The out-of-office reply, deconstructed

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It's now August, which means our inboxes are about to begin filling up with that most curious of workplace missives: the out-of-office reply. With its own unwritten rules, pointed omissions and carefully crafted code words, few forms of office correspondence say so much in so few words about our professional neuroses or our often dysfunctional relationship with work. Here, a translation of what we hard-working Americans really mean when it comes to that automated vacation reply:


 

Hi,

Thank you for your email. I will be out of the office from Monday, August 4 through Friday, August 8 with limited access to email. For urgent matters, please contact Jane Smith at jane.smith@abccompany.com. I will respond to your message when I return.


DECODER:

Thank you for your email = [sarcasm]

 

out of the office ="on vacation"

Daring to actually use the word 'vacation' might make people think you don't work hard or are overpaid. Or that you can actually untether yourself from your phone for a few measly days, which we all know we can't. You are not paranoid. Or bitter. Not you.

from Monday, August 4 through Friday August 8"from 5 p.m. on Friday, August 1 through 9 a.m. on Monday, August 11"

It never hurts to play down the number of days you will be gone. Pro tip: Omitting the starting date means those who email later in the week might think you only took off a day or two.

limited access to email"full access to email, limited intention to respond to email"

Unless the email comes from your boss with an urgent question, your most lucrative client with an emergency, or the competitor you interviewed with a couple weeks ago who wanted to hire you at a 20 percent increase, you won't respond. That is, unless your kids start really annoying you and you need to look busy to your spouse and escape to deal with a "work crisis." Then you might.

please contact Jane Smith at jane.smith@abccompany.com = "Jane Smith is also on vacation"

Notice that Jane's phone number is not included. That's because it's August, and Jane is on vacation too. Emailing Jane will result in yet another out of office message, which will direct the emailer to yet another name. Best to just give up and hold your question until September.

NB: please contact Jane Smith can alternately be used when Jane Smith is in fact present, and your work nemesis.

I will respond to your message when I return = "I might or might not reply"

Savvy workers remove this line from their messages and make no promises. Still, the impression that you will need to respond to all 627 emails after a week away buys you at least a day of "going through your inbox" as an excuse when you return.

Read also: A Hippocratic oath for bankers? Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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Jena McGregor · July 31, 2014

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