Roland Dürre
Wednesday March 3rd, 2010

Out-Of-Office Note & Signature

On Monday, at the UnternehmerTUM Forum, there were many inspiring discussions. Of course, most of them were about entrepreneurs and IT. One of the people I talked to told me that the means of communication “email” is now on the way down and will soon belong to the past.

In a way, he is correct. There are times when the email flood literally kills me – especially on my business account. And the need to delete them all the time is really annoying. Mind you, it happens regardless of the excellent SPAM filter letting (almost) nothing pass at our office.

But there are two things that I find particularly disagreeable:

Firstly, the “Out of Office” replies. In my opinion, auto reply emails should be banned or at least sneered at. If someone leaves a message on the voice box of my mobile phone, he does not get a call telling him that I cannot be reached at this time, does he? If you receive an email, you should reply if you so desire, or else not. But, please, no automatic reply.

Incidentally, some of my friends are always on the move. Consequently, I often get an auto replay answer from them. Five minutes later, they send me a personal email, because, naturally, they are online even though they are “out of office”.

But for businessmen, out-of-office replies are allegedly absolutely necessary. Even if I fail to understand it, I will believe it (or not).

The other thing I detest are all those masses of signatures. Certainly, an email should contain information about the sender. This information should include a website. Even the sender’s email address (mailto!) is redundant and useless. After all, it can be seen as you look at the sender in the email. The signature should be one or a maximum of two lines (not, as initially promoted – also for reasons of storage space – up to four lines with 80 digits each).

Unfortunately, however, since 2007 we have special regulations (besondere Bestimmungen) as far as contact information and such are concerned for business email transactions in Germany. They make nice and short signatures impossible.

This rule applies to all merchants (Kaufleute)in the sense of the Handelsgesetzbuches (HGB)“ in Germany, as well as their employees. The ultimate responsibility for the application of the rules in business practice is with the managing director (Geschäftsführer). That is why all my emails these days are “private emails”. I am sending them as a human being, rather than as a managing director.  Business affairs are conducted by word of mouth (that can be easily done), once in a while I send a proper letter, or – best of all – I draw up a contract.

The aforementioned rule causes very long signatures, even if an email is extremely short. Modern individuals sometimes also add a logo or picture (or both). What an atrocity! And since I always have to read my emails rather quickly, I sometimes miss the content for all the packaging.

Some enterprises solved the problem of long obligatory signatures by adding a link which is attached instead of the signature and points towards some contact information that is centrally stored and following the rules. In my opinion, this is a smart solution, but our lawyer is not quite sure if it suffices. Again (as so often with new legislation), we have a legal uncertainty. So far, however, I have not heard about any model process that cleared the legal situation. Also, I have not yet heard anything of successful warnings.

For me, long signatures are particularly annoying if they are not preceded by a correct “signature separator”. A correct signature separator contains two „bullet points“ followed by a blank space: “– “. In former times, the combination“– ” would have been called „flight symbol“ showing the system that this is where the signature starts. Knowing this, a smart mail client can avoid the signature in case of a reply. After all, it does not make sense for the sender of a message to get his own signature back along with the reply.

The problem is that many people are not even aware of the existence of a signature separator. And if they know about it, they are surprised at the “blank” disappearing magically. It seems like some systems remove the blank after the double bullet points (I guess this might happen if you use Word in the outlook editor). If that happens, the consequence is, of course, that you get the entire signature mirrored. And in the worst case this happens several times during a dialogue. What a beautiful email, consisting basically of your own signature all over. A totally new „ping-pong“ effect.

There used to be conventions that made sense, for instance TOFU, where you could read how to reply properly to an email so it can be read easily and the context is immediately clear. Also, there used to be netiquette, which told you how to treat electronic media in a sensible way. Unfortunately, these reasonable rules and virtues are now totally forgotten.

In short: I agree with the person who complained. I, too, no longer enjoy emails!

RMD
(Translated by EG)

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