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We’ve all been there. A balmy evening beckons and across the street a crowd is already spilling from the pub, fanning out across the pavement in summer dresses and rolled-up shirt sleeves. But as you frantically try to clear your desk for the weekend, every email you send prompts a suspiciously swift reply. Yes, it’s the dreaded out-of-office auto-response, set to tauntingly remind you of a world of leisure while simultaneously pushing it further from your reach.

Some have reduced the OOO to a single word in the subject line: 'Nope'

The OOO: was there ever a less apt acronym? (Ooo? Ugh, more like.) It wouldn’t be so bad if it actually worked when it was your turn to set one up, but unless you happen to live in France, where a worker’s ‘right to disconnect’ is enshrined in law, the twin fears of missed opportunities and the mail mountain that’s piling up in your absence will likely keep you furtively glancing at your in-box.

'The very fact you were content to type out your query long hand and settle back to wait for a reply suggests you can wait' (Credit: Getty Images)

Earlier this year, British comedian Steve Coogan underscored a growing trend to rethink the OOO when he used it not to advertise his own absence, but rather the return to our screens of his blazer-clad alter ego, hapless media personality Alan Partridge. Written in the broadcaster’s inimitable voice, it had stern words for anyone who dared email him: “I’m not in the office so both cannot and will not respond to your email,” it began. “If your email is urgent, perhaps you should have tried calling instead. The very fact you were content to type out your query long hand and settle back to wait for a reply suggests you can wait, even if you’ve put a red exclamation next to your email to make it stand out in my inbox. Won’t wash with me, that.”

Who hasn’t longed to write something similarly huffy? Well, LA-based designer Paul Woods, for one. Woods is also the author of How to Do Great Work Without Being An Asshole and suggests opening your OOO with this: “Dear sender, As you are already aware, I am on vacation. However, as it appears that you have flagrantly ignored the numerous emails, in-person conversations and messages over the past week communicating this, below you can find a detailed recap what I will not be doing until my return…” It’s a recap that extends to wearing clothes, even in public, and moderating his consumption of hard liquor.

“The world is serious enough as it is - people need, and usually appreciate, an unexpected moment of levity in their day,” he says, when quizzed about how recipients might respond to such an OOO. He also confides that he himself has dispensed with auto responses altogether – though not for idealistic reasons. “The last time I tried to set one up, I botched it so badly that somehow it resent every single email in my outbox from the previous year - client emails, firing notices, literally thousands of emails.”

We’ve certainly come a long way since the honeymoon days of You’ve Got Mail, the 1998 Meg Ryan romcom in which each new electronic missive set Tom Hanks’ heart fluttering (and vice versa). These days, in tech circles, you’ll hear tales of folk who’ve set their email servers up to automatically delete unread emails after a week – before going on holiday for a full fortnight. Others have reduced the OOO to a single word in the subject line: “Nope.”

How about a little retro concrete poetry – you know, where you arrange your words on the screen to form an image of a palm tree or a pina colada?

To remind us – as if we needed reminding, as we vainly strive for ‘inbox zero’ – of just what a time drain email has become, Kay Woodward, UK-based author of What Would She Do?, has wryly channelled one of her book’s real-life heroines, Emmeline Pankhurst (and Pankhurst’s movement’s motto) in her OOO. “Deeds, not emails. That’s what the Suffragettes need. And let’s face it, I’m probably in prison anyway, so couldn’t reply even if I wanted to.”

Of course, every message sends a message, even a barebones OOO that seems to say nothing more than that you’re away until next week, so why not try to inject a little personality? You could get quirky by giving your auto-responder robot a personality. You could dispense with words altogether and substitute a gif or emojis. Or how about a little retro concrete poetry – you know, where you arrange your words on the screen to form an image of a palm tree or a pina colada? It might be worth noting here that the amount of personality you inject depends on your trade. What earns you cachet in the creative industries might backfire in the financial sector, for instance.     

And yet regardless of your job description, the humble OOO can do much more besides simply telling people not to expect a prompt reply. Crafted subtly enough, it can even drum up business for you. While they wait for you to respond, perhaps they’d like to check out your new website or sign up for your monthly newsletter?

'I’m away from my desk at the moment but will respond the moment they give me a desk' (Credit: Getty Images)

Hollywood star turned gin distiller Ryan Reynolds showed last summer how the OOO can become a marketing tool. “Thank you for your email and interest in Aviation American Gin! I’m away from my desk at the moment but will respond the moment they give me a desk,” began his first attempt. A few months later, along came another: “This is only my 2nd OUT OF OFFICE REPLY. From what I’m told, it should be short, sweet and NEVER overly personal or emotional.” After TV host Jimmy Fallon asked him to read one out on The Tonight Show, the resulting influx – around 20,000 emails in a single day – to Ryan@AviationGin.com melted the small brand’s servers. Fortunately, it also reportedly piqued the interest of retailers and restaurants, keen to start carrying the tipple.

That advice Reynolds jokily shared in fact goes directly against a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. Short, sure, and sweet, why not? But ruling out the personal and the emotional? Think again, because those are the very ingredients that can help your correspondents feel more connected to you. Colour your OOO with a dash of personal information – how about saying where you’re off to and why – and you’ve a ready-made conversation starter for the next time your paths cross.

It's a tip that Kate Leaver, Australian author of the newly published book The Friendship Cure: A Manifesto for Reconnecting in the Modern World, has long championed. “I usually just describe the most delicious thing I'll be eating while I'm away. I've been told it makes people very jealous, in a happy-for-me sort of way,” she says. A typical auto-response from her reads: “OOO: Busy eating my body weight in gelato. Gleefully, wifi isn’t great on windswept Italian beaches so I will likely not see your email for days.”

OOO: Busy eating my body weight in gelato

Smugness: it’s almost impossible to dodge in an OOO. London-based poet Rishi Dastidar, whose debut collection Ticker-Tape is billed as a “maximalist take on 21st Century living”, embraces this and lets his inner show-off have free rein by penning poems for his OOOs. “Yes, the tone of these poems is a little self-satisfied – but if you have to tell colleagues you are away, why not try and do it with a little style and pizzaz?” he points out, adding that it’s also one of the few mediums where you’re guaranteed an audience. Here’s how he explained he was away in France:

Escape to Belleville

I’m in Paris on holiday,

so it’s au revoir until the Second,

and hence why this triolet;

I’m in Paris on holiday.

Sorry to rub it in this way,

but it’ll be magnifique I reckon.

I’m in Paris on holiday,

so it’s au revoir until the Second.

But perhaps we have it all wrong, and are simply enslaving ourselves further to technology by toiling over OOOs that are personality-packed, marketing-friendly perfection. Maybe we need to be altogether more standoffish if we want to make our OOOs really work for us? NYU Professor Meredith Broussard, who’s the author of Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World, takes the inspiration for her OOO from US writer, poet and children’s author E.B. White, who once turned down an invitation from President Eisenhower with the words “I must decline, for secret reasons”. Accordingly, Broussard’s OOO reads simply: “I am out of the office, for secret reasons.”

Now how about that for a conversation starter?

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