stuff for you to read

Three good articles that you should read —

1. This article from Harvard Business Review has great advice about how to deal with a screamer or an over-explainer — two frustrating types you might encounter at work at some point. It’s pretty insightful advice that wasn’t intuitive for me.

2. I’ve been known to try to provide help where it’s not wanted and thus completely recognized myself in “Don’t Inflict Help, Provide It” — also from HBR. If you too are occasionally tempted to be inappropriately “helpful,” whether at work or in your personal life, you should read this.

3. I am irrationally annoyed by out-of-office auto-replies that provide too much information, so loved this piece on the worst kinds of email auto-responders.

{ 61 comments… read them below }

  1. Poster formerly known as Jane Doe*

    On Article 3, the only one I really disagree with is number 6 – the sporadic. I always say that I will periodically check my email when I’m vacation, because that’s exactly what I do. I don’t have the emails sent directly to my phone, I check them via webmail at my convenience.

        1. Nikki T*

          yeah, I don’t have a smart phone. I don’t get any notifications and even if I did have a smartphone, my work email would NOT be pushed to my phone.

          If I’m out, I put who to contact in my absence, That’s it. If I happen to check it, I fwd the message to my cover person, I don’t respond myself.

        2. Kethryvis*

          i do have a smart phone, and i have my work email on my phone, but it is NOT set to push. It only checks when i tell it to. And even if it does check when i’m checking my personal email, i’m VERY good at ignoring the work side, or giving it a cursory glance to see if there’s something that needs to get forwarded on. Even that i only do once a day or so.

          Some of us actually do believe in “sporadic” checks.

      1. Yup*

        Agreed. It’s very common for people in my field to travel to multiple cities or countries — half with reliable mobile/internet access, half without — on a single trip. So they’re setting the proper expectation to say that they’ll only be available online sporadically.

      2. EngineerGirl*

        Exactly. You could be in class, or on a multi hour plane flight, or on jury duty, or someplace that only has a connection at the hotel…

        Push notifications are distracting. I’m going to treat them like the phone and not answer if I’m busy. I’ll pull the emails when I actually have time to respond to them.

      3. Kou*

        Right? “This is the age of the push notification.” Yeah, and I have those turned off because they’re annoying, like most people. A few times a day I open my email and refresh it… Like most people, right? I mean come on.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I disagreed with that one too. My phone has notifications turned off, because they annoy me and suck up my battery. I’ll get all my newsletter subscriptions/G+ replies/whatever when I have a moment to sit down and check it.

    2. KellyK*

      Same here. I don’t have a smart phone at all, and if I get one, it will be a personal one that won’t be set up to receive my work email. I think people are way too quick to assume that just because people *can* be 100% connected all the time that everyone *is.*

    3. Cath@VWXYNot?*

      That stood out for me, too. Canadians get charged higher data roaming access fees than pretty much anyone else (see, so I check email on my smart phone only if I have WiFi.

      Guess when I have WiFi when I’m travelling? Sporadically…

      Sometimes I can’t even check email on my phone without WiFi when I’m still in Canada – if I’m too close to the US border, my phone sometimes thinks I’m in the US and I start getting warnings about data roaming. Highly frustrating.

  2. Allison (not AAM)*

    As far as the email auto-response – PLEASE put a date on it! I can’t tell you how many “I’ll be out for the remainder of the day” emails I’ve gotten – what day? Did you already come back and forget to turn off your auto-responder, or did the partial day off stretch to a longer period of time? Or there’s the “I’ll respond when I return,” with no indication of when that will be. If you’ll be back in a couple of days, I can probably wait, but if it’s much longer, I will have to come up with an optional approach or workaround. Pretty please.

    1. Sparrow*

      I agree! I always put dates in my auto-responses. My OOO response usually reads like this:

      “I will be out of the office from Tuesday 10/29 to Thursday 10/31 and will be returning on Friday 10/1. Please see below for contacts in my absence.”

      I work on multiple projects, so I list each one as a separate line item with the backup contact.

      1. Allison (not AAM)*

        That’s exactly how I do it too, Sparrow…and listed the backup contacts for each individual customer to call below that, WITH email addresses for each. Hard for people to contact my backup if they can’t contact ’em! 😜

    2. Lucy*

      OMG. This. I got the following out of office from someone at my organization:

      “Thanks for your email, unfortunately I’m away. In my absence please the Administrative Director.”

      What?? I found out weeks later that he doesn’t work here anymore!

    3. Elizabeth*

      Then you have people like I deal with in my organization, who say “I’ll be out on May 10”, and then when they’re out on October 23, the auto-responder still says May 10. Really, how difficult is it to check the auto-responder setup to assure it is still appropriate?

      If I know I’m going to be out for a significant length of time (7+ days), I’ve started adding a line to my signature block for a period of time in advance. For example, right now, I’ve got my signature block notifying everyone that I will be out for 10 days at the end of November. I’m trying to forestall an avalanche of “OMG, what do you mean you won’t be here???” on the day before I leave. It worked well when I was out for a month on medical leave, so we’ll see.

      1. Elkay*

        I partly blame Office 2007 onwards for that, having an out of office message for internal and external is a good idea but I’d love to be able to tick a box that says “Use this for everyone”, it’s too easy to forget to switch tabs and update both.

      2. Gjest*

        I received one this summer that said the person would be back in April 2011. WTH? I’m new in this job, and had never emailed this person before. Has their email responder really been on for 2 years? Crazy. They never responded.

    4. Kara*

      I just got one of these! Away when? Coming back when? I don’t need to know all of everyone’s business – I prefer NOT to know everyone’s business – but I would like to know when I can expect a response.

    5. Jessa*

      Oh yes, please, please put dates in. It’s useless and so are answering machine messages from work that have no dates as well. I can understand not having it on your home/personal cel because that could tip off thieves, but seriously, put dates.

  3. fposte*

    While there’s some useful info in the HBR communication piece, I find it hard to hear “I can see that you really had a lot that you had to say” as anything other than incredibly condescending.

    1. JMegan*

      That, and “Oh, here comes another tantrum” for dealing with the venter/screamer. It’s pretty disrespectful to the speaker, even if you don’t say it out loud.

      The general advice in the article is good, but I’d think twice about using some of the specific wording they suggest.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        “Okay, here comes another temper tantrum” is to say to yourself to steel yourself for it. It’s definitely not intended to say out loud. Given how incredibly inappropriate screaming is, I don’t think it’s too disrespectful to think that to yourself!

        1. FlorenceFearne*

          How is it that people think it’s acceptable to scream at work? For me, that’s an absolute deal-breaker. If you yell, I will quit.

          1. chikorita*

            I don’t get it either. I’d be mortified if I ever screamed at someone at work. Yeah, there have been times when I’ve been really mad at people, but even then, I’ve never raised my voice at them.

          2. Claire*

            I generally have a rule that adults shouldn’t shout or yell at other adults. There are so many more mature and effective ways to communicate. My partner and I don’t even yell at each other. We fight and get angry sometimes but we try to avoid the yelling. The only exception I can make is with siblings. You may be adults but you are still siblings. :)

          3. KellyK*

            People who do it are allowed to get away with it, either because they’re assumed to be so wonderful at what they do that it’s worth putting up with or because the person who’s in a position to address it doesn’t want to confront them.

            I agree, there’s no call for it.

        2. JMegan*

          No, I know. But for myself, I have a hard time hiding what I’m thinking – it’s usually broadcast all over my face! So if I were thinking the other person was having a temper tantrum, guaranteed they would see that in either my face or my body language.

          YMMV of course – lots of people have better poker faces than I do! But it’s kind of like smiling when you’re talking on the phone – even if the other person can’t see it, it has an effect on the way you talk and behave.

  4. blu*

    I think number 7 (the option giver) is also a problem. I do this on my out of office because I work on several unrelated projects for unrelated groups. I can certainly put one person as my backup but that person can only help you with one area and will end up directing you to someone else for any other project. I also think it would be rude to my main back up to make her act as my switchboard when I can just as easily tell you who you should contact for a specific thing.

    1. KellyK*

      Yeah, I agree. Some people are high-level enough to actually have an assistant. Some people might also have a really on-the-ball admin in their office who can direct their calls if they go over that “If it’s this, they should talk to Bob. If it’s that, they should talk to Jane,” list with him or her before they leave.

      But for most people, it makes the most sense to tell people who they should actually contact.

      I wonder if part of the problem is that using a single email for everything means that the sheer number of options gets unwieldy. In the example given in the article, two of the options aren’t even work related.

  5. Anon*

    Can I add to #3 that if you are going to be out of the office and not responding to emails, please put up an away message? Even if it’s because you are at something work related. If I know you can’t get back to me, I won’t get angry when you haven’t.

    And as I’m putting together an away message for my maternity leave I’m trying to keep it concise but still provide the appropriate options. After a 3 day vacation, I had almost 300 emails. 3 months scares me.

  6. Lindsay*

    In the first article – whoever can follow that advice to a T should be beatified as a saint. But those are good skills to work on!

  7. A Bug!*

    This is a nice post and I like it. I wouldn’t complain if you made “blogspam” like this a regular occurrence. Two reasons: one, it shines a spotlight on good articles in sources I might not normally read; two, it sometimes introduces me to sources I didn’t know about and would like to read regularly. (It’s how I discovered your blog originally!)

    And yes, #6 is silly. If I’m out of the country, I’m going to have my phone’s cellular capability disabled. So no, I won’t receive e-mails immediately. I will see them when I connect to a wifi network. That is to say, sporadically.

    1. Mints*

      I tend to be limited to just a few blogs/sites that I read regularly. I like when someone with good taste in artucles recommends things I wouldn’t have otherwise found.

  8. mirror*

    I was hoping there would be more info on how to cut explainers short, ie “get to the point.” I am a venter, so I guess that explains why I’m stressed out by explainers, but I find it to sometimes be a real problem in my job. I work front counter, at a place that typically attracts people who need a lot of hand-holding, and the explainers slow things down so much, that a line will form behind them.

    If they’ve been talking for 2 mins without actually telling me what they need, my strategy so far has been to cut them off and ask probing questions while also repeating back some of what they said. If they get in a loop again, I interrupt again with another direct question. I try to be nice about it, but I’m dying inside!

    Oh, and I have a feeling the author of this article is an explainer. Being a venter myself, I didnt like how we were categorized as “screamers,” who were irrational and had no justification for being a venter. Whereas, the explainer is a “belaborer” (much less emotional adjective) and had a whole paragraph on reasons why we should be patient with them. Unlike the venter’s “random outburst.”

    Venter: “Chances are, they do have something important they’re trying to tell you – even though they’re not communicating it very well.”

    Explainer: “Instead of feeling frustrated and reacting by become impatient and fidgety, remind yourself, “They need to do this. I can be patient.”

    Hm. I’d say both styles could be attributed to the first quote for venter, yet *chances are* venters have something important to say. Explainer’s definitely have something important to say, eh They are just slow and deliberate, not like us angry beasts–sorry, Conan’s and Witches?

    Sorry. I had to vent :)

    (oh and in case you get the wrong idea, I’m NOT a screamer and my nickname is Buddha among my friends and co-workers. I am a venter, but definitely not the irrational screamer that was described above. I think we deserve a bit more latitude and sympathy!)

  9. Kelly L.*

    The worst auto-out-of-office was mine. Somehow it glitched and sent it, unprompted, to every address I’d ever corresponded with. The number of times I’d emailed them. Which meant a few thousand copies to my immediate supervisor. That was exactly what I wanted to be fielding on the day before my trip…

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      This happened to me on Apple’s older Mail program. Apparently there was (is?) a default option to send the auto-reply to every message in your inbox. I was mortified.

      1. Kelly L.*

        That was what I had! I was advised after that to set up my OOO through our webmail (we could access our accounts that way too) because it was more user-friendly.

  10. CAndy*

    With venters, I find it’s often useful to just let them talk and get it off their chest. They’ve got issues and they want to be heard, so I just listen and note down their salient points.

    When they’ve run out, “I’ll do what I can as always with the issues you’ve talked about, I will give you the feedback I get as soon as it comes. Right you, take a deep breath. I’d like to talk about x, y and z now”.

  11. nyxalinth*

    I call the thing where a person goes on and on saying the same thing ten different ways “Mojo Jojo’ing”. For those of you unfamiliar with the Powerpuff Girls, he was one of the villains, and had a propensity to rant and yammer at length, repeating the point of his words in different ways. this video (where one of the Girls got a head injury and she thought she was Mojo) demonstrates it beautifully:

  12. Sarah G.*

    Love the explainer/venter article — SO relevant for my work situation right now, great tips. I tend towards being an explainer but am aware and try to work on it, and one of my co-workers is a major venter (also screamer) with whom no one on the team can communicate effectively. He’s ALWAYS right and never interested in what anyone else has to say once he’s made up his mind, and to him, *any* explaining is over-explaining. He blows up in team meetings regularly.

  13. Mike C.*

    Is there a way to embed auto-playing YouTube videos in an Outlook auto-responder message?

    /Just asking… for a friend… yeah

    1. Sascha*

      I’d really like a MIDI file to auto play every time someone gets my out of office reply. Or better yet, in my regular signature.

  14. Joshua*

    Comment from author of article #2:
    ‘Your comment makes me realize that one of the reasons we can get stuck in a helping relationship is because of our fear that things might not “work out,” whatever that means to us in the moment. To assuage our fear, we subtly, even unconsciously, nudge the other person in a direction that makes us feel more comfortable. At the micro-level, we ask a leading question, which inevitably has a “right” answer. And at the macro-level, we offer the help that we feel best providing, which may or may not be the help that’s actually needed. The key, as you say, is facing our fear, asking appropriately open-ended questions, and embracing the answer.’

    Wow. I totally did that today, and have been doing that for, like, years. Man. I have some stuff to think about. Thanks.

  15. Lily in NYC*

    I read that HBS article last week and it pissed me off. It’s completely biased and makes over-explainers seem like saints who have to deal with crazy screamers who are nothing but shrill harpies.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        I read it through a link on Gawker, and there were a lot of people in the comments section there that felt the same way.

    1. Kou*

      That was my reaction as well. It’s not even useful, in that their advice is “listen and then finish the conversation” dispersed through several paragraphs of snippy little comments.

  16. Sascha*

    My boss has committed every out of office sin on the list. His current out of office message is about 3 paragraphs long, includes multiple ways to contact him, contact other support, what to do if you forgot your password…it’s just awful. I cring every time I see it.

  17. Christine Rebecca*

    My absolute favourite `OOO` received was from an retired gentleman of my acquaintance — who, instead of turning on an OOO responder, emailed his entire contact list with this:

    we are away on vacation until November 5, please hold all emails until then.

  18. The Other Dawn*

    I freely admit that I inflict help on people on work. It comes from being the one person that’s been here from Day One when the bank opened. I know a lot of the ins and outs of the core processing system and most of the applications. When I overhear someone say the loan system doesn’t do X, but it does Y, I’m the one shouting out, from my office 30 feet away, “No, it does both X and Y, but you have to change field number 012 to a value of Z in order to get it to do that.” Or someone will say, “The system computes late charges this way”, and I’m yelling out, “No, it does it THIS way.” I’m not even in the room, but my ears are attuned for stuff like that I guess. And I inflict help, because if someone makes an incorrect change in the core system it can screw up many other things: it might overcharge a checking account customer or not charge at all, compute loan late charges incorrectly, etc. Any number of things. Yes, I’m justifying my right to inflict help. :)

  19. Working Girl*

    Screamers – I’ve researched that a lot and basically the only thing that works for me is sitting there and letting them scream while I tell myself that the more they scream the more they look like an idiot, a screaming idiot. I have tried to talk but a screamer will not let you talk as it is a control issue with them. If you are in their office, just tell them you will come back when they are less frustrated and leave and leave the door open as they continue to scream at you making them look further like an idiot. If you don’t have the guts to leave their office at least open the door so people know who is screaming at who and you are doing nothing. If they are in your office, it’s hard because you would need to kick them out thus angering them more but if you can get to the door repeat the above as you leave them standing there screaming at you so everyone can hear them, not you. Do not argue with a screamer as they are a pro at screaming, they have done this all their life. Don’t fall into the trap of screaming back.I also suggest you call the boss and let the boss listen to the screamer directly or let his phone record the darling screamer as you repeat their name and say “I am sorry that you are so upset *(name)” so it is clear who is screaming and then let them go full decibel.

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