How To Email Someone When It's Been Too Long

You’ve been meaning to respond to someone for a while now. Actually, it’s past the acceptable amount of time to answer, so you let it go. And go. It’s eventually been so long you assume you will never be able to make contact with this person again — until you need something.

Networking is usually pictured as being in a room full of people wearing name tags, but a big part of it is maintaining contacts, as executive coach Rebecca Zucker wrote in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review. Unfortunately, people slip through the cracks. Someone we hit it off with in school might end up being in your line of work one day, and you’ll really regret letting that relationship go. When you realise you do need to reach out, Zucker has some great suggestions for how to do it via email.

Blame Them (In Your Mind)

The first step is overcoming embarrassment about the lapse in contact. That’s what’s kept you from writing to them for (potentially) years. To break through the block, Zucker recommends everyone remember that the person you’re emailing hasn’t been in touch with you either. You just needed something sooner. Maybe they’ll be really happy to hear from you! At worst, it’s still unlikely that they’ll respond with recriminations and anger. Envision a positive outcome after reminding yourself it takes two to forget to tango.

Acknowledge It’s Been A while

Trying to act like no time has passed will not work in your favour. You both know it’s been a while, so mention it. Zucker says she recommends clients get to it right in the subject line. She offers a few phrases that seem a bit corny to me, but which apparently work:

If the context of your relationship was less formal, say a college or graduate school classmate, you might use a bit of humour and say something like “Blast from the past” in the subject line. If your relationship was more formal in nature, perhaps a former boss or client, you might say something like “Reconnecting” in the subject line. In my own experience sending these types of email, and that of my clients, when there is name recognition by the person receiving the email, the response rate has been over 90% with one of these subject lines.

It’s also good to mention it in the body of the email, perhaps in the context of updating them on what you’ve been up to. That’s also info they’re going to need if you’re discussing something work related.

Watch Your Tone

If you have gotten it together to finally message someone after ages, it’s probably pretty important. It’s also likely that whatever your request is, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that this person will do it, or you wouldn’t ask. Try not to seem desperate or demanding. Confidence in the validity of your request with some tentativeness about their desire to do it is the right tone. Zucker says to offer them an out, in case you have wildly overestimated the connection:

You might say something like, “I’m sure you are very busy, so if this is not a good time for you (or if you don’t feel like you know this person well enough to make an introduction), I completely understand.”

And that gives them the perfect excuse to not talk to you for another ten years.

Give Something Back

The first thing you should give back is your gratitude, whether or not they can help you. Say thank you no matter what, but also offer a reciprocal opportunity to them. It can be a general favour to be called in some day, or you can really dig into what they’ve been up to. You might have something that they need.

Stay In Touch!

You’ve kicked down the barrier. You never know when you might need somebody in your work life or regular life. Maintaining contact with the occasional email or business lunch could open up doors. Don’t let them rust shut.


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