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Back from holiday? Here’s what your out-of-office email reply says about you

They say you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep – to which we’d add, examine their email auto-reply.

Back from holiday? Here’s what your out-of-office email reply says about you

(Illustration: Chern Ling)

Do you like it straight and functional? Or do you prefer something with a bit of pizzazz, a power stance – something bold? Maybe the humblebrag’s your style? Sly self-effacement wrapping up a big fat boast.

I am talking about the out-of-office (OOO) email message. They say you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep – to which I’d add, examine their email auto-reply.

Some dispense with the OOO entirely – freelancers, for example, who are desperate for income (fair enough). Then there’s the self-important. They’re the ones at the poolside, frantically sending emails fretting that everyone will realise they’re entirely replaceable, a mundane version of the magician’s sleight of hand. 

In the past few years, people have tried to inject a bit of personality into their OOOs. Why write they’re on holiday when they could paint a picture? They might be enjoying the turquoise seas of the Mediterranean perhaps, or an ultra-marathon in the Mojave desert, or a silent fasting retreat in Pyongyang. It is a laudable move away from the cult of busyness, but perhaps a step too far.

“Oh, good for you,” the recipient will think, liquid jealousy coursing through their veins. “I’d buy you an Aperol Spritz at the five-star hotel bar, except I can’t. Because I’m stuck here in this airless office doing the work of 20 holidaying colleagues!”

Then there are the complicated instructions outlining who to deal with in the sender’s absence. The message is clear: “I am important, I do the job of 10 Stakhanovites. While I’m away, you can contact all the various people who will be covering different aspects of my job. They’ll all be here, the underlings toiling away.” Typically, such emails end with, “If you really must, text me.” Code for: I’m invaluable aren’t I?


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Some people are so laissez-faire they don’t even read their OOO. Like the colleague who forgot to change the message from her previous holiday. “I am away,” she replied in July, “and will respond to my messages in the new year”. Another recent auto-reply informed me that upon the sender’s return, they “will have hundreds of emails” so it would be best to get back in touch later. My initial reaction was, “Hundreds? Try thousands, mate!” – in effect, humble-bragging to myself. There’s no way such emails look good – either you appear self-important or, by contrast, pitifully unimportant.

Another gambit is announcing you plan to delete all your emails on your return. This is bold but also overweening. Far easier, do what everyone else does – bin them on the sly. Or, better still, ignore them. After all, one person’s carefully maintained “inbox zero” is another’s waste of time.


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Far worse than the holiday auto-reply is the one announcing the sender is speaking at the Big Fromage summit, or working on a book. By the way, they add, as an afterthought, have you seen my Ted Talk? You can watch it at this link. Outstripping even these are the ones who set an OOO while they are in a meeting. It is the ultimate swagger – nothing says big-head like announcing you will be uncontactable for an hour. Leaving aside the fact that someone, somehow will figure out how to get hold of you, everyone knows that people in meetings spend half the time furtively checking their phones under the table. 

But my favourite statement OOO is supremely simple. It reads: “I am no longer checking my email regularly and may not be able to reply to your letter.” This must be the ultimate power move, but one only a few can get away with. For the sender has transcended the medium so completely that they can no longer tell the difference between an email and a letter. Or perhaps the implication is that if you’re so frustrated by the lack of email response you’ll be moved to put pen to paper. You shouldn’t bother. Snail or email, they’re not interested.

By Emma Jacobs © 2019 The Financial Times

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