It came as no surprise to Steve Siegel that a female colleague didn't show up for work last week on a balmy, blue-sky day. From home, she crafted an out-of-office automated e-mail reply that said something to the effect that, "My throat's sore and I think I'm starting to come down with sinus problems," Siegel recalls. The woman was back in the office the next day, looking no worse for wear. In fact, "she looked great," Siegel says.

It shouldn't shock anyone that employees in the typical office aren't likely to say something straightforward like, "It's nice out; I want to take the day off," he says.

But little office fictions aren't all that is showing up in out-of-office e-mail replies these days. The automated responses have also become a vehicle for pomp and swagger that can leave colleagues feeling as if they've been sprayed with someone's status juice.

Another of Siegel's colleagues, for example, includes a full roster of contacts in his reply, just in case any questions arise on any of his vast array of projects — which require listing because of their importance and, by extension, his.

"A lot of people use it as a power thing. Or it's self-importance and self-promotion," says Siegel. "OK, we get the point. You're busy."

Unfortunately, technology has evolved to the point where it's as easy to abuse as to use, giving people ample opportunity to get uppity. People plead the need to flee from conversations any time call waiting or BlackBerrys start to beep. Instant-messaging systems allow for "away messages" even when the person is right there. And some cell phones come equipped with an "ignore" button.

"We've become a society with a veneer of civility," says Prakash Rao, a chief architect for an information-systems company. "These technologies allow us to exercise our civility and provide hidden messages rather than explicit ones." It's the modern-day equivalent of looking at your watch while talking to someone, indicating that there's someplace else you'd rather be.

Even worse is when someone gets dragged into something ostensibly beneath the dragger but not the dragee. If Eugene Goei's former supervisor had been a little more honest, he imagines that this is what she might have written in her away messages: "I will be working from home today to take care of personal issues such as watering the weeds I call my garden, cleaning the house before my ex-husband comes to pick up the kids and calls Child Protective Services on me, and consoling my distraught hormonal teenage daughter. If you have any questions regarding anything, call Eugene Goei because he's single and has nothing better to do with his time."

Part of the self-importance comes from the sense of drama people try to include in their missives, as if everyone is on the edge of their seat, asking, "Then what?" Chris Jehle, a senior vice president of finance, used to have a colleague who described her or her daughters' ailments in her out-of-office replies in painstaking detail. "I'm taking her to the doctor," she would write of her daughter. "She has green pus coming out of her ears." In another note, she wrote, "I'm ill. I found some antibiotics from the last time I went to the doctor and will see if that takes care of it." Even though she has since left the company, to this day Jehle and his colleagues offer each other leftover antibiotics whenever they hear someone is ill.

Another colleague always dramatizes his last-minute shifts in schedule: "I was supposed to be in Reno," Jehle recalls that the man wrote, "but something came up and I have to be in Sacramento." Notes Jehle: "When you get these soap-opera plots coming across, it can be funny. It can be pretentious. It can be annoying."

That's why Dan Goldzband, an accountant at a high-tech manufacturing company, likes to imagine the completely honest out-of-office reply he might send if only politics would allow it. "I will not be checking my messages or e-mail; this is a vacation," he says he would write. "Please do not copy me on the numerous exchanges you have with others, because there is no way in hell I can read and absorb all of those e-mails when I return. I don't even think I would understand many of them, and it won't be worth the effort to try. Most of those problems will already be solved by my return."