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  • Writer's pictureShweta Paropkari

#mailfail 2: The curious case of out-of-office responses

Mid-April 2023. It was that time of the year when I would go to attend the IATEFL Annual Conference (this time in Harrogate). If you have not heard of this conference, let me tell you, it’s the equivalent of a rock concert for English language teaching professionals.

Travelling from India to the central UK and attending a five-day conference meant I would be away from work for a good ten days. And as an ex-corporate slave, I could not help but set an out-of-office responder (because of basic email etiquette, is it not? If you are not going to be replying to emails on time, the sender has a right to know why). So that anyone trying to reach me via email or phone would know I would be not just not at work but also out of the country and therefore, not very reachable.

Confident in the fact that I checked off an important email etiquette, I went on my way.

Almost a day later, I check into my hotel in Harrogate, connect to the Wi-Fi and nearly spit out the water I was drinking because my email notification shows that I have a response to my out-of-office responder. I did not know whether to laugh or scream. The responder was a colleague. And here is where I tell you a bit about my work context – I work in academia. Specifically, in an Engineering college in an urban city. Emails, let alone out-of-office responders are a culture as foreign as snow in winter. Often, I find myself schooling my colleagues on email etiquette. Yes, that kind of place.

This was not an isolated case though. Throughout the week, I kept seeing different people (sometimes colleagues, sometimes students) reply to the out-of-office message. It got me thinking. Was it the lack of understanding? A lack of familiarity with the email culture? Was my message not clear enough? What would prompt someone, anyone, to respond to an automatic, out-of-office message (my educational privilege raises its ugly head)? Won’t that get them another out-of-office message? What an unnecessary loop!

So, dear reader, I turn to you. Does the fact that my out-of-office message (let’s face it. It’s professionally glorified do not disturb message) received responses mean that it failed its purpose? And therefore, is it a #mailfail? If it is a #mailfail, who is at fault here? The person who wrote the autoresponder (i.e., yours truly) and did not do a good enough job in setting clear boundaries or the person who responded to it because they did not know better? Or is it neither? (the reader understood that the recipient will not be responding to emails and conveyed the same by saying, “Okay.”) – in which case, you can tell my neurotic posterior to sit down and focus instead on understanding how email writing differs based on gender and culture.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Maybe by email.

Yours Sincerely

A concerned and often ridiculously punctilious Business Communications Trainer


Shweta is the vice chair and a co-founder of BCFAI. An avid lover of the English language, she started out as a corporate lackey and after a lazy sabbatical found her calling as an ELT specializing in Business Communication. Shweta has an MA in English, a certTESOL from London School of English and is a certified BE & IELTS trainer and a Cambridge Presenter.

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