I’ve been trying to remember the first time I became aware of four words that kept creeping into the beginnings of my emails:
“Sorry for the delay …”
So many times when drafting a response to an email, I have felt compelled to open with those words. It was a habit I didn’t really notice, a knee-jerk reaction when responding with anything less than immediacy. As it is with a lot of insidious habits, I only really noticed when someone else did it to me.
Two summers ago I emailed a writer acquaintance to thank her for something she’d done for me and also apologize for an assumption I made when we met that led to a slightly embarrassing exchange at a party. The whole thing wasn’t a big deal but it was an unfinished loop that had nagged at me for nearly a year and a half. I’d see her around town or on social media and think, “I should really shoot her an email to thank her properly and apologize for acting like a dork.” So I finally did it, and immediately felt better.
I wasn’t even expecting a response, so when she sent me an email back that started, “Sorry to take so long to reply,” I was taken aback.
It had been five days.
Five days! There was nothing urgent about my message, and no reason for her to be sorry. I was the one apologizing! I didn’t want my message to make her feel obligated to do anything, much less respond to me immediately.
But her reply got me noticing that even though I don’t usually really mean it, I often start my responses with, “Sorry for the delay.”
So why don’t I mean it, and why do I still apologize?
And while we’re at it, what is an acceptable amount of delay when responding to an email anyway? An hour? Day? Business day? Week? Month? The problem is every situation is contextual, and the expected response time isn’t often stated explicitly, e.g. “Please get back to me by end of day Friday.” So I’m left guessing. And since our current culture prioritizes being “always on,” I default to assuming the acceptable delay is no delay, which for me means one day.
But how often when I’m the sender do I actually need a response within a day? Hardly ever, unless I explicitly say so.
Hence every time I don’t respond within a day, I assume the other person has expectations of me that I don’t expect of them, which makes me feel resentful. Feeling resentful is uncomfortable, and who wants to feel uncomfortable? So I avoid replying even longer, which just adds to the problem. By the time I do reply I feel the need to add an apology to save face, even though I don’t really mean it. Does this sound familiar to anyone?
So why don’t I just reply within a day? Seems like that would solve the problem, right? Possibly, but I wanted to look deeper into why I don’t always do that.
When I don’t reply right away, it’s usually because of one of two interrelated reasons.
I have to think about the answer, and the brain space I am in while checking email is not the brain space I need for actually thinking about things. In fact, I often procrastinate on tasks that require a thoughtful brain space by checking email. Usually I’m hoping for some quick wins. I can check my emails and be productive! Instead I find a host of things that either are not really worth much of my mental space to begin with or require more of my brain than I’m willing to give right then. The first are empty calorie wins, and the second create drag as soon as I read them because I know I’m going to have to think, and thinking is hard. So I leave those responses for “later.”
I know what I need to reply with, but I have so many other things on my plate that seem More Important. And shouldn’t I be prioritizing the things that are most important? I still remember Stephen Covey’s Quadrant II items and Big Rocks. If I respond right away I am de facto putting off something that is More Important, and that makes me feel guilty. And feeling guilty is uncomfortable and who wants to feel uncomfortable? So I put off responding until “later” (often still avoiding the More Important things), and when later comes I feel I need to apologize to save face.
Was I the only one caught in this endless, unsatisfying, and insincere loop of delay and apologize?
On a whim, I did a quick search of my email for the phrase “sorry for the delay,” and came up with 378 hits, both sent and received, going back fifteen years. Here’s a sampling of some of the ones sent to me:
1/10/14 “Hi Louise! I’m so sorry for the delayed response—blame it on the holidays!” (A one-month LinkedIn reply from a writer I met in a professional organization. My message to her was unsolicited and not urgent in any way)
1/7/11 “Hi Louise, Sorry for the delay in responding—I’m a little buried on the email front, at the moment.” (A three-day response from an editor acquaintance who was responding to a request for some advice.)
7/19/19 “Hi Louise, Sorry for the delayed reply. I’m finally surfacing back into my writing life.” (A six-week reply from a writer I’d met in an online class that I contacted afterward to see if she’d be interested in exchanging work.)
11/1/18 “Hi Louise, So sorry for the delay in getting back to you — I have been underwater on so many fronts!” (A three-day reply from a woman one level up in responsibility from me in a volunteer organization regarding a meeting in two weeks.)
10/11/16 “Sorry for the delay, I've been working with my UK-based work colleagues for almost the last month - brain fry.” (A one-day reply from a friend as part of a group thread trying to set up a happy hour at the end of the month.)
10/2/18 “Sorry for the delay, yes (daughter) loves dress-up!” A two-week reply from my cousin, a woman with two kids who lives with chronic pain and had been laid up with the flu.
1/18/16 “Hi Louise -- I'm so sorry for the delay in responding -- shortly after we spoke my mother fell ill and died and honestly I've checked out of pretty much everything for a while.” (A 3-1/2 week reply from a writer acquaintance following up on something we’d talked about earlier. Note this was right after Christmas.)
I was definitely not the only one. And when I looked at these examples, none of the response times seemed unreasonable. Even the six-week reply didn’t seem out of line considering the context.
So why are we constantly apologizing to each other for something we all probably don’t mean?
Is it our “always on” culture? I think so. Or at least the assumption that other people are expecting us to always be available.
Feeling under an expectation to always be available sounds like … servitude. And what kind of culture would perpetuate an expectation of servitude? Drum roll …..
And wow, now all of a sudden these apologies for supposed delays that are in fact contextually reasonable seem not so much like benign social niceties but instead the reflection of a patriarchal assumption that we must always be available to serve.
Which reminds me of a great quote I read in this amazing essay by feminist author and essayist Melissa Febos about the sentence she ends her daily journal entries with:
The expectation that we must always be available is patriarchy’s bad idea.
Countering that by not apologizing for a contextually reasonable response time is a feminist act. I posit that it’s also anti-racist and anti-colonialist. Because who has historically been expected to always be available to serve? Women, people of color, and the colonized.
Let me make it clear that this bad idea doesn’t only affect women, people of color, and the colonized. Nor are White men from colonizer cultures the only perpetuators. Most of my correspondence is with other women; we are doing this to each other. And having to always be available within toxic work cultures is definitely detrimental to many men. Bad ideas perpetuated by patriarchy, racism, and colonialism are bad for everybody (which is why Whites, men, and colonizers should actively work to dismantle them, but that’s getting into another essay.)
So here’s where our small act of bravery comes in. The next time you’re tempted to start an email with, “sorry for the delay,” stop yourself.
Did you legitimately drop the ball or make someone wait for critical information they needed? If so, then please do apologize.
If not, and you are instead responding to an assumption that you should have been immediately available, take a breath and start your response without apology. Celebrate your ability to discern how to use your own time! Then smile—you just took a chisel to the patriarchy. And that’s heroic.
When you’re the one initiating a request, give the recipient a contextually generous timeframe by which you would like their response, e.g. “Please let me know within the next two weeks.” Clarifying expectations is an act of mutual care.
The next time someone responds to you with “sorry for the delay,” you can share this newsletter or send them the link to this article on Be Your Own Hero, if you’re really feeling brave.
What I’m Reading
Today’s book recommendation is directly related to this topic. I recently read Nir Eyal’s Indistractable, and found it to be an easy read with several immediately actionable ideas related to being intentional with your attention, including a great section on email. The tone can sometimes seem a bit rah-rah, and he doesn’t specifically come at the topic with a feminist lens, but his suggestions on hacking back external triggers in particular felt empowering.
There’s also an eye-opening section on toxic work cultures. He calls them “dysfunctional,” but notes they can predict a higher likelihood of developing depression at work. I call that toxic.
Knowing that your voice matters and that you’re not stuck in an uncaring, unchangeable machine has a positive impact on well-being. — Nir Eyal, “Indistractable”
Lastly, he recommends as one of his favorite email tools a service I’ve been using for almost ten years and couldn’t live without. It’s called SaneBox, and you can get a 14-day trial at this link. If you like it, DM your email to me on Twitter or Instagram and I can send you a code for $25 off. Full disclosure, I think I get a free month for the referral, but I would recommend SaneBox even without perks. I can’t imagine going back to email without it.
So there you have it: one small act of bravery to take with you. I hope this newsletter has given you something to think about, and if you search your own email and find examples of “sorry for the delay,” I’d love to know. Drop a comment below—all respectful discussion is welcome. And if you received this newsletter from someone else and haven’t subscribed yet, I’d love to have you as a reader!