We've all fallen behind on keeping up with our inboxes. You might think our hyper-connected world has made it easier to stay on top of getting back to people. But if anything, this increased availability has only caused the volume of correspondence we receive to explode and people’s expectations for how quickly we’ll reply to skyrocket—making it that much harder to keep up.
So hey, it happens. Sometimes life gets in the way of your responsiveness—maybe you had a hectic week at work or a chaotic afternoon at home, or maybe you simply forgot.
You've lapsed on an important email chain or never responded to an invite out for coffee. Any response you send at this point is definitely late.
Now what? Here’s how you can apologize for a delayed response over email—that is, if you need to.
Maybe. If it's a situation where you know you dropped the ball on something big or your lack of communication negatively affected your company's reputation or relationship with a client, an apology is probably in order.
But sometimes our delay didn’t cause any harm and our “sorry” is a learned instinct. Women are conditioned to be accommodating and placating, so we often ask for forgiveness and apologize too much. We might feel obligated to be available at all times, even when we are incapable of doing so for normal, human reasons.
So before you send a reply with an apology for the delay, ask yourself if it truly took you too long to get back to someone. What counts as “too long” will depend on the situation and the person you’re emailing with. For example, if you forgot to respond to something time-sensitive from your boss, the acceptable window for answering is much smaller than, say, an unsolicited request from someone outside your company who you’ve never worked with before.
Also, remind yourself that you have your own priorities—and they may be different from the priorities of whoever sent you the email. How high a priority was this response really? Were you obligated to respond at all?
Ultimately, though, you might not need to address the delay at all. If you feel like you do, consider substituting a, "Thank you for your patience," where you would normally apologize for your own delay. This small change can transform your relationship with your inbox, your timeliness, and your sense of humanity in an output-driven work culture that can feel consuming.
If you've determined the situation does warrant an apology, there are several things you should keep in mind.
Your apology doesn’t need to stretch out for lines and lines or paragraphs and paragraphs. You put off sending an email, you didn’t destroy a precious artifact or fail to give Taylor her scarf back. Keep it concise by starting off with one of these phrases or similar:
Apologies for the delayed response.
Sorry for not getting back to you sooner.
I’m sorry for the delay.
Sorry for the late reply.
Please excuse my delayed response.
So sorry for the late response.
I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner.
Thank you for your patience.
Thanks for the reminder.
Thanks for re-upping this in my inbox.
If someone’s been left hanging, they might want to know why. If you’re comfortable sharing, feel free to include a brief reason. It can be as vague as a “hectic week” or “personal reasons.”
Whatever the situation, resist the urge to elaborate too much. It can be uncomfortable for the other person when you're too apologetic or overly descriptive. We've all been there. It's not the end of the world. Don't make your apology and its justification the focus of the entire message. And unless you have a close relationship outside of a professional setting, spare them the details.
No tricks to it. Just write the rest of your message like you would any professional email that you sent on time, responding to the person’s request or whatever they were after.
It sounds like a no-brainer, but make sure your response is polite. You don't have to be overly accommodating in a way that feels disingenuous but address the delay civilly, own up to your mistake, and be professional throughout the email — even if you’ve gotten six follow-ups in the last week about responding to a relatively minor request.
Here are a few example emails for common scenarios. The details of the email will change, of course, depending on your circumstances, but you can keep the frame the same.
If the email isn’t urgent or high-priority, try something like this:
Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I'll have those files sent over to you as soon as possible. Let me know if you need anything else from me.
Sorry I wasn't able to get back to you sooner. I'd love to meet for coffee sometime next week. I have availability on Monday and Wednesday around lunchtime. Do either of those options work for you?
If you lapse on an email from your boss or an urgent work email from a client or coworker, the stakes are higher. Particularly if the issue was time sensitive and during business hours, some justification for your delayed response is a good idea. Still, keep the apology relatively short, be truthful, and offer only as much justification as needed. Then, do whatever you can to address the original request.
I'm so sorry for dropping the ball on this. I hadn't seen your email until now. I will have the project completed and sent over to you in the next half hour. Please let me know if there's anything else I can do.
My apologies for the delayed response, I was unexpectedly out of the office yesterday. I can absolutely make the meeting at 3 pm today. Talk to you soon.
If you're talking to a friend, your apology will probably be less formal. Your friends understand you and your life more than most, so your response will be more candid. If you know you might have hurt their feelings by neglecting their message until now, you can acknowledge that, or if the reason for your delayed response was a big deal, you can share more details than you would at work.
Hi! Sorry for just now getting back to you. Been super busy at work. Yes to dinner on Thursday if you’re still available! Got a place in mind?
We’re all dealing with a thousand different tasks, priorities, challenges, and responsibilities — and any of them can cause us to forget to respond to an email. But building productive correspondence habits will help you avoid late replies altogether — or at least cut down on them.
Turn on email notifications. This is an easy one, but it can make a world of difference. If you're concerned about responding to emails on time, make sure you have downloaded whatever email app you use on your phone and turned on push notifications as well as desktop notifications on your computer. And don’t worry — most phones now let you adjust how and when you get which notifications, so you can still maintain your work-life balance.
Mark messages as unread if you can't respond right away. Similarly, having unread messages can be a helpful visual way to keep the messages you haven't responded to on your radar so you don't forget about them.
Star and categorize messages according to importance. Make use of the different ways your email carrier lets you star, flag, and categorize messages. Organize your inbox by creating different markers for different areas of your life — work, home, a particular friend group, a specific project you're working on—and categorize emails as you get them. This way, you can make sure you don't miss something urgent pertaining to a topic you know is time-sensitive or high-priority.
Set reminders for yourself. Avoiding a late reply can be as simple as setting whatever kind of reminders are most effective for you. Maybe you designate two or three windows of time a day on your calendar (with event reminders) to catch up on emails, or maybe you receive an email and can't respond right away, so you set a reminder on your phone to get back to it at a certain time.
Turn on an automatic vacation responder. If you know you’re going to be away from work or your email for a while, turn on an auto-response to let people know how long you’re going to be away and when they can expect a reply.
Everyone knows what it's like to forget to respond to a message. Just remember, you don't necessarily owe the world your constant availability. Try to take a little pressure off of yourself when it comes to keeping up with your inbox. Yes, try to stay on top of things—for your own peace of mind and for the good of your professional and personal relationships. But if you do miss something, take it in stride, own up to your mistake, and move forward.
Haley Baird Riemer is a New York City-based actress and writer.