#etiquette: Please stop humble-bragging in your terrible out-of-office vacation e-mails


(Not a real message, thank goodness.)

This is an occasional feature wherein we discuss a bit of online etiquette currently in the news. You can find all our #etiquette posts compiled here.

Roughly 41 million Americans plan to take vacations around July 4 this year — which means roughly 41 million out-of-office messages will soon be pinging around the inboxes of their overworked, office-bound colleagues.

“Hello! Thanks for your message,” these e-mails frequently chirp. “I’ll be on vacation from [start date] to [end date] and will not be checking e-mail during that time. You clearly still are though, you sucker, so I’ll get back to you upon my suntanned return.”

… okay, they rarely include the last bit. But it’s usually implied.

Out-of-office e-mails are a necessary evil. When people rely on you at work (or anywhere else), it’s polite — not to mention, professional — to (a) let them know that they will not be able to rely on you in this particular instance and (b) redirect them to someone else who can help. Those are, in fact, the sole purposes of out-of-office e-mails.

The problem, of course, is that some smug, irritating souls have projected other purposes on said e-mails — like informing recipients where they’re vacationing, alluding to enviable scenery and/or weather conditions, and specifying exactly how disconnected they’ll be during this glorious, liberated time.

Even worse, I find, are the people who make jokes. These people are not content merely to rub their travels in your face; they have to show off their superior sense of humor, as well. (Note: This rule doesn’t apply to non-travel-related auto-replies, like health problems, dumb conferences or government shutdowns.)

“It’s likely your note will be swallowed in a sea of inbox banality, never to be seen again,” reads one of Mashable’s dubious “best” out-of-office e-mails. Translated, this basically reads: You are doing meaningless, boring work while I’m out enjoying myself, and even when I return, your work will be below my interest.

“Unfortunately, I’m out of the office backpacking in the Alps … if you need me, try yodeling,” reads another so-called “model” out-of-office e-mail, this one by Wired.

#1: “Unfortunately?” Give me a break.

#2: If I wanted to know where you were going, I presumably would have asked you.

#3: The eyeroll-inducing lameness of a yodeling joke really speaks for itself.

It’s not that we should begrudge our co-workers’ well-deserved time off, or even some demonstrative excitement about the same. The problem is that so many of these out-of-office sins fall into the realms of either outright bragging (“I’m at the beach right now!”) or the more pernicious and more common humble-bragging (“Sorry, I won’t have access to e-mail all week … since I’m at the beach”). Both transgressions are universally recognized as rude.

There’s nothing new about false modesty, nor its designation as a form of bad manners,” Henry Alford wrote in the New York Times in 2012. “Whatever its causes or context, humblebragging is a testament to the amount of ardor and subterfuge people bring to the craft of self-promotion.”

But business e-mails to your co-workers are, needless to say, no place for that kind of thing.

So please, for the sake of your own reputation — not to mention the sake of your colleagues, stranded at home — keep it simple. The sole purpose of the out-of-office is to communicate that you’re out and that someone else is handling things in your absence.

“Hello, I’m out of the office until [date]. If you need help in the meantime, please contact [name.]”

It’s not catchy, and it doesn’t make you look cool. But it also doesn’t make me want to kill you — which seems like a plus.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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