Discover more from Listening in the Dark with Amber Tamblyn
Honoring the OOO Auto-Reply
The origin story of the out-of-office auto-response. (Plus, a special mission.)
Whenever I get someone’s OOO auto-reply after emailing them, I am flooded with a multitude of feelings equal parts curiosity (what are they up to?!) and jealousy (why am I not up to it?!).
OOO, meaning “out of office,” is the universally accepted and understood abbreviation used in email subject lines to signify a change in our work status, whether you work for a company or for yourself. It can signify a full ceasing of work-related communication or it can signal the pausing of one kind of work to focus on another (for instance, writing a new book). An OOO can alert coworkers that you will, in fact, not be “circling back” while on vacation or gently remind clients that they should not be demanding an immediate response to an email they sent at 11:55 p.m. on Saturday night.
While most vacationing email recipients keep it simple (listing the contact information of their next-in-command and making a vague promise to get back to you by a certain date), some cannot resist the opportunity to inject a bit of their personality into their correspondents’ inboxes in absentia. . . . There are poetic out-of-offices and humorous (or supposedly humorous) out-of-offices. There are out-of-offices that boast or complain about the person’s likely whereabouts (Bali! Jury duty.)
The OOO auto-response has a mysterious history, speculated to have come from an idiosyncrasy of Microsoft’s company culture and language in the ’80s. An early email system from the company, called Xenix, included one of the first auto-reply features for email. The name of the feature (and the command used to enable it) was “OOF” or “out of facility.” Why “facility,” you ask? One theory suggests that it stemmed from the vernacular commonly used among Xenix developers whose backgrounds were often in industries and institutions where the word “facility” was used in place of “office.” To this day, OOF lives on in the lore of Microsoft culture and with die-hard tech fans who love the software company.
OOF eventually became OOO which then branched out into more personalized away messages, from the standard “Away” or “On Vacation” to the more colorful “Not today, Satan.” Some use it to sarcastically suggest they’ll get back to you, maybe. Others have used it for profoundly important and personal requests. My friend, actress Tilda Swinton, has had an auto-response message on her email for as long as I’ve known her that simply states: “Hello, I am away until 01/01/2070 and am unable to read your message.” Another friend used their auto-response as a way to ask for something specific during the impending death of her father: “Hi there, I’m currently with my dad as he transitions from this world. In lieu of a hug or in-person support, I’d love to ask you to email me again, this time with any memories about my dad, or your favorite poem, or just any love you want to throw my way during this time. I could use it.” (Reprinted here with my friend’s consent.)
I have used the auto-response for all kinds of different reasons from the straightforward to the wild: from vacations to writing deadlines to my own wedding. Once, I even used an OOO to get a fan (who had somehow gotten ahold of my email address) to stop emailing me links to conspiratorial political articles about how feminism was going to send me to hell. (A hell just for feminists? Sounds like heaven!) He had been writing to me almost daily for six months and I was at a loss for how to make him stop. This was before the now-ubiquitous block feature, so I was left to helplessly delete message after message until they filled up my inbox to such an extent that it began to feel like a very real violation of my personal online space.
So, I decided to try something different. I called out his behavior in a digital room of my peers while directly addressing him, by name, and kindly asking him to stop. In the auto-response, I made him aware of the fact that some of his favorite writers and actors might now know his name just by emailing me, and that’s what he would be remembered for in their eyes. “This auto-reply is because of Brad Johnson,” read the subject line of that OOO. (His name has been changed for this post.) Visions of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants actresses shaking their heads in disappointment must have kept him up at night, because it worked. After leaving the responder on for just two weeks, I never heard from him again.
No matter their use, OOO messages and other auto-responses can be a way to keep us connected even when we need to be a part. They are a way of setting a boundary or honoring someone else’s. They are a digital megaphone used to convey a singular message of importance to your entire community—from your besties to your enemies to Jan at the front desk of your gynecologist's office. It is a simple declaration that tells the digital world exactly where you are and exactly where you are not, exactly what you need and exactly what you don’t.
Today, I’ve started my own personal OOO for the next few weeks as I embark on a writing retreat deep in the woods of Oregon. I’ll be here working on two new books (!!) and a few other exciting things (naps, for instance). For now, I am going to leave you with something special. Send an email to LITDsubstack@gmail.com for further instructions.
What are some great auto-responses you’ve used or read from others over the years? Let me know in the comments!