The Art Of The Apology: How To Say Sorry With An Email (And Mean It)

Let’s face it; we all screw up from time to time. We’re humans. It’s part of what we do. Knowing how to display contrition and make amends is a very important skill to have. It allows the wronged party to move past any perceived slight, and more importantly it provides an opportunity for reflection on what caused you to upset another person.

Email is a great medium for this. Although being a bit less personal than a face-to-face conversation, it allows you to compose your thoughts in a way which is unambiguous and direct, and reduces the need to be spontaneous. This makes it ideal for atoning for any sins which you may have committed.

Asking for forgiveness is an important skill to have; especially while using email as a professional. Here’s how you say sorry with an email, whilst still being genuine.

The Opening

When you start writing your apology, you should think about how you’ll address the person you’re emailing. How you’d open an apology email to your best friend is entirely different to how you would do so if you were emailing your boss.

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to imagine that you’re a designer working in the creative industries and you failed to complete a crucial bit of work on time. Your boss — let’s call him Robert Stephenson – is incredibly irate, and he’s threatening to fire you.

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You really can’t afford to lose this job, so you’re going to write your boss a sincere email letting him know how remorseful you are, and how you’re going to fix things. Since Robert is someone in a position of authority, you would address him as ‘dear’.

Depending upon your relationship with the recipient, it might be appropriate to use a slightly more informal greeting, such as ‘hey’ or ‘hi’. Despite only consisting a small part of the email, getting this bit right is absolutely vital. Here, you’re showing that you’ve considered who the audience of the email is.

Identifying The Problem

An apology is worthless if it doesn’t identify a problem. Let’s face it; you screwed up and you’re now making up for it. You need to unambiguously make it evident that you know that you understand what went wrong without deflecting blame.

Don’t do this:

I know that I missed a deadline, but it’s not really my fault because I was working on a project with [co-worker] and he took up too much of my time. I’ve been having computer troubles too, and IT haven’t had a look at my machine yet. It’s not really my fault.

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Whilst the above might be completely, factually true, it doesn’t show that you’re acknowledging your own responsibility. This is much better:

I know that I missed a deadline. The project I was working on was important, and I know you put a lot of trust in me by giving me the responsibility of completing it to satisfaction. I understand that failing to meet the due-date has resulted in our project being delayed, and that it reflects poorly upon myself and our team.

The Apology

So, here’s the actual meat of the apology. You need to sincerely show contrition, and as before you need to avoid deflecting responsibility. Use unambiguous, declarative sentences. Write plainly and honestly. Remember, you’re trying to express regret.

I would like to say how incredibly sorry I am that I didn’t meet my obligations and complete my work on time. There’s no excuse that I can possibly make that could justify failing to meet my obligations.

Fixing Things

Depending on the reason for why you’re apologizing, you may find yourself needing to make amends. This is an action that would reduce the likelihood of the same mistake happening again. This step is vital, as it shows that you’re eager to move forward and have thought about how you’re going to go about doing that.

 Going forwards, I’m going to ensure that if there’s a risk of me missing my deadlines, I’ll either speak to you or put in extra hours outside of office time. I promise that this won’t ever happen again, and I’m taking steps to ensure that this isn’t a repeat occurrence.

Wrapping Things Up

Here’s where you wrap things up. Using the appropriate tone and register, you thank the audience for reading your apology email. You may want to invite them to discuss the contents further, as well as giving them your best wishes.

Thank you for reading my email. If you want to talk about this further, please do not hesitate to get in contact.

Kindest regards,
[your name]

Conclusion

Apologizing isn’t one of the most fun activities one can do, but it is something we all eventually have to do. Have you ever apologized by email? How did it go down? Have you got any strategies for apologizing over email? Let me know in the comments below.

Image Credit: Mino73 Rina Pitucci Pimlico Badger

6 Comments - Write a Comment

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Joel L

Great article. Unfortunately, one problem is that most of the people who should be apologizing don’t even realize that they’ve done anything wrong. I’ve been guilty of that so I’m not really passing judgment. But when it comes to forging a proper apology, you make some good points.

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Matthew H

Thank you Joel! I agree completely. :)

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Brian Tkatch

I use apologies, sorriness, and remorsefulness as three different things.

Apology is an explanation, as in Plato’s The Apology. The sign in the image above that explains what happened is an apology. The usefulness of an apology is that the apologizer felt a need to give one, that is, he values the person he is apologizing to, and respects them enough to explain himself.

Sorriness is saying you feel bad that the other person was affected adversely, not that you would have done otherwise. The ” This is much better” message is an example of it. The usefulness is to let the person know that you care.

Remorsefulness is (explaining that you are) feeling bad about what you did. The usefulness is to let the person know that you are humbling yourself by admitting guilt.

These three things are very important as not all situations call for all three. Indeed, sometimes using the wrong one can made a matter worse.

Apologizing is excellent when coming late (the first time), not doing things as expected, or any time the person on the receiving end feels belittled. When it is obvious that the apologizer does not care, does it quite often, or thinks apologies makes everything better as if whatever-it-was never happened, the apology tends to infuriate the person.

Sorriness is to let people know you care. For example, when hearing something bad happened to someone else that you had nothing to do with “i’m sorry” means you care and means a lot to the receiver. Doing something you think is correct but adversely affects the other person, for example, a doctor taking blood or giving a shot that hurts might say “i’m sorry but this will hurt”. In other words, i do not regret the action, but i feel bad that it will hurt you.

Remorsefulness is expected when people have their values slighted. A convict may be given a more lenient sentence if he shows remorse, a child may be forgiven if he really does feel bad that he broke the friend’s toy, a relationship can be salvaged this way as well. Remorsefulness is the hardest of the bunch because the person must humble himself, a quality not often found in society.

The method of remorse is really based on the relationship the two parties have. The idea is not the words but the conveyance of actual humility. As this is based on many factors including the people involved, the amount of time taken between the offensive action and the expression of remorse, and the gravity of the offense, no real guidelines can be explained. Some can be via email, some cannot, though perhaps it can be a first step.

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Matthew H

This was a really great comment. Thanks Brian! I actually agree completely with your definitions. :)

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Brian Tkatch

Thanx Matthew. I think more people would apologize if they realized what would be best.

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Matthew H

I’m inclined to agree. :)

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