By Will Schwalbe — Email is great for minor apologies – especially when you think your transgression might not really need an apology at all. A classic is the, “I’m so sorry I didn’t spend more time with you at my party” kind of apology, which is usually greeted with the classic, “Don’t be silly, I had a blast, and it was lovely of you to invite me” response. Any time you get a “No harm, no foul” email in return, you know that either you did nothing wrong after all, or that your email apology has won you forgiveness.
But if you are thinking of apologizing in an email for a more serious transgression, keep in mind that very bad behavior obviously requires a major amount of contrition. For example, if you’ve said something awful about someone and suspect it got back to him; hurt someone’s feelings; missed an important meeting or occasion; accidentally destroyed someone’s stuff; forgot to do something important — all of these are big things, and an apology that is seen as insincere or insufficient could compound your crime.
Before you hit send on your “please forgive me’ email, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Is email really the best way to apologize – or are you just hiding behind a computer screen?
Because it is so easy to email an apology, people don’t always take email apologies seriously. Sometimes the very fact that you are apologizing on email can add salt to the wound. If you don’t receive a reply to your email apology, it’s generally a good indication that it fell short.
2. Email’s speed and ease make it a great way to start an apology.
Remorse is a dish best served hot. Just make sure, though, that the person to whom you are apologizing knows that you will be saying sorry in other ways, too. You can always email, “I wanted to let you know right away how sorry I am about spilling coffee all over the architectural model you spent all weekend building.” But make sure to add something to your email like, “I’m willing to stay all weekend to help you build another. And you will find a bottle of wine waiting for you when you get home.”
3. Put the word “Sorry” or “Apologies” in the Subject line.
If you don’t do this, the aggrieved party might not even open your email.
4. This is one of the many times you don’t want to Cc without permission.
The person you offended may want everyone to know you apologized. Or, he may want to keep it secret. Promiscuous Cc’ing can compound the original offense. For example, “I’m so sorry I blurted out that comment about your personal hygiene problem” is all very well and fine – unless you Cc a whole mess of people and thus send the indiscretion out even wider.
Start focused and ask permission to expand the list. “I’m so sorry I blurted out that comment about your personal hygiene problem – please let me know if you want me to apologize to all the others who were present at the meeting, either by email or in person or both” is a much better way of handling it. Also, always write an apology with the expectation that it will be forwarded without your permission. Oh, and do remember that a true apology is, by its very nature, an admission of guilt.
The bottom line: Email does not mean never having to say you’re sorry. Sometimes, you have to say it and show it, not write it and send it.
Will Schwalbe is the co-author with David Shipley of Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home.