Making excuses in the email era takes a lot of work

Technology is steadily ruining all the old favourites

Last week I received an automatic reply from a man I had tried to contact saying he was “away from the office with limited access to email”. I ignored it.

The same day Adam Parker, head of US equity research at Morgan Stanley, received a similar message, only he didn't ignore it. He sent out a cri de coeur to all clients, explaining that it was his job to interpret the world for them and he was ruling that the "limited access to email" excuse was baloney. There is virtually nowhere left on Earth, he pointed out, unreachable by email. What the phrase actually means is: I'm feeling tired or lazy and think I've earned the right not to reply.

Parker is right – this excuse does not work any more. But he is wrong to be so disapproving about it. We all are sometimes tired or lazy or on holiday or otherwise disinclined to do something we have been asked to do. What we need are better excuses. The problem is that technology is steadily ruining all the old favourites.

“The cheque’s in the post” doesn’t work now that no one writes cheques any more. “The dog ate my homework”, a little fragile at the best of times, works even less well now that so much homework is done online. “The boiler has exploded and I’m waiting for the plumber” is hopeless, since – provided the laptop didn’t also explode – you can work at home.


Even the new excuses created by technology are starting to look threadbare. “Your email must have got caught in the spam filter” is a handy white lie that I have often used to get me out of scrapes, but as filters go on getting better its value is diminishing.

So which excuses do still work?

A trusty standby is to say you are too busy, which has the added bonus of making you look important. “Terribly sorry I didn’t reply, I’ve been snowed under”: I used to use this a lot, but am trying to wean myself off it. For a start, I’ve noticed really important people never send out messages saying they are snowed under. Moreover, practically everyone thinks they are busy (although, as I pointed out recently, none of us is as busy as we fancy ourselves to be). To plead busyness does not suggest you are important. It suggests you are inefficient.

Backfire risk
A second way out is to invoke a prior engagement. This sometimes does the job, but can backfire. Too often I've said "I'm afraid I can't make the 27th" – only for the other person to come back and say the event has been moved to the 29th. And then you are stuck with it.

Better is to claim to be in the middle of a family emergency. This excuse works particularly well for men, for whom kudos is to be gained by playing the family card occasionally. However, to claim an emergency when there isn’t one may seem even to the unsuperstitious like an invitation to providence to visit something truly calamitous on the entire family.

The ultimate family emergency is, of course, death, and this is the most robust excuse of them all – timeless, final, and untouched by technology. But even this excuse is becoming a little less effective than it once was. A friend, poleaxed with grief after the death of her mother, has found after a couple of weeks that her get-out-of-jail-free card has stopped working so well. A return to normality is expected.

Genius excuse
The best excuse I have come across recently was made by a senior executive who cancelled an important meeting with a colleague, claiming that "a legal issue has come up". The genius of this is that it sounds both very serious and very forbidding. Much as my colleague wanted to, he refrained from replying: "Gosh, what sort of legal issue? A spot of fraud? Bankruptcy? Murder?"

In the absence of any legal issues of my own, I am increasingly seeking refuge in the truth. So when asked last week if I wanted to go on a news show broadcast live at 10.30pm, I didn’t pretend to be busy, I just said it was past my bedtime. When asked if I wanted to attend an awards evening, I explained that awards evenings didn’t bring out the best in me. Such bluntness is a three-way win: you don’t have to feel bad about telling a white lie; there is no comeback; and you don’t get asked again.

The same approach works best for out-of-office replies. There is no need to claim limited access to email. Either you are the sort of person valued by the Morgan Stanley boss and work on holiday – in which case you don't need an out-of- office email at all. Or you view holiday as holiday, in which case the best approach is to say, "I'm away until X. I'll read your message when I'm back", thereby cunningly not committing to ever replying.
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014 )