How do you respond to emails that you've taken too long to respond to?
November 10, 2017 8:33 AM   Subscribe

I have several emails in my inbox from the beginning of October. They're mainly from people introducing me to other people, or for wanting to collaborate on work. And I haven't responded, partially because it was a slog of a work month, and partially because it feels too late to respond. As each day passes, it feels harder and harder. I'm curious what language you've used in these situations where your response is late. I have much more time on my plate now and would like to rekindle these potential work relationships.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
"Sorry for the late reply."

Explaining in detail why you're late is unnecessary. People understand. Over-explaining can sound desperate and dishonest.

If you really must have an explanation: "Sorry for the late reply. It's been a slog of a work month."
posted by cincinnatus c at 8:39 AM on November 10, 2017 [19 favorites]

My go-to: Start the email with: "Sorry for the delay in responding." Then write the email normally.

Also -- if they didn't say "please respond by October ##", just respond to the email as though there's no problem with the long response time, no explanation, no acknowledgement, no excuse. People get that sometimes others don't have the time to respond to non-critical emails. If you make it a habit -- you ALWAYS respond late -- they will adjust their expectations of you. But I don't think you've made an offensive faux-pas to stress out over at this point.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:42 AM on November 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

Keep it simple!

"Hey, sorry I wasn't able to get back to you sooner* - it's been a busy couple of months for me. I have much more time on my plate now and if you're still interested in [whatever they initial email was about], let me know."

If they asked you for something specific (a date to meet up, a timeline, an answer to a specific question), go ahead and give it to them if possible.

* The "sorry" is necessary if you were the one who initiated the conversation but optional if the initial email came out of the blue.
posted by mskyle at 8:42 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

This happens to everyone, not just you, so I think people are understanding. The emails introducing you to someone else - the someone else could have responded too, so that's not just on you.

Is there something that just happened that you could use as an excuse to connect? Something like "hey, I saw this article in X newsletter today and I thought you would be interested..." and then into whatever you wanted to say.
posted by lyssabee at 8:42 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

A month's delay doesn't warrant more than "I apologize for my delay in getting back to you." And then continuing on with the email with enthusiasm for whatever the exchange was.

I agree with cincinnatus re: keeping it short and I also like your wording of "a slog of a work month" if you want to include more colloquial language/provide a short explanation.
posted by dearadeline at 8:45 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

"Thanks for your patience - I've had a lot on my plate, and would love to pick this up again now."
posted by entropone at 8:55 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

There are other ways to phrase things if you feel like the world is already bogged down in apologies for minor infractions:

Thanks for your patience/thanks for waiting (good for if the initial email is a request for something that's reasonable for them to ask of you, but understandably not your highest priority).
I realize this reply is very late, but I was thinking...
I wish I could have gotten back to you sooner, but if you're still interested...
This is belated, but how about...
Delayed reaction, but I love this idea! What about...

I like acknowledging the delay, but not explaining or apologizing...people have inboxes, they know how it goes.
posted by lampoil at 8:58 AM on November 10, 2017 [9 favorites]

"Sorry for the delay in responding." + "I am very glad [Person X] put us in touch." is what I'd write and expect to see. This happens constantly on both sides in my professional life.
posted by crush at 9:02 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Agreed with the idea of not making a fuss over it. The fact of the matter is, you are responding to them now, and the fact that it's belated only matters if one of you holds onto the past about it. It doesn't have to mean something :) they'll likely be glad to hear from you! So start from the 'now' of it, and hopefully go from there. Feel free to express appreciation and remorse in that order.

Sample text: "Hi there! I feel so happy you've reached out to me. I'm a little distraught to be getting back so belatedly. [continues]"
posted by a good beginning at 9:25 AM on November 10, 2017

Some of this depends on your usual style and the level of formality in the relationship. My go-to is "Hi, so sorry for the delay in getting back to you. [Continues with the substance of the email.]" I'd save lines like "slog of a work month" for people you have worked with before and can be more casual with -- it's a great line but comes across as a little informal if this is someone you've just been e-introduced to.
posted by basalganglia at 9:39 AM on November 10, 2017

First, drop your anxiety about it. This is an increasingly common situation as the tsunami of email is overwhelming a great many professionals, partly due to the too-great ease with which people can send email and their own laziness in not keeping other channels open. Everyone I know has an inbox backlog and mine at times is eye-watering. Recognize that if anything were truly urgent and specifically needed your response, those people would have bothered you again and again about it and would eventually have picked up the phone.

Second, keep apology to a minimum and get right to the content.

Where I can be funny, I say something like "I've been doing archaeology on my inbox." for more formal messages, I go with something like "I apologize for the delay in returning your email."
posted by Miko at 10:09 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Take the Beethoven approach: "Excuse me that I'm replying so late to your kind message; if I'm telling you that my work, which almost piles up on top of me, has hindered me to do so, I'm surely not lying."*

With which I mean to say, the problem is not new at all, and the straightforward truth has always been the easiest approach.

* Letter to Andreas Streicher, late summer 1796; Beethoven Briefwechsel Vol. I, M. Ladenburger, ed. (Munich: Henle 1996), p. 31-2.
posted by Namlit at 10:17 AM on November 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

Depending on how casual / formal the acquaintance, I've used "I just found this buried in my inbox - so sorry I didn't respond sooner! In case you're still... [...interested in working together / ...looking for help with X / looking for X's contact info...] and then following up with what I would have responded at the time. For friends I just apologize for taking so long - everyone's been there.
posted by Mchelly at 10:32 AM on November 10, 2017

Well, you could declare an email debt forgiveness day, which the podcast Reply All has declared to be April 30th, but which I think you can declare any time you need it :)
posted by Edna Million at 10:56 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

The podcast mentioned above is here: highly recommended.
posted by bbqturtle at 11:11 AM on November 10, 2017

Haha, I have emails in my inbox that date to 2015! Not many (I have about Inbox 20) but a few. It's hard. I usually just do a reality check with myself and determine if I am avoiding this project or if I'm just a little behind on email and then get back to the person appropriately with a brief apology and an indication of my sincere enthusiasm to get back to it and often end up with some sort of specific date/timeline so it's clear I'm not just someone who is Bad At Email (I know some of those people and they can be hard to work with). So some examples:

Hey there -- sorry this took me longer to get to than usual, I just wanted to let you know I am really interested in working together on this, Should we plan a time to chat next week? I am free Monday and Tuesday afternoons.

Thanks so much for contacting me, I've been away from my email for a week or two but I wanted to say I'd like to learn more about this. Can you send me some more information or would you prefer to plan a time to meet up?

Hiya -- October was a busy month for me but now I've freed up some time and am excited to talk about the thing you are working on. When's a good time to chat?
posted by jessamyn at 11:47 AM on November 10, 2017

I usually use something short and sweet.
- "Sorry for the late reply."
- "Apologies for the delayed response."

I don't go in to too much explanations or justifications. I would definitely acknowledge your reply is overdue, but don't go on and on about it. It can be good, though, to acknowledge that the situation may have changed between now and when they first sent the email.

- "Assuming the offer still stands..."
- "Working under the hope that you're still interested, ..."
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:12 PM on November 10, 2017

You can see by this thread that you're not the only one! So don't feel too bad!

Starting every email with "Sorry..." started wearing on me. It got depressing and made me feel more guilty. I recently switched to "Thanks for your patience..." which works better for my psychology and let's you start by focusing on them and saying something nice.

You don't need to go on about your story -- minimize excuses, stories, explanations, being cute, etc. Get to the answer! That's why they emailed you. Also they have *far* less emotion and irritation around it than you have guilt around it, so you can serve them best by getting to the point quickly.

This advice obviously modulated by relationship, formality, impact, etc. Sometimes a real heartfelt apology and full Dog Ate My Homework story is needed.
posted by troyer at 1:16 PM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

On January 2, I sent a "happy new year" email to a friend I haven't seen in several years. She didn't respond until October 23. She started her email with "I know this email is long overdue" and then went on to a regular response.

That worked just fine for me.
posted by kayram at 2:17 PM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Dude, I don't care if you're late. I can count on one finger the number of people who have gotten back to me with a late e-mail after a month. I'm impressed if you even write one.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:10 PM on November 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

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