We are now well into the time of the year when many academics are away on research trips, or vacationing, or moving across the country to a new post, or attending overseas conferences, and they have to turn to the important task of crafting their out-of-the-office auto-reply messages. So many choices, so many temptations.
The first linguistic choice is whether to use the first-person singular (“I am out of the office right now”) or the third (“Geoff Pullum is away at the moment”). I long ago decided always to use third person, not just because “I am not here” sounds inherently inane, but for another reason as well.
Ages ago, when e-mail was young and did not yet dominate our lives, and vacation response was not a built-in feature of mailers, and the Berkeley Unix /usr/bin/vacation had not been written, a friend of mine at Stanford (the linguist Arnold Zwicky) had a little vacation-response script written for him in the Bourne shell language by a computer staff person (it was remarkable how little code it took), and he chose a first-person message. Immediately people started replying to the script: “I know you say you’re away, Arnold, but if you could just take a minute to look at this … ”: They simply could not grasp the idea that a shell script had mailed them. The innate human tendency to perceive agency was too strong. If it said “I am away,” they thought that was Arnold talking.
So I always use the third person. And, given my perennial failing of using humor where it is neither expected nor desired, I often have fun with the idea that it is a robot doing the responding:
Geoff Pullum is currently away from the university. E-mail contact during his trip may be irregular or nonexistent. And when he gets back he will be swamped by the backlog. Try to forgive him; he is a mere human, and weak. This message was NOT sent by a human, but by a robot. We robots are not weak or fallible. We are tireless, and one day we will rule.
When choosing the substance of what to put into the message, all sorts of temptations to self-promotion and boasting beckon. People construct messages saying “I am away giving an invited lecture at Harvard” (= oh, I’m so important in my discipline!), or “During June, I will be working on my research at Bellagio” (= I don’t mean the hotel on the Vegas strip, I mean I got one of those plum positions at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center and you didn’t!), or “I am spending July working exclusively on my NSF research project in Vanuatu and will not have e-mail access” (= I’m doing real field research and I have a grant, and despite the Internet café in the village there is no way I’m going to pay a dollar for a slow Internet hookup from a South Pacific island paradise just to view your boring e-mails).
But of course, these details of one’s good fortune serve only to irritate colleagues (how the hell did she get one of those fellowships?), and to supply personal information (like about whether your house is empty at the moment, and for how long) to every spammer or stalker who manages to reach your account. It would probably be best just to use a bare-minimum boilerplate message: “Dr. Gruntfuttock is away from the university at the moment; you may consult his secretary for information about how to contact him.”
That works especially well for Dr. Gruntfuttock if he doesn’t have a secretary. It makes him look important, and it sends the sender on a wild-goose chase trying to figure out from the university Web site where the inquiry should be directed, which will be incredibly difficult, as the author of the wonderful xkcd comic strip noted:
Anyway, wherever you’re going, and no matter why you can’t answer my e-mail, have a good trip. Don’t e-mail me, by the way: I’m traveling.