How can I answer tactfully but sincerely latecomers' apologies for being (very) late? I refuse, and it appears insincere, to answer with phrases that forgive them (e.g. It's nothing/all right. Don't worry about it.), when their lateness are not pardonable, disrupts scheduling, and mentally distresses?

The other possibility is not to reply, but silence appears to me awkward.

  • 12
    You are asking how one can tactfully and sincerely refuse an apology? You can't do both. In this case you can be tactful or you can be sincere. Nov 4 '17 at 19:21
  • 3
    Can you add some context? 1. What kind of event? 2. What is your relationship with the latecomer? 3. What are your priorities in terms of outcome? Maybe you want to prevent or minimize future tardiness and/or communicate your disappointment, preserve the relationship, etc.; which of these (or other goals) matter to you, and which matter most if you have to choose? You might also want to include the nature of the apology.
    – 1006a
    Nov 5 '17 at 0:21

Sounds like you'd like to accept the apology but still emphasise that being on time is not a trivial issue to you, that you have expected this person to do better, and this expectation was not met.

Some of things that I would not do are:

  • passive-aggressive approach ("yeah it's okay" with sarcastic voice or just appearing angry)
  • confrontational approach ("please make sure this is the last case") - it may be appropriate in a 1-1 setting if you're the late person's manager and nothing else worked

An approach that is not very confrontational, and should work with any person no matter of your personal relationship, would be to accept the apology and also politely inform how the situation affected you and the others. Express your feelings and unmet needs clearly and trust that person to take action.

Ideally it would be short enough not to disrupt the meeting or bring embarrassment, but also strong enough so that the person will understand that it's not OK and they should improve.

Hi! I'm glad that you're here. However I was really hoping that we can start the meeting on time.

or stronger -

Hi, good to see you, come join us! X, I feel disappointed that you came 5 minutes late; I think the morning meeting works really well if we are all here on time and I really wish we could start without delay.


I would say something along the line of:

  1. Accept their apologies, in order not to be rude.
  2. Let them know it bothered me, but in a polite way.
  3. Try and set up a workaround if this were to happen again.

So, when they say sorry for being late, I would say:

I'm glad that you finally made it! I worried a lot, and thought something bad might have happened to you. Luckily, not... Please, next time you see you'll be late, drop us a call, so we know you're fine and on your way.

With the usual big smile of relief :)

You acknowledged their apologies, explained why it was bad not even calling/warning you, and ask them to be more careful next time. In a smooth and polite way. You're done!

  • "I worried a lot, and thought something bad might have happened to you. Luckily, not..." not just smooth and polite but also droll and ironic from OP's inner perspective @OldPadawan! Nov 4 '17 at 20:28
  • @EnglishStudent : yes, can be seen that way. Didn't think of that when writing, but definitely my kind of "humour" though. Nice catch ;)
    – OldPadawan
    Nov 4 '17 at 20:30
  • It is an interesting statement that conveys 2 layers of meaning @OldPadawan. I am sure a perceptive person will avoid being late with OP in future. Nov 4 '17 at 20:35
  • The 2 layers were on purpose though ;)
    – OldPadawan
    Nov 4 '17 at 20:40
  • It is also a gentle and subtle way for OP to reprimand the person for being late @OldPadawan. So I upvotes! Nov 4 '17 at 20:50

This depends on the seriousness of the lateness, and whether this has happened before.

Consider a trivial lateness: a group of friends are gathering to have coffee and snacks. Most arrive on time, and talk to each other, ordering food and drinks without waiting. One arrives late, apologizes, and is really the only one to suffer from the absence. Here you can accept the apology without a second thought. There was no harm done.

Now, a medium-severity lateness: late to work, late to a meeting at work, where others can do some work without the latecomer, but run the risk of needing to repeat things, or of delaying important things, so they are waiting or they are doing lower priority work. Late to important family occasions so you miss the first act of your sibling's play, or to some sporting events, can also fit this category. Here, assuming you're in charge (you're the person's boss, parent, or otherwise in a position to correct them) you can accept the apology but you must communicate clearly that this is unacceptable. The person may just smile "sorry I'm late!" in a way that suggest they aren't really sorry at all, or they may issue an appropriate statement of regret along with a good explanation, but nonetheless the acceptance must include a reminder that this lateness cannot happen again. Something like:

That is unfortunate. I presume you know how to ensure it won't happen again? (Wait for response.) I'll forgive this occasion.

You want to leave an impression of "I might not forgive the next one" or even "I will not forgive the next one" not "being late is ok here."

If you're not in charge, you can still try a response like this, but know that they might not pay much attention to it.

Now a more serious one, either a repetition of a previous lateness, for the same reason, or being late in a way that inconveniences customers (an instructor arriving late for class, the person who was supposed to open a store or restaurant not being there before opening time, a doctor, nurse, or firefighter arriving late to relieve the previous shift) or is dangerous, or is so socially-unacceptable that all involved assume the person must have been in an accident or something, and are distressed worrying about them. Here I would not accept the apology. It's a great use for

We'll discuss this later.

In most cases that would be the entirety of my response to their apologies for lateness. It indicates strongly that something else is more important than their lateness now, but the lateness cannot be overlooked, and it does not including accepting the apology even a tiny speck. I have literally said nothing more than those 4 words to someone who was very badly late in an important context.

Then you have the wedding or the meeting or get the store open or whatever needs to be done right then, not delaying any further, and after the crunch is past, your top priority is meeting the person and letting them know just how unacceptable (up to and including "you're fired", or perhaps "next time, you're fired") this is. Again if you're not actually in charge of the person, you can still use this "discuss this later" line, and have a heart-to-heart later about how awful it was that they were late to the funeral/wedding/awards ceremony, and the impact this has on their family and/or friends.

  • 2
    This answer makes sense in a business setting, but I don't know how relevant it is to, say, a family get together. You can't really fire your perpetually tardy little brother, and a stern guilt trip isn't going to be great for the relationship (probably won't help prevent future tardiness, either).
    – 1006a
    Nov 4 '17 at 22:06
  • You can ground your child, and if you are in charge of your little brother then presumably you can do something about it. The answer includes approaches for when you're not in charge of the person. Nov 4 '17 at 22:09
  • +1. Thanks. Can you please elucidate your last quote? Do you mean that after the latecomer apologises, I should answer We'll discuss this later.? Wouldn't this sound too minatory or menacing? Would you please respond in your answer, because it is easier to read than comments?
    – NNOX Apps
    Nov 7 '17 at 12:50
  • done @Canada-Area51Proposal and yes, it sounds menacing, it's supposed to. It's reserved for occasions when you want to let some know that their behavior is simply not acceptable. If that's not the case, don't use it. Nov 7 '17 at 13:48

For politeness' sake, you should accept the apologies. It simply is proper etiquette. Additionally, there is nothing positive to gain from not accepting them.

However, if the lateness really disrupted whatever they were late for, you could stress additionally that you would really prefer them to be on time. They can't do much anymore to fix the problem for this time; it's in the past, but they can do something about the future.

It's not like not accepting the apologies would make them more on time, but neither is holding a grudge for it. Try and fix the future, not the past.

So you could reply with something along these lines:

That's OK, but could you try and be on time next time?


I'll suggest that it makes a difference if there are other people around. Specifically, you don't want to cause yet another disruption by dogging the guy out.

If Late-Guy meanders into a meeting chirping "sorry I'm late", it's alright to be and look annoyed. Because he is causing a problem. If it were me, I'd say, "Alright you can catch up" and keep doing meeting stuff.

If it's not a packed-with-people scenario, you can be more direct. "It makes problems when you're late. Just be more careful, okay?". Note that in the first scenario, the guy might not get the hint, in which case you can come back to "It makes problems..."


Tell the person how it affects the group, work flow, or what ever the case may be. You can tell them that you will catch them up to speed this time, but if it happens again, they will need to get missed info from a peer after the meeting. This lets the person know tardiness is not acceptable, but at the same time you are giving them a break. If the event is a personal gathering tell them how them being late makes you feel. EX: When you arrive late for dinner it makes me feel unappreciated, and I feel like you don't want to spend time with me. Avoid saying you make me feel. Nobody can make you feel anything. These type of statements will only put the other party on the defensive. Avoid telling someone, "it's ok" when it is obviously not ok. This only gives them permission to continue the behavior.

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