The art of the out-of-office email reply

Some seize the opportunity to try to be humorous and creative in holiday autoreplies

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

If you try to accomplish work over the summer that requires outside assistance (work such as scheduling, deal-making, or, say, researching an article about out-of-office autoreplies), you probably ride this particular emotional rollercoaster several times a day.

While most holidaying 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 as bank holidays loom, you may then get their out-of-office replies.)

Frank admissions

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

Now that everyone can see that you are still posting to Twitter from your silent retreat to an ashram, an out-of-office means only 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 freelance 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” autoreply. 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 per cent to 98 per cent 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 autoreply 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 AE 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 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 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 instructions 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 empathetic tears.

Tell it like it is

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 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,” her message began. “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,” Ortberg said.

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". – (Copyright New York Times 2016)

Read More