The Two Email Rule For Out of Office Replies

humor, personal, company culture 0 comments suggest edit

I avoid mailing lists the same way I avoid fun activities like meetings and pouring lemon juice into bloody scrapes. Even so, I still somehow end up subscribed to one or two. Even worse, once in a while, despite my better judgment, I send an email to such a list and am quickly punished for my transgression with an onslaught of out of office auto replies. You know the type:

Hey there friend! Thanks for your email! No seriously, I’m thanking you even though I haven’t read it. I’m sure it’s important because I’m important.

Unfortunately (for you), I’m off to some island paradise drinking one too many Mai Tais and probably making an ass of myself.

If you need to reach me, you can’t, LOL! You can contact this list of people you don’t know in my absence. Good luck with that!

punishment Wait till you see the punishment for sending an email during the holidays! Photo by: Tomas Alexsiejunas license: CC BY 2.0

If you have such a rule set up, let me humbly offer you a friendly constructive tip:


The universe has gone on for around 14 billion years before you were born just fine. And chances are, it’ll continue to survive after your death for another 100 googol years until the entropy death of the last proton, or another universe inflates to take its place. Whichever comes first.

So in the grand scheme of things, nobody cares that you’re out of the office, on vacation, or worse, too busy to respond to email so you automatically send me one as if I have all the time in the world to deal with more email.

Ok, that might have come across as a eensy weensy bit ranty. I’ll try to tone it down and offer something more constructive. After all, I’ve probably been guilty of this in my past and I apologize and have paid my penance (see photo above).

Maybe there’s a tiny bit of a purpose

The first time I experienced widespread use of out-of-office replies is during my time at Microsoft. And to be fair, it does serve a small purpose. While 99.999999% of the world doesn’t care if you’re out of the office (that’s science folks), sometimes someone has a legitimate need to know who they should contact instead of you. For example, at Microsoft, I had an internal reply set up that directed emails to my manager. The lucky guy.

Fortunately for those using Outlook with Exchange, you can choose a different reply for internal emails than external emails. So definitely go and do that.

The two email rule of out-of-office replies

But what about the rest of us who really don’t care? I offer the following simple idea:

If you must have an out-of-office auto reply, create a rule to only send it when you receive two direct emails without a response. The idea here is that if I send you one email directly, I can probably wait for you to get back to respond. If I can’t, I’ll send you another “hey, bump!” email and then receive auto notice. After all, if I send you two emails, sending me one is fair game.

Also, make sure you never ever ever send an auto-reply when you are not in the TO list. That rule alone will cut out billions of email list out-of-office spam. Ideally, the auto-reply should only occur if you’re the only one in the TO list. Chances are someone else in the TO list will know you’re gone and can reply to the others if necessary. Again, the two email rule could come into play here.

In the meanwhile, I think I’m going to switch tactics. Spam me, I spam you. So I may respond to those auto-replies with something like:

Dear So-and-so,

Hey dude, thanks for letting me know that you’re not in your office. I bet you’re on a really important business trip and/or vacation! I bet you have such important things to do there!

Me? Not so much. I wish I was on an important business trip and/or vacation.

It turns out, I have nothing better to do than respond to your automatically generated email to me! Thank you so much for that. The fact that it had your name at the bottom of the email and my email address in the TO: list was a nice personal touch. It really felt like you took the time to lovingly craft that email just for me.

So I thought it would be rude not to respond in kind with a thoughtful response of my own.

Sincerely and without regret,


p.s. I left you a little surprise in your office, but since you’re not there, I hope it doesn’t die before you get back. If it smells bad when you get back, you’ll know.

Hopefully email clients take this up and just implement it automatically because I don’t expect people to take the time to do this right.

What do you think? Are auto-replies more important than I give credit or do we live in a world with a lot of narcissists who must be stopped? Tell me how I’m right or wrong in the comments. Thanks!

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29 responses

  1. Avatar for Shlomo Abraham
    Shlomo Abraham August 28th, 2013

    Sounds like you need a coffee.

  2. Avatar for jason0550
    jason0550 August 28th, 2013

    Please drink some Coffee and relax a little. I personally like auto-replies. It's considerate. I like receiving them because it's better than expecting a prompt-ish reply from someone regarding an important matter, rather than having to wait, and wait, and wait without receiving a single response until they get back (which could be days, weeks or months).

  3. Avatar for EvilKiru
    EvilKiru August 28th, 2013

    Auto email replies are one of the most idiotic things ever.

  4. Avatar for SteveD
    SteveD August 28th, 2013

    Is there some way for us, the users of one or more popular email
    clients/systems/etc, to implement this idea on our own? Or do we perhaps
    need it to first be implemented by the Outlook, Exchange,,
    Gmail, Yahoo Mail, etc team? Why don't you go rant at them?

    How would you implement your auto-auto-reply? Via an automated
    filter/rule/etc? Why don't you use that automated thing to automatically
    delete the autoresponses? That should keep your blood pressure down.

  5. Avatar for Balloon Boy
    Balloon Boy August 28th, 2013

    Re-inflationary universes at high entropy... Pseudoscience. Who cares!

  6. Avatar for haacked
    haacked August 28th, 2013

    Well one part we could do right away is make sure you don't send auto-replies to emails not sent directly to you. I think they all support that today. That would probably solve 80% of the problem.

    It's usually sending email to a mailing lists that is the real problem and there's no reason to send an out-of-office reply in response to a mailing list email.

  7. Avatar for Brad Westness
    Brad Westness August 28th, 2013

    How would you know if the initial mail is from a list? If it came from something like I guess you'd know, but not everybody does that. Then you're back to putting the onus on the user to set up multiple filters and stuff for auto-replies, which a lot of clients don't support.

  8. Avatar for Brad Westness
    Brad Westness August 28th, 2013

    Reminds me of the tales of Bedlam DL3, a good read for anyone uninitiated:

  9. Avatar for Erick
    Erick August 28th, 2013

    I've been trying to understand your point of view with an open mind for like 10 minutes now, and I don't get it.

    If I email someone, I'm trying to get info from them, or I'm trying to provide them with info that I think would be important to them. In both cases knowing they won't be reading it for 3 weeks is helpful.

    If you don't care if the person reads your email, and possibly responds, then why were you wasting THEIR time by emailing them in the first place.

    Hell, i'd be fired if I went on vacation and didn't setup an auto reply, and left clients or important business contacts just hanging. If we are only talking about personal email, then it would just be rude.

    Obviously it's stupid to auto reply to a mass email list. If that's a serious issue in your day to day activities, find lists with better people.

  10. Avatar for E-man
    E-man August 28th, 2013

    One idea would be to send an out-of-office reply with a link to this post - nothing else. That'll keep 'em busy...

  11. Avatar for Steven Lauwers
    Steven Lauwers August 28th, 2013

    Hey Phil,

    Thanks for this blog post!
    Unfortunately I'm out of office today. I'll get back at you as soon as possible.

    If you just can wait, you can contact any of these people in the list below. They might be in the office if you're lucky.


  12. Avatar for Niels
    Niels August 28th, 2013

    I have currently my Out of Office enabled, inside my organization only. Not because I'm narcistic, but a lot of other people are expecting me to read and respond to email all day, even during my holiday. So it's better to disclaim them I'm not reading it. I'd rather drop the OoO reply, but had bad experience without it. I should spend some time creating a rant about that ;)
    Secondly, the use of email for contacting large groups of people? Can't you use Google Groups, Yammer or whatever community tool for that?

  13. Avatar for Stelloy
    Stelloy August 29th, 2013

    Some of us get regular "could you do X" type emails from external clients or internal stakeholders and to not have an auto-reply set up informing them that there's noone at the other end of the line dealing with their request is the equivalent of ignoring their request, which can lead to pissed off customers.

    It takes 2 seconds to read an auto-reply, process that the person is not there and then delete it. I find auto-respond emails courteous and when I receive them I make a mental note to not direct requests etc to that person until they're back so as to not clog up THEIR mailbox.

  14. Avatar for Justin Lovell
    Justin Lovell August 29th, 2013

    Chill! Auto-replies from mailing list? I'm sure there is some sort of rules that one can create and tweak to deflect it from your own mail box - asking the world to change is going to be like farting against thunder in this cause...

  15. Avatar for Steve
    Steve August 29th, 2013

    This made me think of the BBC news article I saw today about auto-replys going wrong.

    When officials asked for the Welsh translation of a road sign, they thought the reply was what they needed.

    Unfortunately, the e-mail response to Swansea council said in Welsh: "I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated".

    So that was what went up under the English version which barred lorries from a road near a supermarket.

  16. Avatar for Dave G
    Dave G August 29th, 2013

    Why not just set up a rule/filter in your email client of choice that deletes any Out of Office replies?

  17. Avatar for Ciel
    Ciel August 29th, 2013

    I don't really agree with this.

    As a rookie developer, I am frequently intimidated with the idea of emailing more knowledgeable folks for questions, or directly emailing a company for support when I cannot find a support portal.

    Auto Reply tells me they are out of the office, and that the carefully worded question I spent hours on didn't just get flushed and ignored.

  18. Avatar for Scott Koon
    Scott Koon August 29th, 2013

    I have a better rule for THAT mailing list that I think you are indirectly talking about. I just set up a GMail filter that dumps any subject that contains any version of "Out of office" and "autoreply" in various languages. It takes a little while to train it, but it is SOOOOOO worth it.

    At work I generally only turn on OOF replies for internal emails. And then I try to include a little rhyme or song in the message.

  19. Avatar for tony
    tony August 29th, 2013

    If you don't want to receive out of office replies, simply do not send email. Problem solved and you do not have to rely on anyone else to do anything as your 100% in control.

  20. Avatar for Arturo Molina
    Arturo Molina August 30th, 2013

    Personally I prefer to know right away if a person is OOO. But, while your idea catches on, how about making a rule that sends auto replies to the Trash? :-)

  21. Avatar for Kyle Baley
    Kyle Baley August 30th, 2013

    Judging from the comments, I'm in the minority in agreeing with Phil here. But in the last few years, I've actively worked toward the goal of becoming so unimportant that people would not notice if I were out of the office.

  22. Avatar for Kenny
    Kenny August 30th, 2013

    I agree, but would change this:

    > Also, make sure you never ever ever send an auto-reply when you are not
    > in the TO list.

    With ... when if you are the *only* one on the TO list. Maybe another 20% ;)

  23. Avatar for Ferret Chere
    Ferret Chere September 3rd, 2013

    Wow... I'm notoriously one of the grumpiest, most spiteful and cynical people going and even to me that seems like a massive overreaction.
    Now if part of their vacation response included assuming your message was an approval to add you to their maililng list...

  24. Avatar for Jerry Adkins
    Jerry Adkins September 7th, 2013

    You've heard of "Inbox Rules"? If I have to email someone TWICE and THEN I get an auto-reply from them my impression is that they're a freaking snob who doesn't care to answer email or let me know that the reply will take longer. Gee, it's not like there isn't time sensitive email, where knowing someone is out is important so you can react accordingly. You want us to initiate a conversation but when you get an automatic reply get upset about it, when YOU are the one who starts the email thread? That's pretty narcissistic. This post is simply from the very niche view of someone who is on many email lists. Just use inbox rules.

  25. Avatar for Dustin M. G.
    Dustin M. G. September 16th, 2013

    If you don't care if someone reads your email now or in 3 weeks, then I have a friendly constructive tip for you:

    Go for a walk to the next post office, catch some fresh air and send your message via ordinary mail.

    100% no auto replies and certainly a positive side effect on your blood pressure.

  26. Avatar for Steve
    Steve September 26th, 2013

    I guess you've never worked a helpdesk before - where you are is critically important, and yes, people do care if you're in office or not.

  27. Avatar for Matteo Mosca
    Matteo Mosca September 27th, 2013

    There are only two things about email that I hate more than auto replies, not necessarily sorted from most to least hated:

    1) Read notification request. This, seriously, gets to my nerves. Not only it's not part of standard mail protocols, it's also a huge conceptual violation of privacy. You want to know if I read your mail? If I desire so, I'll let you know with a meaningful reply. I thank google for not supporting at all read notifications, and when I'm forced to use outlook I turn them off as the first thing I do.

    2) Empty subjects. I mean, really? And people gets angry because I have a rule that automatically deletes permanently emails with no subject without even showing them in my inbox. If you want me to read your mail, take that little small time to make sense in it.

  28. Avatar for DrCrusher
    DrCrusher December 29th, 2015

    If your work is completely meaningless to everyone, then they will have no use for your out of office reply, but then why are they emailing you in the first place? If what you do is even remotely important to anyone, OoO replies are not only courtesy, but necessary. Sure, there are plenty of imbeciles who send emails with no real purpose, but my OoO isn't in place for them, it's for the people who actually have cause to email me.

    This post posits an unbelievably stupid and narcissistic point of view, basically saying, "I'm entitled to email you, but not only do I not care about your response, I'll be inflamed if you dare respond." Grow up.

  29. Avatar for A H
    A H June 25th, 2017

    My favorite email:

    "I know you're on vacation but..."

    If you EVER start an email with that phrase, please just go crawl under a rock and die.