It happens to the best of us. We have an email eagerly awaiting our timely response that we promise ourselves we’ll get to…eventually. And yet, one day morphs into three weeks, and pretty soon it feels awkward to address the urgency within that message with a breezy “Sorry for my late reply!”
adulthood is emailing "sorry for the delayed response!" back and forth until one of you dies
— Marissa Miller Kovac (@Marissa__Miller) February 26, 2016
Here’s how to save face when writing a late reply that will satisfy both recipient and sender:
You don’t always have to apologize when writing a late reply
Recognize that not all delayed responses merit effusive apologies. At worst, it can come off as disingenuous to fall over yourself with “so so sorry.” ‘If you were truly sorry for your delayed response, why are you answering my email two months later?’ the disgruntled recipient may think. An immediate response signals that we are paying attention through its timeliness.
When you are writing a late reply, you can signal that you are still paying attention by focusing on the request within the message. Instead of papering your delayed response with apologies, you can be upfront with how late you are and then move on. Moving on is key. The important thing is to not waste too many words excusing your lateness by explaining how you were away on vacation and you would have replied, but things got crazy, and then you lost Wi-Fi on the boat, and you—No. In these kinds of cases, it’s fine to say something like: “Hey there, here are some ideas I’ve been working on to your proposal…”
As Daniel Potter writes for Grammerly, people know that we are busy, and that networking and mentoring requests do not necessarily need a speedy response. “Charitably assume these people get it. Skip past ‘sorry for the late reply’ and cut straight to what matters: ‘Sounds good, and thanks for reaching out—How’s Thursday?’”
Of course, there are times when your months-long radio silence does require a “my sincere apologies.” If your inaction is directly affecting someone’s livelihood, such as you not paying them on time, or a job offer falling through, don’t be a jerk! Say sorry for being late. A genuine apology, when merited, is a courteous start to remedying a wrong.
But our inboxes are flooded with requests daily. There were 269 billion emails sent and received each day in 2017. There will be many emails that do not require a speedy response, or a response at all. It’s important to realize that replying to an email days later is not a crime, so do not punish yourself for it, as author Melissa Febos argues in Catapult.
“Stop apologizing for taking a reasonable length of time to respond to an email,” she writes. “A week seems like a perfectly reasonable length of time to take. Or longer. Regardless, stop apologizing.”
What she is getting at is that our time is too valuable to waste on replying to every marketing and networking request right away. Learn to recognize that there are differences between important emails that you can take time to answer and urgent emails you must drop everything to answer. Once you learn this, your mind will be free to focus on your work and not your inbox.