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Ignore or Acknowledge a Brief Apology?

This interesting question arrived in my email this morning:

I am a recent college graduate who regularly communicates with managers over email. At least once a week I receive an email with the opener “I apologize for the delay in replying,” followed by an explanation for the late response.

How should I respond to this manager’s courtesy? Ignore or acknowledge it?


Would you like to respond to Joseph’s question before I weigh in? How do you respond to people’s brief apologies?

Here’s a sample opening apology I received just moments ago:

Hi Lynn,

My turn to be embarrassed for a very delayed response! Lousy excuse, but my son just arrived for his spring break on Friday night and I’ve been busy showing him our lovely city.


What’s your view? Ignore? Acknowledge?

After you consider your view, read my ideas below, along with the excellent comments from readers. Those reader comments came in before I wrote my response to Joseph. 

I’m pleased that Joseph, as a recent college graduate, is thinking about courtesy in messages. Here’s my advice to him:

Of course, you will respond to the email, but the question you asked is about the opening apology. The way you respond to it can build your relationship with the writer. Your response can communicate that you paid attention to the message and care about the person. 

For example, if the manager wrote, as my professional friend did, “My son just arrived for his spring break on Friday night and I’ve been busy showing him our lovely city,” you might begin with “Thanks for your reply. I hope you are enjoying your son’s visit.” 

If the person wrote, “I was out sick with the flu,” an appropriate response might be “I hope you are feeling better.”  

For apologies that communicate how busy someone is, you may just open with thank you, as in these examples: 

If the individual wrote, “Sorry, I have been slammed with requests,” you might begin “Thanks for taking the time to respond.” 

If the opening was “Please accept my apology for dragging my feet on this,” you might say “Thanks for getting back to me.” 

If the person said, “Sorry but we were slammed with end-of-month issues,” you might respond with “Thanks for your reply. I hope things have calmed down over there.” However, that response would be better for a peer or someone you know well. It would likely sound presumptuous to a manager. 

If the person gave no reason–for example, “Sorry for the delay”–it would make sense for you to respond without reference to the delay or the pseudo-apology. 


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

11 comments on “Ignore or Acknowledge a Brief Apology?”

  • Wouldn´t it be rude to ignore the message? I would acknowledge the apology as a token of appreciation and respect for the person´s good intentions.
    My two cents.

  • I agree with Stephanie. If the apology is followed by an explanation, I would take that explanation as a great opportunity to connect with the writer at a more personal level. In the example provided, I would go on to ask the writer to tell me how he/she had spent the busy with his/her son.

  • Thanks for your comments, Maria, Stephanie, and Louis.

    Maria, I didn’t mean to imply that the message should be ignored. I was just focusing on the apology and the reason for the delay. I agree that it would be rude to ignore the message.

    Stephanie, thanks for providing excellent examples. I love your reply about the son’s visit. I haven’t responded to that email yet, and you and Louis have given me good ideas.

    Louis, thanks for mentioning the opportunity to connect. Ignoring the lateness and building on the reason for it is a wise approach.

    I’ll elaborate tomorrow.


  • If one to one message, I usually add a short note such as “thank you for your reply and ….” to show my acknowledge and appreciation of her/his reply

  • There were great, clarifying examples. I agree with Stephanie on this. I think acknowledging the reason, especially if it’s personal, is good enough.

  • The person offering the apology views themself as out of integrity or accountability or untrustworthy. My questions would be: How is that working for you? How does your tardiness affect the recipient? How does it affect you? How is this like the rest of your life? What act of intention will you perform to demonstrate that you can be a person of integrity, accountability and trustworthiness?
    The apologist needs to examine his/her motivation for making other things more important. That all sounds tough, and you probably wouldn’t couch it in those terms to most people. Tough love.

  • I would agree with Stephanie’s response, with one additional caveat: I would likely not respond to the explanation for the late reply if it read more like a vague excuse attributed to being really busy, like “I’ve been slammed this week” or “Too much on my plate these days.” I think too many of us wear being busy as a badge of honor today, and I wouldn’t be inclined to acknowledge that kind of response. This is likely partially due to my own personal pet peeves, but it still stands 🙂

  • Thanks for weighing in, Mimi, Tamara, Brigette, Bart, and Lisa Marie.

    Mimi, I agree about acknowledging the reply.

    Tamara, I’m with you.

    Brigette, I avoid using “No apology required” as a standard response. Although it does fit in some situations, at other times I believe it focuses on the apology rather than the desired reply.

    Bart, what an interesting response! You took things in another whole direction. I believe all of us have to weigh the importance of the things on our to-do lists. In the example I gave, the email I sent was not urgent, whereas the son’s visit was taking place now. To me, it makes perfect sense to choose the son and then apologize for the delay in responding.

    Lisa Marie, great addition. I believe Stephanie would agree with you too.


  • I think focusing on the reason is an excellent idea! Perhaps I should offer a humanizing glimpse into my own world more often.

    It seems to me there also be a closely related conversation about when an apology is warranted to begin with. I generally have a 48 hours response policy for email, but it’s not a hard rule. If I’m a bit later than that or the email obviously isn’t urgent, I usually don’t apologize.

    On the other hand, if I agreed to respond by a certain time and didn’t, or we were arranging a close date that passed or something else urgent, I would apologize (or expect one from a late person).

    I try to acknowledge the impact of my tardiness, or theirs. “I’m sorry the time you suggested passed, and we need to start over. Thank you for the effort. Here are some new times I suggest.”

    More often, I get apologies that I don’t think are necessary, and I say something like, “Thanks for getting it to me, your timing didn’t cause any issues for me.” (Or maybe even, “perfect timing,” because I’m busy too!)

    Finding warm (not angry sounding) ways to convey that it did impact my work is the trickiest response. Even if I’m not upset, it’s important for them to know how their actions affect the world. (At least that’s how I want to be treated!)

    There even, is a chance for me to reflect and see if I needed to follow up more or be clearer that I needed it by a certain time.

  • Hi Laura,

    I like your wide-ranging reflections on the topic.

    “Perfect timing” is an expression I use too.

    Regarding your desire to communicate the impact, here are a few ideas to play with:
    “I was able to rearrange my schedule to accommodate the delay.”
    “I’ll see what I can do to make this work.”
    “I’ll find out whether X can expedite this to get us back on schedule.”

    I love your closing paragraph. I find that people are often not clear about what they want by when, and I need to guess or follow up with a question.

    Thanks for sharing.


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