I recently sent an email to a professor asking him about an administrative problem I was having, but after I'd hit the send button, I realized I'd forgot to say: "Sorry to bother you" or something of that sort in the beginning... Now I'm wondering is that considered impolite? Shoud you apologize to professors for bothering them or does that just make you sound phony? I greeted him with"Dear Professor X", told him who I was, asked the question, and thanked him in advance. He answered my question and all, but I'm just asking for future reference.

  • @ndpl Yes, he was.
    – lmc
    Aug 23, 2019 at 21:56
  • 25
    Relevant PhD Comic. Aug 23, 2019 at 22:10
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    Please state your country.
    – user111955
    Aug 23, 2019 at 22:22
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    I tend to ignore that. I get annoyed when the email ends with "Please do the needful'. Aug 23, 2019 at 22:39
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    If you are asking the guy to do something for you, starting the request with "please" and ending the email with "thank you" is fine. More than that is just timewasting for the sender typing it, and the receiver reading it. You have already "bothered" the guy when he made the time to stop whatever else he was doing and read your email, so don't apologize for what you can't avoid!
    – alephzero
    Aug 24, 2019 at 10:05

4 Answers 4


I think that @ndpl hit the nail on the head when he commented that what's most important is that your message to the professor be clear and concise.

During an academic semester I, like most academics, get a crazy number of emails. (I'm an assistant professor of mathematics at a college in the US.) If your email is short and to the point then chances are I'll be able to read it right away, decide what action on my part needs to be taken (if any), and move on to the next email. Empty statements like "I'm sorry to bother you." are polite, but just make my goal of getting through all the unread messages in my inbox that much harder to achieve.

So if your email was written in a professional manner, but was just terse, that's absolutely fine.

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    Yes, the "Sorry to bother you, but, ..." is filler, but/and is a sort of formulaic politeness, which is its only genuine virtue. If the overall tone of your email is polite, that particular formulaic phrase can be omitted without harm. But/also, if you routinely include such phrases, it's not soooo hard to filter them out. :) Aug 23, 2019 at 22:33
  • Could you write which cultures your experience refers to?
    – user111955
    Aug 23, 2019 at 23:09
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    @paulgarrett it’s not filler - it shows a lack of thought and is likely to annoy. If you’re sorry about something, don’t do it.
    – rhialto
    Aug 24, 2019 at 12:01
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    @rhialto "Sorry to bother you" is a very common phrase, intended to politely ask for someone's attention. It definitely doesn't show a lack of thought. "If you’re sorry about something, don’t do it." suggests you're taking the phrase far too literal.
    – marcelm
    Aug 25, 2019 at 0:09
  • @marcelm it’s a very common phrase, usually used improperly. Just because it’s common doesn’t mean it should be copied. Far better to avoid something unnecessary that makes the reader think less of you.
    – rhialto
    Aug 25, 2019 at 8:05

I'm not a professor, but as a professional who works in an office setting (and gets a lot of random requests for help from people I barely know), I'd say: it's probably good to get yourself out of the habit of using filler like "sorry to bother you". I personally find it disconcerting, as if people assume I'm some kind of ogre that is just as likely to chomp their head off as to help.

Certainly politeness and concision are important, but others have already highlighted this. Keep in mind too that your professor is aware that one day you will, hopefully, be their colleague/work-equal, and that as such, conducting yourself in a professional manner (which includes holding yourself in esteem) will be important.

Edit: my only experience is working within the United States, so this answer is intended only to apply there.

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    Could you write with cultures this answer refers to?
    – user111955
    Aug 23, 2019 at 23:09
  • @user111955 done, thanks.
    – HFBrowning
    Aug 23, 2019 at 23:10
  • "people assume I'm some kind of ogre that is just as likely to chomp their head off as to help" That's the impression I get of the impression that people have of professors as a non-academic. People treat them like the only professionals who are ever busy. Aug 25, 2019 at 2:15

Perhaps it's worth making one point clearer: certainly blathering pseudo-politenesses is silly and off-putting, BUT demonstrably knowing the currently-accepted forms of politenesses is itself a filter, which you'd want to pass.

That is, knowing what exactly to say that is currently considered polite and appropriately respectful for the situation, is in itself a filter, whether or not we think it has genuine meaning. But it is surely the case that knowing the current formulaic politenesses does a good bit in the way of getting one's foot in the door.

Actually-non-ironically, as people try to use internet resources to find out what the successful formulaic politenesses are, the criteria shift to compensate. E.g., all the discussion of "what makes a good X" is self-defeating, in sort of an inflationary way, in the sense that whatever the current formulaic answer is is a failure.

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    This is a very good point that my post failed to address. As I have been working for about 10 years it's clear to me what's required to send a polite email to someone I don't know well, in my field. It's not as obvious to students, especially because they're low man on the totem pole. I would still be intimidated if I needed to send an email to the director of my agency
    – HFBrowning
    Aug 23, 2019 at 23:03
  • @HFBrowning, yes, I think that many people erroneously think that there's some objective politeness notion, while, in reality, "what sounds right" changes relatively rapidly. Like detecting a "native speaker" of some language. Not deliberately prejudicial, but... a test of knowing the current code. (Hm, not unlike every other human activity...) Aug 23, 2019 at 23:15

This makes no sense, why should you apologize for sending an email? If they gave you an email to contact them, then they should expect emails... It's not the same as instant messaging where it can interrupt someone when you send it, emails already have a natural barrier between you and the one who receives it and some time between them is expected. After all, they are the virtualization of letters, imagine saying "Sorry to bother you" when you send a letter. Just don't think about it, it's stupid.

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