IM Etiquette: Instant Messaging Rules For Chatting Like A Boss

11/20/2011 08:44 pm ET

Instant messaging was what you did in 8th grade because you didn't have a car and human interaction made you anxious, now you do it because you work at a computer and human interaction makes you anxious. Whether it's on Gchat, Yahoo (it's not Yahoo), iChat (it's not iChat), or AIM (wink) instant messaging has become the quickest, most efficient and honestly least annoying way to communicate with friends and colleagues during the work day. Sure, it's a casual medium, but IM has its own etiquette. In this week's column we talk chat: which normal rules of conversation don't apply and which definitely do.

The Status
Busy, Away, Offline, Available -- chat statuses are great. Imagine if you could use them in real life. Just stare off into space, with your eyes at half-mast and everyone would know you were “Away” and wouldn’t try to bother you with something they just saw on Buzzfeed.

That may not be how life works, but it is how IM works. Statuses are the online equivalent of body language. A tool for conveying instantly and non-verbally what kind of interaction you are looking for. Use them to enhance your chatting life, not make it more difficult. Some suggestions:

  • Don’t appear online if you are actually unavailable to chat. This is the IM equivalent of dangling a lure in the water, and then ignoring to the fish who gets caught on it: a waste of everyone’s time. If don’t want to chat, but really need to know who’s online just go “invisible” like a boss.
  • Go “Invisible”. Going invisible is like saying, “Don’t call me. I’ll call you.” It’s great if you’re waiting for the person you really want to talk to come online or if you want to sneak up on someone who's been avoiding you.
  • Do not use your invisible status to sneak up on people who have been avoiding you. This is not “The Most Dangerous Game.” IM isn't the place to “talk about us” or have a fight or interrogate someone about why they have been ignoring your calls. It’s like having a face to face fight while in a dark room wearing earplugs: you won’t be able to understand anything but the shouting. Keep chats light and save the emo stuff for voice on voice.
  • Don’t have your status always set to “Busy”. You’re not that busy. If you were you wouldn’t be online. Overusing busy is like taking antibiotics for a virus: It weakens the very system you hoped to protect, opening the floodgates to who knows how many sky-diving videos from your camp friend Devin.

But what if you need to be online to talk to one particular person, and don’t want open yourself up to chats from every sector? You could appear offline until they come online, but who wants to be that vigilant? What I’ve seen that works pretty well, is to write in your status, “Available for Bess Kalb”. It’s an easy way to let people know what’s up, and it makes it look like something important is going on between you and Bess. Or Lucy. Basically anyone but Devin. Devin, you have got to stop bombarding me with links to skydiving videos.

The Chat
Most normal rules of conversation still apply, they just need to be tweaked since you’re typing not talking. As in real life, IM-ers must gauge the mood of their IM-ee. Unlike in real-life you have only three ways to do this: time-lapse, exclamation points and the aforementioned statuses.

  • Time-lapse: Is there a thirty second lag between your "Sup, dude! quick question" and her "hey"? Basically, as soon as your respondent goes from "typing" to “entered text” to nothing, to "brb - have to run to a quick meeting," consider the conversation over. You've just witnessed and excuse-making thought process in action.
  • Exclamation points: Without tone, facial expression or body language, “hey” sounds like “Fuck off.” But throw in an exclamation point and “Hey!” suddenly sounds like “Hey”. In real life (college essays, first novels) exclamation points should be used sparingly if at all. In chat they should be used often and with great generosity.

One notable place where ordinary conversation rules do not apply is how and when you should end a chat. While it would be rude to exit a voice-on voice convo without saying goodbye, chat adieus are a lot more flexible. The only time you really need some kind of written sign-off is if you are actively IM'ing and suddenly have to go. If this is the case, a simple "byee" or "Woof. I'm out!" will do. And then you sign-off. None of this waiting for the other person to say bye, then saying bye again and then getting into a whole bye-off thing.

No exit announcement is necessary if the conversation has lapsed into silence, since lapsing into silence IS saying goodbye on IM. This is especially true when chatting with non-work friends while at work. Chatting at work is like listening to music at work, a nice background noise but not the reason you're there. During work hours no one should take offense if their Gchat buddy suddenly goes gray.

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