“Sorry for the delay” is actually a great choice.
Anyone deep in email debt knows how stressful it can be to owe someone (or a lot of people) a reply. They also know how hard it is to face the music, own the tardiness, and press “send.”
Is it worth acknowledging and apologizing for the delay, or playing it cool and acting like nothing’s wrong? After a certain amount of time, is it even worth responding? Before you commit any email etiquette faux pas, read the biggest dos and don’ts of replying late to an email, straight from two etiquette experts (plus a few sample replies to get you started).
1. Recognize whether or not you’re actually late in responding.
“Decide if you’re really late or just feeling guilty,” says Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert, the author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life ($9; amazon.com) and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. “You have a 24-hour window, or one business day, to respond to a non-emergency email.”
2. For the most part, it’s worth apologizing.
It happens, everyone misses deadlines or forgets to write back—it never hurts to acknowledge it before moving on. “When this happens, an apology is necessary,” says Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith etiquette consulting and author of The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Manners ($10; amazon.com). “Apologize and move the conversation forward.”
3. Keep it short and to the point.
“The object of an email is to be prompt, informative and concise. This is how you should handle the oversight of not responding promptly (intentionally or not),” Gottsman says. No need to wax poetic, share TMI, or make up excuses.
“Explanations often only get in the way,” Smith says. “No need to create tall tales, and certainly no need for the ugly truth.”
If you’re going to inject a little personality into it, Gottsman says to go with something simple: “I’m sorry for not getting back to you sooner. I was researching your request and inadvertently overlooked responding back immediately.” And leave it at that.
4. Choose your words wisely.
Of course, if you’re close to the other person, a more casual and conversational tone is appropriate. Gottsman says a response like, “Oh gosh, I’m so sorry for taking so long to get back to you. Please forgive me!” is great for someone you’re close to, but maybe not for a professional email exchange with your boss. One pet peeve many managers have is when a report responds late using slang like, “My bad.” It comes across as flippant or insincere. Better to stick to a professional tried-and-true like, “Apologies for the delay, I’ll get right on it and be better going forward.”
5. Resolve to be better.
Having an email with a deadline sit and sit in your inbox isn’t fun—and it’s also inconvenient for the other person. “Make it a point in the future to flag important emails so they don’t get overlooked,” Gottsman says. “Procrastinating with a tardy response only makes the situation more uncomfortable.”
A Few Sample Late Response Emails
If you missed an important work deadline, Smith says to own it, then say thank you for their patience:
“Please excuse the delay. We are finalizing the project now and will have all of the requested information to you by COB tomorrow. Thank you for the additional time, as we were able to fully answer all of your questions and look forward to speaking with you at the meeting next week.”
If someone’s sent you a friendly note without a deadline, but that implies a polite response, Gottsman suggests:
“Thank you for your kind email regarding my recent promotion. I’ve been moving offices for the past few days and time has gotten away from me. I look forward to catching up with you at next week’s mixer.”
If you totally missed an RSVP deadline, Smith says, “make your mea culpa short and sweet and focus instead on the event.”
“I’m so sorry for missing your RSVP date, of course we will be at your special event. I already have my dress and my husband is planning on wearing his dancing shoes.”
If you’ve received bad news from a friend or relative and put off responding, Smith likes this gentle approach:
“Your email came as a total surprise and I wanted to wait until I had a quiet moment to really respond. This must be a very difficult time…”
The Only Time It's Okay Not to Respond
“If the email is something you have no interest in (think: mass solicitations), or from someone you would rather block, hit 'delete' and don’t think twice,” Gottsman says.