Word of the Day for Americans: “Vacation”

I sent an email to a European colleague this summer and got the following automatic message in return:

Dr. So and So is on holiday for the month of July. Consistent with university policy, all email sent to her during this period is automatically deleted. If you wish to contact her, please do so next month.

Now there’s a place that understands what it means to be on vacation. Can you imagine coming back to no email? Not receiving email during your vacation? I can’t, because I work in America.

Throughout my brief vacation I got email after email from Americans that opened with some variant of the phrase “I know you are on vacation, but”, as if making this statement somehow changed the fact that I was supposed to be on vacation. The worst offender was a committee chair who was told repeatedly that I would not be attending a meeting during my family vacation, but the day before the meeting nonetheless emailed me a 300-page long document with a note that read “I know you can’t attend the meeting because of your vacation, so I am sending you the material that we will be discussing so that you can email in your analysis of it for us”. I think she believed this was unusually accommodating on her part.

A friend had an even worse experience. He went on a family vacation to a remote area where he had no email or cell phone signal. When he returned two weeks later he found out that he had been demoted. While he was on vacation, his company had announced a re-organization. His boss said “I expected you to be calling me and emailing me every day communicating your vision of how you fit in with the new structure. When you didn’t I knew you weren’t really committed to the company.” Never mind that he couldn’t even have known that the re-org had happened and never mind even more than he was on freaking vacation.

Employees of the U.S. unite. Do not email your co-workers on vacation, ever. Do not call them or fax them or text them either. And if your boss asks you to do so, state firmly that your hard-working colleague is on vacation, and ask your colleague to do the same for you when the situation is reversed.

Capitalism is a mighty thing that can produce much good. But if we don’t place limits on it, it will eat our bodies, our souls and our families alive. So American workers, look up “vacation” in the dictionary, commit the words to memory and live by them always.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

13 thoughts on “Word of the Day for Americans: “Vacation””

  1. I agree with the sentiments, but there are times that I don't have any choice; I have to contact someone who is on vacation. It's usually a supervisor, because I'm not authorized to make some change that needs to happen today.

    1. I understand, but it seems to me this is a company failure of policy — if a supervisor is on vacation, someone should be empowered to make decisions in his/her absence.

      1. According to the classic novelists writing on the Napoleonic wars, in Nelson’s Navy there was always a man at the wheel of a fighting ship in battle. If one was killed, another seaman stepped in automatically. I dare say this pattern is probably routine in the military.

  2. I can see my old company enabling an e-mail response like that, because they were very concerned about appearing concerned about work-life balance. "We firmly believe that work-life balance is essential to our Team Members' well-being, so we now allow Team Members on vacation to ignore e-mails. We hope that you will take advantage of this new feature. We also know that many people value their commitment to the company so much that they cannot actually enjoy their vacation unless they are able to continue to contribute to the company's and their department's success in meeting the metrics laid out in our Performance Contract. Accordingly, Team Members can opt to continue receiving e-mails, and will not be penalized in any way for doing so. We will answer any questions about the new policy at the Team-building event scheduled this Saturday in the main auditorium. Coffee and bagels provided, because we care about you!"

  3. I detect a false dichotomy here; it requires neither great imagination or techncal skills to craft a middle ground. To wit, a bounce response such as: "Thank you for your email. I will be on vacation until the 32nd of Never [just an example!]. Please get back to me after that. I may review emails received in the meantime, either during or after my vacation, but I caution you not to rely on that. If your concerns truly can't wait, please [follow a described Plan B, such as going through a designated assistant or colleague].

    1. A lot of people get told that they need to be available during their vacation. I've seen emails like the ones you suggest, but for many this middle ground has already been forbidden.

  4. I recently got a good one from a colleague- “I am out of the office until xx. If you need to contact me about an urgent matter, you need to check the definition of urgent. Otherwise please contact YY in my group who is the person who really gets things done anyway.”

  5. Yeah, I swear I remember it like yesterday, that morning in 1991 when the CMO called me one Tuesday morning, reasonably agitated. It was the dawn of cellphones. I knew one REALLY rich guy who had one in his car!!! They were the size of walkie-talkies. I could hear toddler gurgles, and water gurgles, and I said "Rick, aren't you on vacation?"

    He replied "yes, I'm out on a boat with my son." Clearly Rick must have purchased one of the $2000 walkie-talkies as well.

    "Then what the HELL are you doing calling me?", I exclaimed, in very genuine consternation.

    "I promised Don (the CEO) I could be reached during my vacation."

    "Where are you?"

    "Lake Cuomo. It's in Italy, near the border of….."

    "Yeah I know where it is, Rick, but what the fuck? Did you eat a brain tumor for breakfast? You're on Lake Cuomo with your young son and you're calling your director in New York to talk business? Dude, that's fucked up. I'm gonna hang up now, so that you and your son can enjoy Lake Cuomo." And I did.

    Son of a bitch dressed me down hard when he called back 90 seconds later. At some level I knew this was an ominous bellwether for American capitalism.

    1. It was great for American capitalism! It's just horrible for everyone who has to live under.

  6. What is Keith proposing here? Rebellion by American workers. Good luck with that. There are two known ways to limit the overwhelming power of the employer in the profoundly asymmetrical tie called employment: 1. unions; 2. government.

    I suggest Keith's perspective may be coloured pink by his status as a tenured professor in a prestigious university. First, universities ever since Bologna have asserted claims to institutional self-government against their founders and paymasters. Their morally most convincing argument for this has been to protect the freedom of inquiry and communication of their members. So university teachers have been able in their turn to establish a strong claim of professional autonomy against the university as employer. These privileges have few if any parallels outside academe. Most employment is more like time-limited slavery with a nuclear option of walking out. And even so, Professor Humphreys is not free from claims by his committee chair that would effectively nullify his vacation. He could tell her to get lost. Most workers have no such privilege.

  7. I rather enjoyed having a business telephone conversation while on the beach. You can still suntan and you can torture the other person by apologizing for the noise created by the waves.

    That was before smartphones with email. That would be much less fun.

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