Home / Articles / Volume 14 (2017) / "Out of the office": Conveying Politeness through Auto-Reply Email Messages
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Technology-based communication is characterized by rapid exchanges that for the most part are expected to occur regardless of the geographical location of the interlocutors. Those expectations hold true for email, an older form of technology still commonly used for communication in professional and academic contexts. Auto-reply messages are a useful vehicle for communicating one’s unavailability via email and assuring interlocutors of an eventual response that is as prompt as possible, given the circumstances. Drawing on Brown and Levinson’s (1987) politeness theory, this study frames auto-reply messages as a tool for managing potentially face-threatening situations and analyzes three components – greetings, closings, and signatures – as well as the strategies that senders use to minimize the threat. Finally, comparisons between auto-reply emails and ‘away’ messages in instant messaging inform a broader discussion of trends in technology-based communication.


It goes without saying that people who send email want or need a response. Although electronic mail is no longer a cutting-edge technology or the fastest means of exchanging information online, it continues to be a very common form of communication in academic and other professional contexts, and the rapid pace of communication in the 21st century sets an expectation for prompt replies. Kalman, Ravid, Raban and Rafaeli (2006) determined that the average response time for email communication was around 29 hours in a corporate network, 24 hours on a university discussion forum, and only 1.58 hours for answers posted on a question-and-answer website; expectations for response times vary accordingly. Given such expectations, many users set up auto-reply messages to communicate their inaccessibility or their lack of expected attentiveness when away from email. These messages carry out the function of what Skovholt and Svennevig (2013, p. 591) call “a placeholder, i.e., an email produced within a short time lapse that acknowledges that a message has been received and estimates when the sender intends to produce a full response.” Such concern with managing interaction is not exclusive to email; many companies have automated phone systems that repeatedly reassure clients of the importance of their call while they wait for the next available agent, and since the mid-1990’s instant messenger (IM) users have been able to display ‘away’ messages to advise interlocutors to expect a delayed response time.

The auto-reply email, or out-of-office message, dates back to Microsoft’s Xenix email system of the late 1980s (Ho, 2015) and is unique in several respects. Normally one does not draft an email response before having received the initiating message, nor does one write a message without knowing who the recipients will be. Even when addressing mailing lists with hundreds of unknown subscribers, a writer has some consciousness of what the recipients have in common; they may be members of a particular organization, clients of a company, or students at a particular institution, for example. Furthermore, it is not often that people draft a single email message that may be read by friends and family, colleagues, professional contacts, and even strangers who happen to contact them. As Sherblom (1988) notes, in most contexts one knows something about the other people with whom one is communicating via email, whether it be from a direct relationship, other personal contacts, or public access to information. Sherblom criticizes the roleplay design of early experimental email studies because participants interacted with interlocutors they did not know personally. Several decades later, however, the auto-reply message is a common email tool that is frequently used for communication with unknown interlocutors.

Given the range of possible relationships between auto-reply senders and their interlocutors, drafting a universally polite message that conveys respect, communicates solidarity, and maintains rapport can be challenging. The present study examines auto-reply messages as a unique form of email that is both potentially face saving and face threatening in nature. In this study, Brown and Levinson (1987) provides the framework for analyzing the politeness strategies that auto-reply senders use to mitigate any potential offense or threat to their recipients’ face.

After reviewing relevant findings of previous research, we first describe the frequency with which particular components of general email are used in a corpus of auto-reply messages, many of which originated in an academic context. Next, we highlight the politeness strategies that the senders employed. The findings have implications for how to draft effective auto-reply messages that maintain a maximally positive relationship with interlocutors. They also raise questions about expectations for availability and the potential use of auto-reply messages to establish necessary boundaries between one’s public or professional and private worlds in the 21st century.

Previous Research

Many studies have analyzed email messages and their components. Kankaanranta (2005) identified salutation, closing, and signature as three specific framing moves, optional features that establish the beginning and ending of a message as well as its physical layout. Greetings and closings are of particular importance because they create and reflect the communicative culture of an institution or community (Waldvogel, 2007), as well as communicate politeness (Duthler 2006; Murphy & Levy, 2006). Gains (1999) found that greetings and closings were less common features of emails in commercial settings than in academic contexts; of the commercial emails he analyzed, 92% did not include an opening greeting (p. 85), in contrast with only 37% of the academic emails (p. 91). However, several years later, by which time email was well established as an accessible, effective, and widespread communicative medium, Waldvogel (2007) reported the opposite pattern. In her comparative study of emails between employees of a manufacturing plant and among colleagues at an educational institution, most academic emails did not include greetings (59%), while in the factory, emails without greetings were much less common (17%). Waldvogel (2007) concluded that the frequency of greetings and closings in email at the plant reflected the positive environment and amiable relationships among workers, which were lacking at the educational institution, where employee morale was low. Thus, the quality of the interpersonal environment, rather than the nature of the institution or organization where the communication occurs, is key.

Email communication in general is characterized by formulae or patterns, useful routines that “establish and preserve relationships and maintain speakers’ good status within their communities” (Bing & Ruhl, 2008, p. 540), and auto-reply messages are no exception. In addition to their typical formulaic use of greetings, closings, and signatures, their content is somewhat predictable: They include a statement that the person who created the message is unavailable and, optionally, the dates of that person’s inaccessibility and when a reply can be expected, a reason for the delayed response, and/or alternative contact information for immediate assistance.

Similar to auto-reply emails are the ‘away’ messages that are an integral part of instant messaging (IM). Away messages are designed for IM users who are “logged on to their computers but not physically sitting at their machines to alert possible interlocutors not to expect immediate replies to instant messages” (Baron et al., 2005, p. 295). Away messages fulfill one of two major communicative functions: informational/discursive and entertainment. Users vary in the type and quantity of information they include in their away messages, ranging from the simple explanation that they are “out” to a detailed itinerary of their plans. Some users share personal opinions or comments, playfully hint that perhaps they are present but are not responding to messages, or invite interlocutors to contact them via a different form of technology. The entertainment function is evident through users’ inclusion of jokes, quotations, poems or lyrics, and links to websites as part of their away messages (Baron et al., 2005).

A linguistic analysis of away messages (Nastri, Peña, & Hancock, 2006) based on Searle’s (1969, 1979) taxonomy of speech acts found that most of the messages studied were phrased as assertives or truth statements, followed in frequency by expressives, expressions of emotion or feeling, and then commissives, statements about one’s future actions. According to Nastri et. al (2006), these speech act data support previous claims (Baron et al., 2005) that away messages are “primarily informational and expressive in nature” (p. 1037) and also a means of “active and purposeful impression management” (p. 1041). Thus, both content and linguistic analyses affirm that away messages not only communicate one’s unavailability but are also a tool for self-expression through which users shape their digital identity. Auto-reply messages similarly reflect something of the sender’s personality or identity through the type of salutations and closings chosen and the selection of particular politeness strategies, as will be discussed below.

Perceptions reflect cultural differences in the realization of, and expectations for, email communication (Betti, 2013; Callahan, 2011; Chen, 2015; Rosette et al., 2012). They highlight recipients' beliefs about the importance of grammatical accuracy, as well as their views on particular linguistic features of email (Cingel & Sundar, 2012; Kemp, Wood & Waldron, 2014; McAndrew & De Jonge, 2010; Shaw, Carlson & Waxman, 2007). In a study involving North American undergraduates, Jessmer and Anderson (2001) evaluated participants' perceptions of the authors of four email messages, each of which varied in nature and format, with respect to the following attributes: polite, impolite, grammatical, and ungrammatical. The participants perceived the senders of the polite and grammatical email most positively.

Indeed, the politeness of email communication has been a topic of much investigation (Beisenbach Lucas, 2007; Betti, 2013; Callahan, 2011; Duthler, 2006; Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011, 2015; Níkleva, 2015; Zhu, 2012). The auto-reply email context presents a potential face threat. In this context the speaker, in Brown and Levinson’s (1987) terms, is the person who initiates contact by sending an email that activates the auto-reply, which has been prepared in advance by the addressee. It is possible that the act of sending the auto-reply message will provoke a negative reaction; that is, speakers who set communication in motion with an urgent need may become annoyed or frustrated upon realizing that their request will not be addressed as soon as they would have liked. This is a potential threat to speakers’ face that the author of the auto-reply seeks to mitigate.

Goffman's (1967) concept of face as incorporated into Brown and Levinson's (1987) politeness theory is the theoretical cornerstone of this analysis. Brown and Levinson (1987) identified five strategies that a rational person might use to manage face-threatening acts. At one extreme, bald-on-record strategies involve performing a face-threatening act directly. At the other extreme are off-record strategies which are exceedingly indirect and may depend on hints or require that one read between the lines. Between those two extremes are strategies that, according to Brown and Levinson (1987), appeal to very different human desires or wants. Positive politeness strategies show affiliation with the interlocutor and seek to gratify his or her positive face through tactics such as compliments and expressions of gratitude, interest, or support. Negative politeness strategies communicate respect for the interlocutor and his or her rights, which are negative face wants; examples are apologies, attempts to minimize imposition, and regret over perceived demands on the other's space, time, or resources. Finally, some speech acts combine both positive and negative strategies. Participants in one study (Bolkan & Holmgren, 2012) perceived bald-on-record and off-record strategies to be less polite than emails that were based on positive politeness and a combination of positive and negative politeness strategies. Brown and Levinson’s five strategies are summarized in Table 1, with examples from the auto-reply messages analyzed in this study.

Politeness Strategies

(Brown & Levinson, 1987)



"I'm out of the office so you won't receive an immediate reply."

Positive Politeness

"Thanks for your patience."

Negative Politeness

"Sorry for any inconvenience."

Positive and Negative Politeness

"Thanks for your patience and sorry for any inconvenience."


"I am out of the office until 4/6."

Table 1. Examples of politeness strategies in auto-reply messages

Although Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory and its conceptualization of face have played a central role in the development of research on politeness, its weaknesses are well documented. Critics note that certain acts are not inherently face-threatening and that it is context that determines what constitutes a legitimate threat (Luchjenbroers & Aldridge-Waddon, 2011; Spencer-Oatey, 2005). Other critics have pointed out the subjectivity involved in the perception of politeness (Haugh, 2010; Locher & Watts, 2005; Spencer-Oatey, 2005) and have argued for the need to address it from "relational" and "interactional" perspectives (Arundale, 2006).

The interactional and relational aspects of politeness play out in particular ways in the context of pre-programmed, one-size-fits-all auto-reply emails, in contrast with personalized messages drafted specifically for known recipients. Insights can be obtained from studies of bloggers, whose posts can also be read by unknown audiences. Interestingly, in a survey conducted by Viégas (2005), many bloggers reported feeling that they knew their ‘core audience’ well and wrote as if that small subset of frequent readers were representative of their entire readership. This observation is important, given that a “target audience also influences the way posts are written and what information is made available” (Qian & Scott, 2007, p. 1440). It is possible that auto-reply writers also draft their messages with particular recipients in mind. Nonetheless, although their choices of tone, register, and politeness strategies are intentional, writers cannot customize those features to take into account their personal or professional relationship with each interlocutor.

Finally, Tyler and Tang (2003) note that the pre-written nature of auto-reply emails disrupts senders’ expectations about how to compose their communication:

While auto-reply messages give an explicit explanation of why an email response might be delayed, these messages are only sent in response to receiving a message from someone. Thus, the sender would not know in advance about the delayed response, and might have composed the message differently if the delayed response could have been anticipated. (p. 247)

The insertion of an auto-reply message into regular correspondence disrupts the normal pattern of communication and potentially disrupts politeness norms as well.

The present study seeks to add to the current body of research by examining auto-reply messages as a specific subtype or genre of email. Specifically, we quantify the use of three components (greetings, closings, and signatures) identified in previous research on general email messages and compare their frequency in auto-reply versus non-auto-reply contexts. We also examine the politeness strategies used by auto-reply authors to mitigate possible offense to their recipients’ face. The following research questions guide the analysis:

RQ1: What components identified for email in general (greetings, closings, and signature) also characterize auto-reply messages, and how frequently are they included in the study corpus, which primarily includes communication in a university context?

RQ2: What politeness strategies do auto-reply authors use to manage their recipients’ face? With what frequency are those strategies used?

Data Collection

The data for this study come from a convenience sample of 81 auto-reply messages sent by 60 individuals that were received by or passed on to one of the researchers. The emails were collected in the United States over a period of four and a half years, between September 2009 and January 2014, and all the messages were written in English. It is not possible to verify the native language of the auto-reply writers definitively, but there was nothing in their messages to suggest that they were not proficient English speakers. It is also not possible to know if these writers were drafting their messages with both native and non-native recipients in mind, a factor that could have prompted them to modify their language or style. (An exception is one writer who provided a translation of her message in a second language below the English version and was clearly trying to accommodate native speakers of two languages.) Many of the emails in our sample originated in a university context and were sent from faculty or staff who, for a variety of reasons, would be inaccessible via email for a period of time. Other auto-reply messages in the sample came from friends, businesses, and organizations that one of the researchers had contacted via email.

Because previous research has identified norms for distinct email contexts such as professional or corporate communication (Kankaanranta, 2005; Tyler & Tang, 2003; Waldvogel, 2007) and academic exchanges (Betti, 2013; Chen, 2015; Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011), it is important to justify the multiple sources of auto-reply messages that serve as the corpus for the present study. Although a study of email in corporate contexts must necessarily limit its data to messages sent within companies or businesses, for instance, and analyses of email in academic settings logically focus on exchanges between teacher colleagues or between students and teachers, it is in the nature of auto-reply emails to cross these contextual boundaries. Auto-reply messages are as likely to be received by a colleague or supervisor as by a friend or total stranger.

Data Analysis

The data analysis was both quantitative and qualitative. We first quantified the number of auto-reply emails that included greetings, closings, and signatures. We additionally noted the frequency of certain components within those features, such as the frequency with which certain expressions were used in greetings and closings, as well as the characteristics of signatures, which included various combinations of first and last names in addition to titles and associations. The decision to separate signatures from the broader overarching category of closings follows Sherblom (1988), who analyzed the significance of their presence, and Rains and Young (2006), who examined their content and function.

The researchers jointly coded the first 10 auto-reply messages, then coded the remaining 71 emails independently, after which they reconvened to compare results. Inter-rater agreement was 99% for the presence of greetings, closings, and signatures, and 89% for identification of the politeness strategies used in the messages. The researchers worked together to resolve discrepancies over which they did not initially agree.

The data analysis followed Waldvogel (2007) in considering the use of "thanks" at the end of a message to be a closing, whether or not the writer's name is included. Also, adopting the terminology of voicemail user guides, which consider a recorded “Thank you for your call” to be a greeting, we coded “thank you for your message” as a greeting in the auto-reply email context. (For an alternative approach, see Herring [1996]; these “thank you for” expressions can also be considered the opening move of the aligned variant of her email message schema.)

We take the position that all auto-reply messages perform a potentially face-threatening act, and thus for the qualitative analysis, we coded elements in the body of each message according to one of Brown and Levinson’s (1987) five politeness strategies: bald-on-record, positive politeness, negative politeness, positive and negative politeness, or off-record. We did not code politeness strategies in greetings or closings. Although expressing gratitude, for example, is a positive politeness strategy and is found in both greetings and closings, including it would have necessitated the evaluation of other formulaic language that was more problematic to interpret.1

We present the sample message below in its original formatting to highlight our analytical process, beginning with the email components and followed by the classification of politeness strategies.

Sample message

Thank you for your email and interest in Unnamed University!
I will be out of the office until Wednesday, November 20th. I will
have limited access to my email during this time and will return all
emails on the 20th. If you need more immediate assistance please
email [Email Address] or call [Phone Number].

Thank you for your patience and understanding. I look forward to
speaking with you soon!

This particular email includes only one of the three components we quantified. The opening phrase “Thank you for your email and interest in Unnamed University!” was considered a greeting in the absence of any other traditional greeting. The message does not include a closing or signature.

We also coded five politeness strategies, one negative and four positive, in the sample message. Negative strategies convey respect for the interlocutor and for his or her rights. This use of negative politeness was coded as an email access issue (“I will have limited access to my email during this time”). The writer implies that she is not disrespecting her interlocutor’s time but that the delay is beyond her control. Positive strategies, on the other hand, serve to reiterate affiliation with the interlocutor. In this message, we coded one as a promise (“will return all emails on the 20th”) that articulates a commitment to address the interlocutor’s need. A second positive strategy was coded as a referral (“If you need more immediate assistance please email [Email Address] or call [Phone Number].” The sender again shows concern about the interlocutor’s needs and offers alternative means of assistance in her absence. A third token was coded as gratitude (“Thank you for your patience and understanding”) in which the auto-reply writer expresses gratitude for particular behaviors or characteristics on the part of the recipient. Finally, one example highlighted the category of expressing interest in the participant (“I look forward to speaking with you soon!”). In this case the auto-reply writer directly affirms the importance of the hypothetical interlocutor and his or her message.


Structural Components

We first analyze the frequencies and realizations of greetings, closings, and signatures in the auto-reply messages. Most messages (55 of 81 or 68%) in the present corpus did not include any greeting at all, a finding consistent with Gain's (1999) and Hatipoğlu's (2007) observations about the limited use of greetings in commercial and mass emails. The list of expressions used in the 26 messages that included greetings is presented in Table 2.



Thank you for . . .

16 (62%)


3 (12%)

This is an automated reply.

2 (8%)

This is [Name] . . .

1 (4%)

Dear friends and colleagues,

1 (4%)


1 (4%)

Good day.

1 (4%)

You're (sic) email has reached the desk of

1 (4%)


26 (100%)

Table 2. Frequency of expressions used in greetings

The majority of the greetings in Table 2 are somewhat formal and reflect the unique nature of the auto-reply; in all cases but one, they do not presume a relationship between the author and recipient. Authors did not mostly rely on expressions such as "dear" (4%), usually used when interlocutors or their names are known, or even the more generic "hi/hello" (12%), but rather employed a fairly wide variety of expressions, five of which are used only once. These results differ somewhat from those reported by Cho (2010), who found that the recipients’ names were an important greeting component in his corpus of 197 academic emails. In the 131 emails in Cho’s study that included a greeting, the recipients’ first names were used in 64 (32%) messages, and the expression “Hi first name” in 25 (13%) and “Dear first name” in 14 (7%). The other greetings, which occurred with very low frequencies, included collective names, surnames, and nicknames. Obviously, such extensive use of names is not possible in an auto-reply message that is intended for an unspecified audience.

Interestingly, the most frequent greeting, which begins with the phrase "thank you for . . ." was reported to be uncommon or non-existent in other email contexts (Gains, 1999; Waldvogel, 2007). That our results are different may reflect the particular nature of the auto-reply context, or it may be a result of the coding scheme used in the present study, which classified opening utterances as greetings when no other greeting was present. "Thank you for . . ." may not have been classified as a greeting in other studies.

Closings were also absent more often than not from these auto-reply messages; most emails (42 of 81 or 52%) ended without a sign-off. This finding is unsurprising, given the relationship between the inclusion of greetings and closings and institutional culture. Auto-reply messages are necessarily somewhat impersonal; they cannot reflect a positive relationship that the author may have with a given recipient because they may be received by numerous people with whom the author may have very different relationships and communication patterns. The expressions that authors used in the remaining 39 messages (48%) that did have closings are shown in Table 3.



Thanks, [Name].

20 (51.3%)


4 (10.2%)


3 (7.7%)


2 (5.0%)

Wishing you an enjoyable holiday season,

1 (2.6%)

Have a nice day.

1 (2.6%)

Best wishes,

1 (2.6%)

Have a good weekend.

1 (2.6%)

Very truly yours,

1 (2.6%)


1 (2.6%)

Thank you and have a great day.

1 (2.6%)

Thank you and Happy Holidays.

1 (2.6%)

Kind regards,

1 (2.6%)


1 (2.6%)


39 (100%)

Table 3. Frequency of expressions used in closings

Previous research has reported that closings, as well as greetings and signatures, contribute to framing email messages as "relational and involved" (Kankaanranta 2005, p. 359). Economidou-Kogetsidis (2011) also found that university faculty evaluated as more brusque and less polite those emails from students that did not include greetings and closings. Thus, the sender of an auto-reply message may include a closing as a positive politeness strategy to convey affiliation with the recipient. As in the case of greetings, these data exhibited more variety than uniformity; 10 of the 14 expressions were used just once. With the possible exceptions of "best," "cordially," "wishing you an enjoyable holiday season," "very truly yours," and "(kind) regards," these closings are not particularly formal and strike an amicable tone.

Signatures, the third email component analyzed in this study, were used in slightly more than half of the data (44 of 81 messages or 54%). This figure is considerably lower than the inclusion of signatures in 80% of messages sent to the two Internet mailing lists analyzed by Herring (1996). Cho (2010) also reported a fairly high percentage of signature use; 132 (67%) of 197 emails included some form personal identification whether by surnames, nicknames, or initials. Table 4 provides more detailed information about the present results.



Name with additional information

18 (41%)

First name only

14 (32%)

Full name

8 (18%)


3 (7%)

Organization name

1 (2%)


44 (100%

Table 4. Frequencies of signature types

Given that mail systems automatically identify the sender of a message, signatures are "informationally redundant" (Sherblom, 1988, p. 44), although, as previously noted, Herring (1996) found that they were still included in 80% of messages to the electronic mailing lists she analyzed. Simple electronic signatures or more elaborate ones that include affiliation, title, professional information and even inspirational quotes fulfill numerous communicative functions. As Rains and Young (2006) note, in addition to managing one's image and transmitting personal information, "the inclusion of a signature appears to add formality and structure" (p. 1057) to the communication. In the present data, 18 messages included signature files. Although most people who create such files for use in professional correspondence do not always modify or delete them in informal communication, auto-reply emails are intentionally composed, and it is therefore likely that these writers purposefully included their signature files. However, we have no way of proving that intentionality and must acknowledge the possibility that the inclusion of some signature files was the result of an oversight.

Thus, it appears that these auto-reply authors included both formal and informal elements in their messages. Most messages did not include a greeting or closing, the absence of which could be considered somewhat informal. The inclusion of signatures, a feature characterized as more formal and structured, appears in approximately half of the emails (54%).

Politeness Strategies

We also analyzed the politeness strategies that auto-reply authors used. The most common strategy was a combination of positive and negative politeness, followed by messages that only exhibited characteristics of positive politeness. No emails were bald-on-record, and very few were off-record (4) or depended solely on negative politeness strategies (2). Table 5 provides a summary.




4 (5%)

Positive politeness

29 (36%)

Negative politeness

2 (2%)

Both positive and negative politeness

46 (57%)


0 (0%)


81 (100%)

Table 5. Categorization of emails by politeness strategy

In order to analyze these results further, we examine positive and negative politeness in greater detail below. Positive politeness strategies, as appeals to positive face or affiliation, can be subdivided into several categories. The auto-reply messages include referrals, for example; that is, their writers anticipated the reasons for which some colleagues or friends would contact them and provided phone numbers or email addresses of other individuals who could assist while they were unavailable. A second strategy was to supply the information that the writers anticipated would be requested. A message that just includes the dates during which the writer is unavailable, though informative, does not fit the criteria for this category and was coded as off-record. Third, some auto-reply writers included promises that verbalized their commitment to reply to email at a later time. Underlying these promises is the awareness that people who send emails usually want or need a reply. Auto-reply writers addressed this want with various degrees of specificity. Some promises indicated a specific date by which a response could be expected, and others qualified their commitment to reply "as soon as possible." A fourth positive politeness strategy was to express gratitude; this was often a statement of thanks for patience or understanding. Finally, a few auto-reply writers expressed interest in recipients, attributing great importance to their message or to the opportunity to speak with them at a later time. These expressions of interest all seemed somewhat exaggerated. Table 6 contains examples of each of these strategies from the present data as well as the frequency with which they appeared. (Many auto-reply emails included more than one strategy.)





If you need urgent help, please call . . . .

50 (43%)


I will reply to your message on Monday, the 10th

7 (6%)

Promise with a qualification

I will reply to your message as soon as possible

46 (39%)


Thank you for your patience and understanding.

7 (6%)

Interest in recipient

Your message is very important to me!

4 (3%)

Information provision

If you are writing about x, . . . .

3 (3%)


117 (100%)

Table 6. Positive politeness strategies

Referrals to other parties who could offer assistance and qualified promises were particularly frequent components of these emails. Consider the following example in which auto-reply authors used positive politeness strategies. (Underlining was added for emphasis.)

Example 1

I will be out of the office until Friday, September
20. I will respond as soon as possible upon my
return. For urgent matters, please call my cell.
First name Last name
Cell #

As noted earlier, positive politeness was the second most common strategy type in the auto-reply messages. Example 1 follows the format of a traditional letter, with a greeting, formal closing, and signature, a pattern also documented by Herring (1996). The sender includes a promise to respond, qualifying the timing with the commonly used phrase “as soon as possible." The sender additionally provides a referral and includes a cell phone number at which recipients whose need is urgent can reach him. Rather than simply communicating unavailability, the author of this message includes content to convey both affiliation with the recipient and attention to his or her wants and needs.

There are also specific ways in which negative politeness strategies show consideration of a potential interlocutor’s negative face through communicating respect and avoiding imposition. In the context of auto-reply messages, the writer may show respect for the recipients' time by trying to explain or justify an anticipated delay in responding to their messages, a frequent example of negative politeness in the current data set. Our auto-reply writers offered professional reasons for their inability to reply, such as attendance at a conference or a vacation, a sanctioned reward for hard work. In other cases, they offered no explanation of their whereabouts but emphasized their lack of regular access to email. During the time period in which these data were collected, internet access was more limited, and this line of justification was more credible than it may be in many parts of the country at present. Finally, auto-reply senders communicated respect for others' time and needs by apologizing for any inconvenience caused by their delay. Examples of negative politeness are presented in Table 7 along with their frequency of occurrence.





I am at a conference . . .

34 (52%)

Email access

I will have limited access to email . . .

30 (45%)


I'm sorry for any inconvenience . . .

2 (3%)


66 (100%)

Table 7. Negative politeness strategies

Offering a reason for their inaccessibility was the auto-reply writers’ most frequent strategy, followed by explicit reference to their lack of access to email. By referring to attendance at a conference or limited access to email, the writer is showing respect for the recipient’s time; he or she is not ignoring or giving low priority to the message but is constrained by a legitimate professional obligation. The auto-reply message highlighted below exemplifies negative politeness strategies by offering a reason for the sender's silence.

Example 2

Our offices will be closed Thursday & Friday, for
the Thanksgiving Holiday
. We will reopen Monday
November 11/26.
Thank you,
First name Last name
Customer Service

The sender does not merely state that the office is closed, which is all that the recipient needs to know, but seems to want to show respect for the recipient by including a reason. This message is one of many that does not include a formal greeting and does not follow a traditional letter format.

The most common approach to politeness in these emails was to combine positive and negative politeness strategies. Consider Example 3:

Example 3

Thank you for your email!
I will be out of the office Monday, May 31 for
Memorial Day, without access to email
. I will
respond on Tuesday, June 1st
I apologize for any inconvenience.
Thank you!
First name

In this example, the sender includes a promise to respond ("I will respond on Tuesday, June 1st"), a positive politeness strategy, as well as several negative politeness strategies: giving a reason for the office being closed ("for Memorial Day"), verbalizing his or her limited access to email ("without access to email"), and apologizing for difficulties that his inaccessibility may cause ("I apologize for any inconvenience").

An interesting phrase used in five of the auto-reply messages was "I will not be checking/responding to email" or a variant thereof. Although bald statements about what one will not do could sound impolite in other contexts, they appear to serve as clarification in auto-reply messages. That is, personal technological devices such as smart phones and widespread internet access make it possible to check and respond to email even in remote locations, and it may not be adequate to simply indicate that one is out of the office. The writers of these five auto-reply messages perhaps felt it necessary to add specifically that they were choosing not to check or respond to email even though they may indeed have had the technological resources to do so.

Discussion and Conclusion

This study identified the structural components and politeness strategies used in a corpus of auto-reply messages. Most of these messages did not include a greeting or closing, which, according to previous research, could make them appear less polite, less intimate, and more impersonal. However, slightly more than half of the messages included signatures. Most senders used a combination of positive and negative politeness strategies in their messages, but a considerable number depended exclusively on positive politeness. In general, politeness played an important role in the construction of the auto-reply messages. This analysis raises broader issues of how politeness functions in communicating one’s accessability, or inaccessibility, in a demanding digital age.

A comparison of auto-reply email messages with the away messages of IM highlights how different technologies address common communicative needs, as well as the changing context of digital communication. At their core, both types of messages reflect a basic goal: communicating one’s unavailability to possible interlocutors. Personal and professional communication in the 21st century occurs at a rapid pace. As Kalman et al. (2006) note, “The practicality of interactive communication depends on immediate responses” (p. 12). Consequently, silence, even in a digital context, can constitute a threat to face (Goffman, 1967). It seems that the potentially problematic meaning of silence in oral communication transfers to electronic media, and the use of placeholders such as auto-reply messages marks an attempt to manage interlocutors’ expectations (Skovholt & Svennevig (2013).

Consequently, although some email users may interpret silence charitably, others may not. A lack of response in a social context may call into question the status of the relationship; users may assume that their interlocutor is upset with them or, conversely, may themselves become offended by the silence. In professional settings, not responding to digital communication may be interpreted as incompetence or irresponsibility that leads to strained working relationships, failed commercial ventures, or lost business opportunities.

Auto-reply emerged during the late 1980s, and away messages became mainstream during the mid-1990s, an era when stating that one was offline was reasonable and believable. However, current “always-on” technologies such as mobile phones call that excuse into question (Baron, 2008). The notion of reachability, “the ability to use the mobile phone to reach others or for others to reach you” (Baron, 2009, n.p.), is of increasing importance and helps explain why auto-reply and away messages came into existence and are still considered necessary. Interestingly, in their research involving university students in Sweden, the U.S., and Japan, Baron and Hård af Segerstad (2010) found that reachability was a “double-edged sword” for both Scandinavian and American participants; that is, it was frequently mentioned as what they liked most about having a mobile phone as well as what they least liked.

The importance of declaring one’s accessibility continues to grow even as explicit auto-reply and away messages are used less often. Increasingly common now are awareness indicators (Markopoulos, deRuyter & Mackay, 2009; U.S. Patent No. 6731308 B1, 2000) on mobile applications such as Viber and WhatsApp that let a user know if another particular user is online; Facebook, too, has introduced its own version of an awareness indicator, “sidebar status.” Additionally, some IM clients make it possible to see when an interlocutor is typing a message. It is clear that reachability is highly valued and, at the same time, that people recognize the need to be “off the grid” sometimes. It remains to be seen how those values will be reflected in interpersonal communication via email and other technologies in the future. Awareness indicators require less effort on the part of users and pose no threat to face, but the absence of such a feature on email clients suggests that auto-reply messages still fulfill a necessary role. Will users continue referring to limited access to email as part of their explanation for a delayed response? In many instances, their current use of the phrase “limited access” seems not to be a reference to what is technologically possible but rather to what they are willing to do or not do during their vacation or other travel. In other words, “limited email access” can be a euphemism for “I am not going to check and/or respond to email.” It remains to be seen how much respect colleagues and friends will extend for one’s need to disconnect (Baron, 2008), whether or not new expressions will emerge to address interlocutors’ ever-increasing expectations for a rapid response, and what strategies auto-reply writers will use to politely communicate their unavailability in a culture that values unlimited and immediate access.

This study has several limitations. First, the number of auto-reply messages on which the analysis is based is small, and the messages come from a convenience sample rather than a systematic or random sample, a limitation that restricts the generalizability of these findings. A larger corpus would permit statistical analysis. A broader data set could also include larger numbers of messages from different communicative contexts that would permit comparison and contrast among them. For instance, are there specific traits that characterize auto-reply emails sent from academic contexts? Are they similar to or different from messages sent in corporate settings? A second limitation is the length of time during which the data were collected. We cannot be certain that the email conventions used in 2009 were the same as those used in 2014. In fact, given the rapidity of technological development, it is likely that norms of email communication changed during that period of nearly four and a half years, and that they continue to evolve. That said, the highly formulaic and standardized nature of auto-reply messages may make them less susceptible to change than is the case for regular email communication.

The findings of this study point to several possible directions for future research, particularly in regard to how recipients interpret auto-reply emails. Although recipient perceptions are outside the scope of the present investigation, they are of central importance in the study of politeness. Future research might examine how recipients perceive the content (the presence or absence of greetings, closings, and signatures) and the politeness of the strategies used to communicate one's unavailability, as well as how readers perceive positive politeness strategies as opposed to negative ones. Also important is analyzing different recipients' perceptions of the same message; that is, how do the family or friends of a professional interpret the politeness of an auto-reply message compared to his or her colleagues or subordinates? Such data could provide an important real life link that, depending on the findings, could have practical implications for drafting auto-reply messages. Finally, future research might investigate how the changing technological landscape is reflected in auto-response messages, particularly with regard to statements about email access.


  1. For example, if we were to include greetings and closings, would “kind regards” be an example of a negative politeness strategy that conveys respect to the addressee or a positive politeness strategy that communicates solidarity (in contrast with just “regards,” which seems more distant)? Would “Greetings!” be a negative politeness strategy used to communicate respect (in contrast with the more informal “hi”), or is it a positive politeness strategy that communicates friendliness because of the exclamation point? We believe that our politeness analysis is more consistent by excluding greetings and closings.


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Biographical Notes

Anne Edstrom ( edstroma@montclair.edu ) is an Associate Professor of Spanish at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey. Her research interests range from pragmatics and sociolinguistics to foreign language pedagogy.

Jennifer Ewald ( jewald@sju.edu ) is an Associate Professor and Director of the Linguistics Program at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her research interests include language pedagogy, second language acquisition and pragmatics.


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