! Jury duty.).

There are autobiographical mini-essays. And increasingly, there are frank admissions that the person on the other end of the email is actually available in some way, just less likely than usual to respond to you.

Now that everyone can see that you are still posting to Twitter from your silent retreat to an ashram, an out-of-office only means plausible deniability.

When I had a baby in early June, I put an out-of-office on my email in that spirit, though, of course, I am a freelancer and an author whose work never really stops, so I still checked my email every day.

I was surprised by how many of my correspondents, many of them strangers, blatantly ignored my “maternity leave” auto-reply. But then, why shouldn’t they? After all, I was seeing their messages, though the degree to which I could do anything about them was initially pretty limited.

As the weeks passed and my baby went from 100 percent to 98 percent all-consuming, I shifted quickly from being appalled that anyone was asking me to do anything to being concerned that no one would ever ask me to do anything ever again.

I ended up hitting “end” on the auto-reply a few weeks earlier than I had planned to. What had started out as a useful-seeming fiction was starting to annoy even me.

For Dan Kois, the Slate editor who has gained a reputation for creative out-of-office messages, the composition of the out-of-office itself has become a bit of a burden. “I now feel a great deal of pressure while going on vacation,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s a nice thing to accomplish right before I leave.”

Recent trips have seen him reproducing A.E. Housman’s “When Summer’s End Is Nighing” in full, and even venturing into the realm of vaguely Chaucerian himself: “Today I travel, if fortune be fair; I am armed with Virtue; I shall make the Journeye from Tampa to Charlotte and then, anon, to Washington National. Neither Ice nor Wynd shall delay me, and I shall not be waylaid by Ruffians. I may not see your Emaile, however, until Tomorrow.”

You email Mr. Kois at your own peril; if you would rather not contemplate the idea that “the shortening days remind us all of the eternal night that awaits,” you are out of luck.

For the famously frank Knopf publicist Paul Bogaards, the out-of-office is an opportunity to flex and brag. “OOOOB. EWR > ARN (akvavit, gravlax, ligonberries). + blondes (!) Will be looking at email intermittently. Maggie is here (ready, responsive),” went a recent one. (Maggie is another Knopf publicist, but still.)

For the Dallas Morning News book critic Michael Merschel, a recent trip was an opportunity to do many things at once with his out-of-office. The first few sections covered the usual territory, including a few admonishments about how and who to correctly pitch.

For recipients curious enough to continue scrolling down, though, there was a heartfelt explanation of the reason for his absence: “I want you to imagine a middle-aged man who fell in love with a beautiful baby girl almost 18 years ago, and now he is driving her to a gigantic college in a distant city filled with all kinds of people who do the things people do at college … and he has to leave her there. And drive home alone. In the dark. In a minivan.”

The recipients of this out-of-office were probably distracted from their initial hope for a quick response by their sympathetic tears.

If you are less inclined to be creative and more of an objector to the trend of being “out of office” but not really, there are also brave souls forging forward with out-of-offices that tell it like it is.

Correspondents who tried emailing The Toast editor and Texts From Jane Eyre author Mallory Ortberg in July received an email with the subject line “nope.”

“I am currently on vacation and not accepting any emails about anything. I’m not planning on reading any old emails when I get back, either, because that feels antithetical to the vacation experience.”

“I really did delete all those emails when I got back,” Ms. Ortberg said.

But if you are just annoyed by the whole phenomenon, you may try what I’m planning the next time I’m going to be slow to respond for whatever reason: nothing. People will eventually get emailed back, or they won’t. If you do not call attention to your absence, probably no one will notice that you are “gone.”



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