There Are So Many Things Wrong With Out Office Emails


The day I left for Kilimanjaro, I was not in a good place. However you interpret that will be accurate enough.

Outwardly, I could fool anyone into thinking my life was together. I had a job. A condo. Places to go and people to see. But I hadn’t been to a regular doctor in seven years. Why? I don’t know. I do know it makes getting a prescription filled for anti-malaria pills three days before departing on an international trip quite difficult. Same goes for getting the CDC-recommended vaccines for Tanzania. So on the day of my departure, my plan was to go to work, race to a clinic to get typhoid and tetanus shots and run straight to the airport. I considered this plan multiple times; it made complete sense.

But then I left work late. I had a dilemma: I could make the flight and get a disease or I could miss the flight and suffer the wrath of my mother. Both end in my death. Using the winter gear I had packed for Morgan as collateral, I asked her to share her malaria pills with me.  “You know you’re an idiot, right?” she said. Good enough for me. 

I had called my pediatrician to ask if my any of my childhood vaccines were still good.

“How old are you?” the secretary on the phone asked.

“Oh gosh, I’m 29. I haven’t been to your office in 15 years.”

They had to go into the basement where the non-digital archives lived to look me up. Turned out I had tetanus vaccine from previous international trips but she recommended getting another typhoid vaccine. I didn’t.

I made it to the airport on time and immediately joined a work conference call, thinking it was the least I could do quell the guilt I felt going off the grid for 13 days. This reminded me of my next dilemma: I hadn’t written my out of office yet. 

I have a much longer rant on out-of-office messages, but here are the high-level notes. Most people’s are something to the effect of “I will be out of office until July 14, and will have little to no access to email.”  It’s a weakly-attempted cover-up, a denial of what many of us are afraid to admit — that maybe just for a week, you are not fully dedicated to work. Where you are going, you almost definitely have access to your work email. I am not proud to admit that I have responded to Slack messages and emails at 4am from hotel set in a Thai jungle. Of course they have wifi. Why do we struggle with admitting this?  We’re all terrified of implying that perhaps work isn’t our number one priority all the time. So instead, everyone writes these emails as if they’re going to North Korea for the week. I’d like to see us Americans improve our relationship with this concept. I’m guessing that the Europeans have been writing unapologetic out of offices like this for decades, and trust me, they’re taking more than 10 days off.

I decided I could go two ways with my out-of-office — the simple understated one that leaves intrigue but positive enough to look like you care, or the one that really shoves your trip down people’s throats while they are stuck in corporate prison.

Hi! Thank you for your email. I am out of office through July 7th. Please email xx@xx.com Thank you! Amanda

or

Hi! Thank you for your email. My family and I are on a trekking trip through East Africa ⛰, and will have ZERO access to Internet or email, starting on July 1. My cell also will not work from July 1st to 6th, but in an emergency, it should be working on June 29, 30 and July 7th and 8th. International fees may apply. Hakuna Matata! Amanda

I went with the understated one. This is why I try to get away so much, and why I finagled a 25-hour layover in The Netherlands on my way to Tanzania. KLM has a direct flight to Kilimanjaro, so I worked it out that the six of us, spread across three states, would convene at AMS. While this was convenient for all of us, everyone knows I flew a day early to chill with my Dutch bffs Lotte and Martin. Because spending time with friends for a few hours is too great of a thrill to pass up, no matter how ridiculously short and inconvenient it may be.

Whenever I land in Amsterdam, Lotte always parks and walks inside Schipol to greet me at Arrivals, which adds a ceremonial element to our friendship. Think the opening scene of Love Actually. Before Lotte, I’d never had someone actually walk inside and wait for me at an airport–I’m lucky if my family is even in the car on their way to the airport when I land. One time my dad texted me “call me when the baggage carousel starts moving.” We walked out to her car in the parking lot on the level marked “Tulip.” Martin called from work to check in. We stopped in Germany to get gas (cheaper) and then went to meet their soon-to-be new puppy Rio at the breeder’s farm. Their families came over for a backyard cookout. Everyone kept stuffing me with varieties of Dutch meats and sauces, reminding me who knows what I’ll be eating starting tomorrow. I got so riled up detailing the absurdity of our impending climb that I dropped a huge piece of meat on myself that stained my shirt. Martin washed it for me.

In the summertime in the Netherlands it stays light after 10, which allows for my favorite activity– sitting on their porch with a Heineken and talking. I talk about work drama the same way normal people recount the latest twists in relationships with their significant others. I take time to relay my issues to Lotte in the utmost detail, carefully crafting analogies to make sure she understands the nuances of the American corporate world — the hierarchy of people I’m dealing with, describing their personalities or the “crucial” stakes tied to an important deadline.  And after listening to all of my exhaustive and mostly unnecessary context, she’ll just shrug and be like “Well, I don’t think on your deathbed you’ll be thinking about this.” And just like that, I am reminded why I came to Holland in the first place.

D-Day. We woke up at 5:30a and were headed to Schipol Airport by 6. Martin sees us off, handing me my clean shirt and a coffee. This time we park at Windmill, three levels below Tulip and meet the rest of my family in the Arrivals terminal. KLM has a direct flight to Kilimanjaro, so I worked it out that the six of us, spread across three states, would convene in Amsterdam. When I see Kevin, Morgan, Tim and my parents, I can tell tensions are high but ignore it.  Schipol has tables outside where you can eat, so the seven of us enjoy brunch in the morning crisp June air. When it’s time to go, Lotte takes one of our bags, walks us as far as she can in the terminal and waves us goodbye. Part of me wished I was just staying in Holland. 

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