Instant Messenger Etiquette

Every so often, the managers of the Mobile and Embedded Devices division go away on an off-site. This is a big mistake, as it means I feel compelled to do things like write the following:



Instant Messenger Etiquette


Instant Messaging has become an integral part of my day, and I suspect that of many other people too. It lies somewhere between an email, and a telephone call. However, unlike these forms of communication, the accompanying rules of social etiquette are still in flux. Allow me to put forward some examples that I think may clarify my current understanding of when and how to use IM.



Beginning a Conversation


Don't make the first thing you type a demand. For example, "Hey, where is Corsica?" or "Bring me food". It's just rude. My mother likes to start IM conversations by leaving out as many pertinent facts as possible, and also using capital letters. For example "YOURE RIGHT IT WAS PINK". This is not good Instant Messenger Etiquette. It can leave the reader angry and confused.


At the very least, start your conversation with "Hi there" or "Hello, got a second?" and await a reply. Of course there are exceptions - if you are being mugged or your house is on fire, it's acceptable to start the conversation with "Help me, my house is on fire."


That said, unless you have a very good reason to want to use IM when your house is on fire, it's usually better just to leave. Remember to delete all your secret files first, as forensic science is amazingly good these days.



Pausing During a Conversation


An instant messenger conversation is still a conversation. If you are talking to someone face-to-face, you rarely simply stop replying for ten minutes and stare off into space.


If your are going to take a break from the conversation, then say so. Type "I'll be right back", or "BRB". Don't leave your chattee hanging on, not knowing if they have offended you, or if you have fallen asleep, or if you have just wandered off to go to the bank, or to run from your burning house.


Similarly, if you are using instant messenger application in your office, and your manager walks in, it can be tempting just to close the chat window immediately. This is a mistake. After your manager's quick question turns into a 15 minute discussion on why you are failing to meet all your deadlines, and by the way, what's that smell? your IM window might still be displaying messages. Often these could be harmless like "Hello, are you still there?" or "Are you being mugged?", but they might also be "Hey, did I mention that I saw your manager coming out of a strip club?" or worse. So it's important you take the time to frantically type "BRB" or "MH" (Manager Here) so your friend will refrain from continuing to chat. If you can't trust your friend not to chat on regardless, sign-out from IM at once. If they are really your friend, they will assume your are being burnt alive and/or mugged and will send help immediately. This is a good way to test if your friends really are your friends, or they are just saying they are so they can come and play with your new XBox.


Here's something else everyone hates: the message at the bottom of the IM window that informs you that someone is typing a reply going on for maybe 10 minutes. It's simply not possible to type for 10 minutes in an IM window. It has a finite limit. Therefore the person is typing, then erasing, they typing again. What's that about? If you find yourself stuck as to what to say - use a smiley. So you've just been told your parent has died. That's what the crying smiley is for. Don't worry about composing an IM eulogy. Your girlfriend is breaking up with you, because "you never communicate". That's why we have the eye-rolling smiley. Get the idea?



Ending a Conversation


It's important to properly end an instant messenger conversation. Often replies will just get less and less frequent, until eventually you just switch off your computer and go home. However, this is unsatisfying and vague, and always leaves the possibility that your impending mugging will go unnoticed.


It's therefore a good idea to say "OK, well I've been chatting for 8 hours straight now, I'd better head home before the traffic gets bad" or "Well, I have to go now, there's a man pointing a gun at me".



Status Rules



When my status is set to Online, you may talk to me. I'll probably answer. Don't assume that I'm going to give you 100% of my attention though. I might be talking to someone else, or trying to work, or watching TV, or using the laptop in the bathroom.


When my status is set to "away", that means I don't want you to start talking to me. Either I'm not here, and therefore I won't reply and you'll get all grumpy because you think I'm ignoring you, or else I am here but I've switched my status to "away" because I'm busy - probably busy to talking to someone else I like a lot better than you. In fact, we're probably talking ABOUT you, so you can see how it would be rude if you started talking too.


When my status is set to "away", I can certainly choose to talk to you. That way I'm letting you know that you are important to me - I'm choosing to talk to you and everyone else just has to wait.


A "busy" status means "Look at me! I've a job! Rather than just not use IM, I'm choosing to tell everyone I'm so busy that I can't talk to you!". The "On the phone" status means much the same thing, but also you have opposable thumbs and are capable of picking up and holding a telephone handset.


The "Out To Lunch" status is a mysterious one. I believe it is intended to give the impression you would like to chat, but you have been whisked off to a fabulous restaurant by an immensely rich acquaintance, who will be plying you with quails' eggs and caviar. The reality of course, is that you're sitting at your desk dribbling cheese from your slice of pizza all over your keyboard as you look on eBay for a matching stuffed cat for the one that is currently sitting in your office and is starting to smell on hot days.


Finally we have "Appear offline", surely everyone's favourite status. Not least because with the latest versions of the Instant Messenger client, you can choose to sign in as "offline". This is akin to arriving at a party wearing a Harry Potter cloak of invisibility, thus allowing you to check as to who else is online and may decide to pounce on you and ask technical questions or quiz you on exactly what the postcard from the health clinic is referring to.


Of course, the risk is that everyone you know has also set their status to "appear offline", and so everyone is playing a kind of game of chicken to see who will change their status and appear first.





Saving IM conversations is wrong. There is no good reason to save an IM conversation. Unless the other person is drunk. Then it's not only wrong, but funny.





I hope these suggestions were helpful, and you continue to enjoy your use of Instant Messenger.