Smith: Let’s do away with the auto-reply email

I recently had a life-altering experience – one I am lucky to have survived to tell the tale.

It happened a few months ago while I was in the final preparations for a science conference in Singapore. My bags were packed and waiting patiently by the front door for the next morning’s early cab ride to the airport. My talk was prepared, practiced and polished; the slides were saved on multiple devices and were accessible online in case I lost my luggage. I had a bundle of half-written manuscripts ready to work on during the 15-hour overseas flight. My running shoes and toiletries were neatly tucked away in my carry-on.

There was only one thing left to do before I switched off the lights and turned in for one final night’s rest in my own bed: set my university email to auto-reply.

I launched MacMail on my laptop, accessed the preferences and proceeded to script a short ‘out-of-the-office’ letter. Admittedly, I had only done this once before – prior to a summer kayak trip a few years earlier.

SMITH

SMITH

I hesitated about what to write in the auto-reply message box. Should I include details about the conference or just say I will be away from the university? Should I start with ‘Hello’ or get right to the point? Should I be light-hearted or serious? Should I include emergency contact details? Ultimately, I settled on the following:

“Hi. I am at a conference and will be away from my office until Feb 9. Please send me a reminder email if you don’t hear back from me by Feb 12. Cheers, David.”

Done.

I clicked OK. Closed my laptop and went to brush my teeth.

Being an email junky, I checked my inbox one last time before bed. To my surprise, I had received dozens of emails in the 15 minutes since turning on the auto-reply. More surprising, many of the emails were from friends and colleagues wishing me safe travels and an enjoyable meeting. As I was reading and deleting these messages, more well wishes trickled in.

How, in such a short amount of time, could so many people have received my auto-reply informing them of my travels? Then it hit me, my automatic response, instead of only replying to new email messages, replied to every existing email in my account.

I began to sweat I as I did the math – I must have hundreds, if not thousands, of saved emails. This meant that countless colleagues, friends, collaborators, administrators, journal editors, students and family members received an email from me announcing my departure from the office.

Pouring a strong drink, I thought to myself: it’s a good thing I’m leaving town.

Ironically, one of the consequences of my email blunder was that I was inundated with other people’s out-of-the-office email. In other words, I received numerous auto-replies to my own auto-reply. The number of people who were currently away astonished me, as did the fact I was apparently the only one among them who did not know how to operate email settings.

Scanning through the automated messages, I saw a range of styles and formats.

Some were succinct: “Traveling. Back soon.” Others provided exhaustive, point-by-point itineraries: “First stop Brussels … then on to Helsinki …” Many were funny: “For the next five days you can find me at the pub across the street from the 8th International Conference on …” A handful were earnest: “In the case of a serious disaster please call …” Some were from coworkers I had seen earlier in the day and who I knew were in their offices. And a few were from colleagues I follow on Twitter. A quick scan of their accounts showed that although unable to answer email, they were still actively tweeting.

My email-induced embarrassment began to fade the following day, and I eventually realized I never really needed the auto-reply feature in the first place. After leaving my home, I checked my email in the taxi, at the airport before boarding, during my layover in Toronto, and again over the Pacific Ocean (using the in-flight Wi-Fi, which cost me $25). I checked my email immediately upon arriving in Singapore and after checking in at the conference hotel. Jetlagged, I checked my email repeatedly throughout the night. At the meeting, I was rarely off of my email. In fact, I was on it more being away from work than I was when at work. And therein lies the problem.

Many of us are addicted to email, and our increasingly large armoury of digital devices is worsening the dependence. The mail icons on our laptops, smart phones and tablets are always just a finger-twitch away, and they look so innocent and inviting until they bombard us with to-do lists, requests and distractions.

And often, as quick as we are to check email, we are equally as slow in replying to it.

All of this causes anxiety and, perhaps, this is one of the reasons why more and more people are setting their email to auto-reply. When we write, “I’m away from the office,” maybe we really mean “I’m fed up with emailing.” Maybe we are looking for a way to escape our enslavement to email, even if only for a few days.

Let us not fool ourselves. Our inboxes might be out of hand, but auto-reply is not the solution.

And for those of you who do have it switched on, we are on to you. We know you are checking your email right now, and again and again and again …

David Smith is an assistant professor in the Biology Department at Western. He can be found online at arrogantgenome.com.