Haley Baird Riemer
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  • If you forget to respond to an email, you should only feel the need to apologize if you delayed an important interaction or threatened your company's reputation in some way.
  • Express your apology by politely acknowledging the delay and justifying when necessary.
  • A simple "Sorry I wasn't able to get back to you sooner" or "I'm so sorry for dropping the ball on this. I hadn't seen your email until now" in your next email will do the trick.

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In our hyper-connected technological world, we can be reached almost anywhere, at any time of the day, through our various devices. That makes it easier for us to be connected, which is helpful in a lot of ways, personally and professionally; but, it comes with a certain pressure to be available all the time. 

We're expected to be reachable, through one channel or another, which means there's a narrowed window for what makes for a timely response to something. In certain fast-paced industries, neglecting to respond to an email for more than an hour is considered a late response.

We've all fallen behind on keeping up with our inboxes. If anything, our increased availability has given way to a volume of correspondence that is much more challenging to stay on top of, and doing so can be taxing. So hey, it happens. Sometimes life gets in the way of your responsiveness — you had a hectic day at work, or a chaotic afternoon at home, or maybe you simply forgot. 

Late responses can also be affected by your mental health; if you're suffering from a depressive episode or a particularly tough time, keeping up with the more trivial things can be extremely draining, and it's easy to let them get away from you.

So, for whatever reason, you've lapsed on an important email chain or forgotten to respond to an invite out for coffee. Any response you send now is definitely late. 

Now what? Here are a couple of different responses you can try.

Should you apologize?

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. It's important, though, to consider the factors that you're dealing with when you feel the need to apologize for a late response. 

Considering women are conditioned to be accommodating and penitent, 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's necessary to say sorry. Maybe you don't 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.

How do you say sorry for the late reply?

If you've determined the situation does warrant an apology, there are several things you should keep in mind. You don't want to over-apologize and make the situation (even more) uncomfortable. Keep your apology short and to the point, and get on with business as usual. 

1. Acknowledge the delay.

If you're apologizing for the late response, make sure you lead by acknowledging your response is late. A simple, "Apologies for the delayed response–" or, "Sorry for not getting back to you sooner–" does the trick. Keep the apology to one sentence in most cases. It doesn't need to be your whole email.

2. Be polite.

If you've left an email for long enough, you might have gotten a follow-up email to check in on your response, which brings the issue back to your attention and reminds you that you forgot to respond. This can be frustrating, as you might feel guilty or even annoyed. Maybe your delay has caused actual repercussions, and your coworker who needed your input or the friend that texted you an essay that you left on read is upset about your unresponsiveness. 

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 and own up to your mistake. 

3. Don't feel the need to justify too much.

Don't go overboard with the apology. Remember, we can't be expected to be on all the time when it comes to keeping up with texts and emails, especially if they are not particularly urgent or happen during business hours about things that are lower-priority. Whatever the situation, resist the urge to elaborate on why you are responding late. 

Sure, it's fine to include the fact that you had a particularly crazy week to give context to your response, but you don't need it. It can be uncomfortable when you're too apologetic, or overly descriptive of the factors that made this response late. 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. 

Examples

The way you apologize will vary depending on who you're talking to and what the nature of the conversation is. The way you respond to a professional email you have neglected will be very different than how you reach out to a friend you've forgotten to text back for a few days. 

To a colleague or professional contact:

 If the subject of the email is not urgent or high-priority, it may not warrant a full apology. Try this: 

Hi there, 
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. 
Best,

Your Name


Or:

Hi,
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?

Thanks!

Your Name

The details of the email will change, of course, depending on your circumstance, but keep the frame of offering a short apology, if you feel it's necessary, and continuing on to address the subject of the email, stays the same. 

To a boss:

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, the repercussions of your mistake might be more serious, and some justification of your delayed response is a good idea. Still, keep the apology relatively short, keep it truthful, and offer only as much justification as needed. Then, do whatever you can to correct your mistake. 

Hi,
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. 
Best, 

Your Name

Or:

Hi, 
My apologies for the delayed response, I was out of the office yesterday. I can absolutely make the conference call at 3pm today. Talk to you soon.

Thanks!

Your Name

Again, details will change, and read the situation to determine the best way to respond and how much to apologize. The most important aspect of your response is addressing the email itself and the issue it concerns. 

To a friend:

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. 

Hi! Sorry for just now getting back to you. Having a (particularly) insane week at work. Yes to dinner on Thursday! Got a place in mind?

You know how you can talk to your friends, and depending on the friend, this may take a different shape. If you know you might have hurt their feelings by neglecting their message until now, you can make space for acknowledging that, too.

Tips for avoiding late replies.

There are many different factors that might inhibit a timely response. We all have ways of making sure we stay on top of things, and building productive correspondence habits will help you avoid late replies altogether.

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. This way, you'll see new messages as soon as you open your phone, and unless you clear the notification, it will remain in your notifications center as a visual reminder. 

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. If you open an email, and you know you can't respond right away, mark the email as unread so it stands out in your inbox. 

Star and categorize messages according to importance.

Make use of the different ways your email carrier lets you star, flag, and categorize messages. They can be a huge help when it comes to organizing your inbox and setting yourself up for success in staying on top of things. You can create different flags 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 reminders for yourself on your phone to respond. What this looks like is up to you. Maybe you designate two or three windows of time a day reserved for checking your inbox and catching up on emails to ensure you're up-to-date, or maybe you receive an email and can't respond right away, so you set a reminder for during your next break to get back to it. 

Everyone knows what it's like to realize you've forgotten to respond to a message, panic about it momentarily, and try to figure out how to apologize for responding late. 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 sanity 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. 

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