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When a Joke Is Not a Joke

In response to my monthly newsletter, I just received this automatic out-of-office email response:

I will be unable to delete all the emails you send me until I return from holiday (2nd of March). Please, be patient, and your mail will be deleted in the order in which it was received.



The message came from someone at a global plastics company.

What do you think? Is it amusing? Does it present the company well?

As someone who prides herself on her professional communication, I admit I was shocked. If I had emailed Pertti as a client or customer, I would be likely to take my business elsewhere. 

What is your view? Do you think Pertti will be looking for a new job when the holiday is over?

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

15 comments on “When a Joke Is Not a Joke”

  • Naturally Pertti seems to be troubled by the postage of Newsletters from you.

    1. But still, she can not afford to write back to you in this manner. Whichever industry she belongs to, since her organization has been selected by you to receive the Newsletters, somewhere both you and Pertti’s company relate to each other, and somewhere your concerns match. Pertti has also brought BAD-will to her current organization that she supposedly is leaving.

    2. Looking at a broader picture, even if she has plans to quit, and if at all she is interested in her future career, she should be afraid of you and her present organization, as your and their communications can actually travel faster to all of her prospective workplaces.

    Humour apart! It was not humorous at all.

    Dr. N. K. Ranjan
    The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India

  • Dear Lynn,

    I must admit that my first reaction was a snigger; however, I was not reading it as a customer (or prospective customer) of her company. If I had been, I probably would be looking for a plastics company with more professional staff!
    Warm regards,
    Sarah Johnstone

  • I think – in most cases – if the recipient was a man – that might be funny, if it is a woman – not funny. Why? Men have better sense of humor. For me that tells me this person can put him/herself aside the everyday routine and look at boring things from the distance, take it easy.

    What does this e-mail/answer really mean? Well, if the person is really interested in doing business with me, I do not care if he/she keeps that e-mail or not, what I do care is money on my account comming from that deal.

    As for me, having answer like this would help me better remember that recipient and most likely I would answer him/her some day in the same style. Just to loosen the atmosphere of conversation and maybe strenghten our business relation.

    From the other hand I would not use such auto-answer if I knew that my customers may be big companies owners, higher senior managers etc, as I do not think these people are looking to have this sort of fun if their business live. That would not always work when it comes to different cultures and nationalities. For instance I do not think that would be funny in Asia (with Asians).

    In Poland where I am from such e-mail would be considered funny.

    Thank you Lynn for another interesting article.
    I will delete it my subscription as soon as I finish writing this answer 😉

  • Well, from a perspective of businness environment, I think this kind of message is tottally unacepptable. How can a person who´s made contact with clients can send a message like this to his clients?

    Maybe inside the company a message like this could be accpetable, but I think i could be never send to the general public even more the clients.

    Kind regards

  • I get the impression that Pertti is young, and just trying to be amusing.

    Personally, I think the message is unprofessional and would put the company in a bad light. I don’t think that Pertti should be sacked, though. Perhaps a course in professional business communication would be more appropriate.

  • Thanks for your comments, everybody. Like you, Clare, I do not think Pertti should be sacked. A course in business communication? Yes, that’s a fine remedy for her impish style of communicating.

    Jiggyjiggy, I like your Polish sense of humor!

    Dr. Ranjan, I do not believe Pertti’s out-of-office message went to me alone, so I won’t assume she does not want to receive the newsletter she subscribed to. I won’t take it personally, as they say in the U.S.

    Sarah and Conrado, thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • I’m one of the best technical writers I’ve come across, and I’m also hypercritical and obsessed with proper grammar, content, business etiquette, etc. I’m also a good judge of human character. And with the foregoing in mind, I can confidently say that the mere fact that we are “blogging” about the email auto-reply is in itself indicative of the fact that it is quite novel and impactful; if for no other reason than it caused one or more recipients just a moment of pause, which is likely to garner some sense of endearment and or unique recollection. Certainly you wouldn’t be surprised if a similar response came from a Google or Microsoft [or other Silicon Valley] employee – because we expect them to be more “down to earth” and less serious, which I think is fine and has its place in the all-too-often, all-too-serious American workplace [including that of a plastics manufacturer].

  • Auden your post is a masterpiece. Both in terms of idea you want to share and the complexity of words you have used (at least from my point of view).
    By the way. I do not follow each article comments very thoroughly, but is not this the most intensively commented article since … i do not know when?

  • Hi, Auden. Let’s not assume that Pertti comes from an all-to-serious U.S. company. In fact, she is in Northern Europe working for what I believe is a European company.

    In any case, what bothers me is the one-size-fits-all nature of her response. EVERYONE gets her automatic message about deleting theirs–coworkers, customers, clients, everyone.

    Jiggyjiggy, you’re right. This post has gotten a lot of interest. Pertti has inspired us!


  • I agree with Auden whole heatedly. Honestly I’d be MORE inclined to continue my business with this company because of the realism of this auto reply. We all feel swamped by our email load when we come back from being away. And even if we don’t want to admit it we also know that there are emails which don’t get the attention they should. If I received this response I would feel this company, or at least this employee, could be trusted to tell it to me like it is. I welcome the deviation from the all-too-serious trend that Auden alludes too, be it American or European.

  • Humor is a powerful tool, and like all powerful tools, it can be dangerous. I think that using humor in business communications can be appropriate, but should be approached with caution.

    In this example, I can see using an autoresponder like this for people that you already have a friendly relationship with. But for a broadcast message to all of your contacts, you run the risk of offending someone who would perceive this as flippant and non-professional.

  • Interesting to read your article – and even more so the comments! – on this out of office-reply.

    As a communicator responsible for internal communications in a global company where employees often travel, I get auto-responses to my newsletters all the time and would welcome some humour in these mostly dull, dreary, uninspired, sometimes rushed and often misspelled pieces of writing.

    Humour, though, is often tied to culture and it does not always travel well. Especially when it comes to irony.

    However, in Northern Europe this type of humour is appreciated. As jiggyjiggy mentioned, in for instance Poland it would be considered funny. This is also the case in the country Pertti is from.

    Furthermore, I suspect he (yes, Pertti is a man’s name) either doesn’t work in the type of job where he would be corresponding directly with clients or he works with clients in Northern Europe only. So he would expect his contacts to appreciate, or at the very least tolerate, his humour.

    But this is just the opinion of a fellow country(wo)man…

  • Sanna, thank you for correcting us on Pertti’s gender. I also appreciate the way you characterize most out-of-office replies.

    According to his message, Pertti should be back from his holiday now. I wonder whether he has deleted my newsletter yet!

    Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful remarks.


  • First and foremost, thanks a lot for the compliments/concurrences (in particular JJiggy – which is itself a ‘screen name’ not likely to fade fast from memory – and Jason) I only wish I had been notified about [or remembered to check] the replies/further posts sooner. Which reminds me, I thought there was an option to receive such notices, which I definitely would have chosen, no? If so, I’m not sure why I didn’t receive anything, and if not, it would be a helpful feature to add.

    With respect to Lynn’s last comment/reply to me, I note that it only buttresses my point. I was only going with the fact – if not explicitly cited, it was no doubt implicit in the original post – that it was the non-informal [to be slightly distinguished from “formal”] nature of the interaction/company/customer that rendered it ‘inappropriate’ or suspect. Specifically, if we remove that assumption from the equation and assume she’s at/with a European company (it should go without saying that most Europeans are not NEARLY as formal and uptight as Americans about most things – e.g. sex, alcohol, etc. And yes, then there’s Britain:), then my argument is even more persuasive.

    Furthermore, with respect to the “one size fits all” objection, I respectfully and rhetorically ask, “Why should it be the more formal/rigid group that should dictate which is preferable?” In other words, why, as your point implies, should the standard/bland and more formal Out-of-Office Reply trump, in terms of etiquette/preference, the more interesting/less formal and arguably more memorable/fun one? My view: it shouldn’t!

    So just like I said to those who got uptight/offended about/at the Janet Jackson Super Bowl “slip” a few years ago, “C’mon…Relax, take your Victorian jackets (capes:) off and stay a while”. Frankly I think the FCC should allow full nudity [which doesn’t mean sexual acts] on network TV regardless of time. After all, most European countries do! LOL


  • Yes, I would definitely be put-off with this out-of-office reply. It sounds rude and indicates that your e-mail is not important. Then, why have an out-of-office reply at all?

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