Send: Etiquette for apologizing in an email

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.

Posted in No image, Office politics
10 comments on “Send: Etiquette for apologizing in an email
  1. Tyrone says:

    Also, make sure your apology is a true apology. I once had to coach someone through one of those letters…in his apology email, he took the time to insist that the other party was also wrong….

    *bzzzt*

    Don’t do that! Just apologize.

  2. Tom Morgan says:

    Will,

    I totally agree that apologizing in person is much more effective. We overvalue the use of e-mail for all sorts of communication that require a more personal touch.

    We spend so much time alone in front of our PC’s that we can lose touch with our friends, family, and co-workers.

    Whatever happened to the phrase “high tech, high touch”? We are more concerned about efficiency than effectiveness which in the end can make us ineffective.

    I am really enjoying your book “Send” and your guide on when to use different types of media.

  3. AjiNIMC - difficult transition of programmer to manager in 2005 says:

    More than apologies, the important factor is communication. Let the person know what you feel, 90% of the time the problems does not exists it is the communication gap.

    Email or any communication medium can be used but do COMMUNICATE. With a proper communication apologies are very hardly needed, people start understanding people. I highly recommend and teach communication.

  4. Tetsou says:

    There is certainly an etiquette when it comes to email apologies. I’d say that it depends upon the apology. Sometimes copying the team into the message can be effective if your apology involved others. Other times its best to pick up the phone and say the words.

    Lower down in the scale of sensitivity – if that’s the right word – is text messaging. My wife recently receive a text message via her mobile phone thanking us for a wedding gift!

    Needless to say we haven’t spoken to the couple since.

    Tetsou

  5. Greg says:

    Keep in mind that email is archived and stored by many (if not most) organizations. Make certain ANY emailed apology is appropriate to be read by the masses, even if it is sent only to a single person. Because of this, I recommend the face-to-face or telephone for personal apologies (although the viral element for groups, especially large groups, may be desirable).

  6. Will Schwalbe says:

    The “truth” thing is such an important point. I find any time I start using exculpatory content (“However…”) or find myself in a passive construction (“Mistakes were made”), it’s time to start the email again and make sure it’s genuinely and totally apologetic.

    And thanks, Tom, for reminding me of “high tech, high touch” — a great phrase that I haven’t heard for years. That really should be the holy grail. I’m also really glad you are enjoying the book. What we want to do is get people to think about why they are choosing the medium they are choosing — and not just do it reflexively. So it’s great to see people pondering these issues.

    Better communication=fewer apologies is an excellent point.

    And a text message may be fine for STARTING an apology or big thank-you — the problem sounds like it came about because the wedding gift thank-you stopped there. If the person had sent the text and followed with a note, that might be even nicer than just a note, because the text lets you know right away that your gift arrived. “Proper note to follow” or an abbreviation thereof strikes me as a good text/email/IM phrase and habit.

    And great point on the archiving. A UK lawyer reminded us that an apology can hold up in court as an expression of guilt, so everyone will want to keep that in mind if there are legal issues at stake. But if there aren’t, I think I would rather be known in my organization as someone who is willing to shoulder blame (even if I wasn’t entirely in the wrong) than someone who shirks it, which may be my rep if there’s never any email record of my apologising for anything.

    –Will

  7. Jen @ 1 Mother of the Bride says:

    It’s hard to believe that someone can genuinely send a thank you for a wedding gift by text message – are people really that short on time. It’s strange how people can justify long delays in sending their thank you cards, seemingly oblivious to the amount of time and effort that has been put into choosing them, not to mention the cost.

    Why don’t brides-to-be pre-write the thankyou envelopes before the wedding, pop stamps on ready, then write a few simple and personal lines after the wedding?

  8. Wedding Planner Book says:

    the problem with this is that things can be taken wrong. you don’t understand the voice inflection they are using and that matters greatly.

  9. Raymond J. says:

    Great article. Thanks for posting. I always like the psychology part in stuff:-) This was really something to think of. Not that I have to apologise to anyone right now, but certainly some things to let sink in. Thanks again. – Ray J. – Mobilhuset:Mobiltelefon uten abonnement

  10. Elizabeth le Roux says:

    Thanks for posting this article. I have a minor question, that when someone apologizes to you via email, how does one properly respond? Does one say apology accepted or say no don’t worry about it?

In Archive