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Auto-replies: What you read vs. What I mean

This year, I used email auto-replies for the first time.


What you read:

“Hi, Thank you for your email. Both my office PC and my personal laptop have crashed over the weekend. I am currently organizing a replacement device while attempting to recover my data and work from my iPhone. Kindly excuse delays in our correspondence. I will respond at my soonest convenience. Thank you.”

What I mean:

“Hi, I am frustrated and tired over IT woes. My office PC crashed for the third time in the academic year, but admin could not organise a substitute or replacement. University Tech Support suggested I call the manufacturer to order a spare part. I told them it wasn’t in my job description. Attempting to sooth my urgency, admin asked if I could use my own laptop in the mean time, which I did. But as luck would have it, my personal laptop crashed shortly after.

I lost a large portion of my files from 2010 to present day, but my 8-year-old device could not be salvaged. It was the busiest week I’ve had in months, and I was behind about a dozen pieces of writing owed to various people. My person stayed up late to help recover my files from various backup drives, and I spent a long time just crying on the couch from being helpless. I had just emerged from three weeks deep in depression over my sister’s death anniversary, where getting out of bed and taking a shower every few days felt like exhausting feats. And just as I was moving out of this lull, the logistics of my work life became extra stressful.

Although we couldn’t afford to get me a new laptop, there was a spare in the house… but I stubbornly refused to use it. You see, the laptop belonged to my late sister, and in the 12 months since she had passed away, I have been preserving all her precious artefacts both physical and digital. My person expended emotional care and labour logically persuading me to use my sister’s laptop until I could get my own. In the days I worked off my iPhone and almost gave myself myopia, my person prowled through YouTube tutorials and Mac forums to learn how to unlock my sister’s laptop, saved the files we could access on a folder, and copied them into a hard drive for safekeeping. I know all this emotional attachment and progression may sound silly, but it took me three days to convince myself to use my sister’s laptop.

Kindly excuse delays in our correspondence. This tech glitch wasn’t just about a device that failed. I am literally using a temporary device full of writing and pictures that trigger a great sadness in me every time I click into a wrong folder. I am still trying to manoeuvre this terrain. I will respond to emails in the order of workload that I can manage, or in the order of people whom I know will understand that I am learning to resume Life As Usual. Thank you.”


What you read:

“Hi, Thank you for your email. I am away from the office on urgent personal matters and will be back on 30th June 2017. Kindly excuse delays in our correspondence. I will respond after my return. Thank you.”

What I mean:

“Hi, I know it sounds suspicious that I have set yet another auto-reply message so shortly after my first one, but I promise I am being sincere. My grandmother has just passed away, and I had to quickly assemble a suitcase, organize flights, and prepare myself for another onslaught of grief. I write this auto-reply message while my body is feeling really sorrowful, feeling tempted to drop everything in life for a while to be a hermit and heal. But I also felt the need to be accountable to my colleagues and collaborators, and so decided to take two minutes to set this auto-reply.

I know I say that I will be back at work on 30th June 2017, but to be honest I think getting back into the rhythm of work is going to take much longer. I know that that is the date from which I will physically be around colleagues again, and so I felt I could not justify a further ‘back at work’ date without coming across as being dishonest. Am I overthinking this?

My grandmother was my sister’s best friend. And through a messy halo effect, this death is prodding at old grief from which I’d thought I was recovering. I haven’t seen this much of my extended family since my sister’s memorial service, so being around the same mass of people I last associated with the most grievous event in my life and the familiar mechanics of yet another funeral has been very damaging for me. I don’t want to hear another eulogy that mentions how my grandmother will now reunite with my sister in heaven. I don’t want to receive another handshake or hug of condolence. I don’t want to entertain another well-meaning person who asks whether I am doing better than the last time we met, at my sister’s funeral. I don’t want to sing Amazing Grace in unison while people sob and wail and howl in the background, again and again and again.

To be honest, to tide through all these difficult moments, chances are I will artificially create distractions by refreshing and scrolling through my email any way. I will probably delete emails I don’t care much for and shoot two-word replies to easy requests. But I hope you will somehow understand that even as my words start to return to our email correspondence, my heart and mind will take a bit longer.

Kindly excuse delays in our correspondence. I am trying to keep myself and everything together as best as I can. I know that the trope of a grandmother’s funeral has become shorthand for lazy student extensions. But I beseech you to always give your students the benefit of the doubt and to be generous with your kindness. Some grief is difficult to spell out beyond ‘urgent personal matters’. Thank you.”


On a similar note,

These ten Tweets are my response to this:

[01] Empathy and mutual care. I let my students use the vague reason of “personal issues” to excuse themselves from class up to twice each sem.

[02] Tricky when some students took advantage, but for the most part, young people are dealing w grief, death, mental health, jobs, r/ships etc.

[03] In undergrad I tutored 15 times a week for 4 years to pay for school. Profs were understanding that I couldn’t do optional class activities.

[04] In postgrad I juggled 7 casual jobs for 3 years to pay for school. Had to explain to supes who missed scheduled meets that time is precious.

[05] I began postdoc 2 months after my sister died. Have ever begun classes apologizing for lack of enthusiasm cos sad, and students understood.

[06] All this to say, 1) I had great profs who role-modeled empathy and care. So I felt I could be honest with them.

[07] 2) If profs misunderstood my situation, I had to decide if it felt safe and appropriate for me to be transparent to garner their support.

[08] 3) But having experienced this, I know communicating pain is hard and I don’t expect my students to feel obliged. So occasional free pass.

[09] 4) And as prof, I can set tone for communicating struggles by appropriately sharing some of my own. We can foster empathy and care together.

[10] 5) Students submitting on time won’t change my life. But as profs, the care I show may be the only good thing during a student’s struggle.


The featured image is from our home. I left the gardening in our backyard so neglected that the weeds began to sprout flowers of their own. I like to think that when I give my grief and pain time to unravel, and allow myself to just be, beautiful things can emerge from tragedy. For one, I am convinced that I am becoming a more resilient person… by not succumbing to work pressures and taking the time I need to reply to your email.

1 reply »

  1. dear Crystal, it was so saddening to read, i could almost hear you sob right here besides me and have started sobbing, as I coped with hard times myself…. I wish you would go through this grieving times only to become a more empowered woman for handling and coping with such hard times. The writing sure serves as a therapeutic process and in addition it helps others in similar situations who read it and feel they are not alone and someone understand their feelings. Take care and may you never know sorrow again, Sharon

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