IM Etiquette

Instant message services have really changed the way I work. It allows me to have quick ‘casual’ conversations with people all over the place. This is really helpful in a large company when you’re working with people in different buildings and locations. It helps businesses work quickly and keeps me in touch with friends as well.

It can also be a tremendous waste of time.

Because you have no sense of what the other person is doing, it’s really easy to distract them with instant messages, to the point of zero productivity.

I’ve been meaning to write a instant messaging etiquiette guide for a long time. I’m sure not everyone will agree with these, but these are what I would prefer when chatting over instant messenger.

1. Just say what you want.
The first time you talk to someone, just like in real life, it’s courteous to introduce yourself before you start talking. But after that, just say what you want.

Here’s an example:

random_person: you there?
me: yup
random_person: how are you?
me: fine
random_person: what’s 10 x 3?
me: 30
random_person: thanks!

This conversation probably took 2 minutes to complete. Two minutes may not seem like much, but several times a day and with multiple people (sometimes simultaneously) can make it really hard to get things done.

As the recipient of the first message, you have two options – stare at the messenger window for two minutes while you wait for the other person to slowly peck out their message, or switch back to whatever you were doing while you wait.

In this example, if I were to switch back and forth, I would have been asked to switch four times. In computer terms, we call this context switching. It allows machines to run many applications effectively at once. Context switching is very expensive. It requires you to store (remember) and retrieve (recall) what you were doing in the previous context and this times and resources (energy). I have to try to remember what 10 things I was in the middle of doing before.

Here’s a much more efficient example:

random_person: what’s 10 x 3?
me: 30

Two context switches and 10 seconds.

If you send me a message with “you there?” or if you’re lazy “yt?”, I’m not going to respond to you even if I am there. Sorry, this just drives me crazy.

2. Use fewer, longer messages.
Another way to reduce context switching is to just use fewer, longer messages. This is what I tend to do. There’s little that’s more annoying than a barrage of “bo bee boops”.

random_person: hey there how are you? what’s 10 x 3?
me: 30
random_person: thanks!

Fewer context switches and less time.

3. Skip the acknowledgements
I really don’t need to be thanked for every message I respond to. Instead of typing pleasantries to me, give me the courtesy of saving my time and a context switch. “Ok” (or just “k” for the lazy) is even more annoying as it doesn’t even convey any useful information. It just makes my taskbar icon blink.

4. Know when another method of communication is better.
IM is good for rapid, time-critical communications, but it’s not good for everything. Longer messages or things that need to be communicated to multiple people are better via email. Sensitive or complicated topics are best face-to-face or over the phone. Just because IM is easy for you doesn’t mean that it’s the best use of everyone’s time.

Arguments are even worse – IM conversation just has too much latency. You end up arguing the same thing over and over again. Humans tend to assume the worst when there are no physical clues for conversation and that can start arguments in themselves. Emoticons help, but are easily overused and become annoying in their own right.

5. Know when to turn IM off.
Sometimes, it’s just best to turn off your IM program. Maybe you just have a lot to do or you’re in a bad mood. Or maybe you’re giving a presentation. There’s nothing worse than to have your buddy’s IM window pop up right in the middle of a powerpoint slide. In that respect, it’s probably a good idea to consider that possibility before you send someone else a message. 🙂

So those are my selfish, borderline antisocial rules for efficient and courteous IM conversation. If you want, go ahead, tell me I’m wrong:

Just don’t ask me if I’m there first.


  1. Chad3814: hi
    bowtah: hi
    Chad3814: so, uhh
    Chad3814: I agree
    Chad3814: completely
    Chad3814: with you
    bowtah: thanks
    Chad3814: especially
    Chad3814: with
    Chad3814: people
    Chad3814: that
    Chad3814: only
    Chad3814: send
    bowath: one line at a time, I get it
    Chad3814: yeah
    Chad3814: see ya

  2. You are spot on with the “you there?” That infuriates me every time. Sometimes people say “you there?” then follow up with an immediate question. So what’s the point of the first message?

  3. I’m not sure why Robin get’s mad. If she is not there but there and care not to respond because the person did not wait for her response, then just ignore the IM. real simple.

  4. I think that asking if a person has a minute to speak is not only polite but gives them the opportunity to finish something they have started and avoid ‘context switching’ or allows them to decide if they really do want to speak with you at that time. My typical business opening is ‘good (morning/afternoon/evening), do you have a minute to answer a question about (subject)? This allows them to know what I want them for and gives respect for something they may be involved in already.

  5. I might suggest a little IM etiquette that would eliminate the need for the “you there” ‘ping’. Set your active session timeout to 1 or 2 minutes. The default for the program my company uses is 20 minutes. Since not many people change that, at least in my office, many an IM has been sent seeking an immediate response to, “What’s 10 x 3?” only to get a response 2 hours later – taking the “instant” right out of IM. 2 hours later? Yes, because the recipient went to a meeting and then lunch, never changing their active status, and I sent a message 18 minutes after they walked away – still 2 minutes before their status automatically changed.

    The (work-around) solution has become to ‘ping’ intended recipients with a greeting first. If there’s no immediate response then we will seek answers from someone else or, heaven forbid, look up the answer ourselves. But if we were to use the IM tool optimally (i.e. change the timeout for active sessions) we could reduce the incidents of context switching.

    How about the person has their IM always set to inactive? They get so many IMs that they don’t want to receive any, but they want to retain the right to send them. I’ve learned that I can send a message to someone in my office even when they’re set to inactive (which is ALWAYS) – in fact, I’ve learned I am one of the few people EXPECTED to IM this person – and this person responds instantly.

    Can somebody please teach users about blocking? Our program is set up to block all users except those on an allowed list, a kind of opt-in. Other programs block only those users designated as blocked, an opt-out if you will. Either way, set correctly you are again using the IM tool optimally. Just my 2c.

  6. Whenever someone IMs me with “you there?” I usually say “no”. However, since the light may be green, I think it is courteous to pop in asking a question if they are available to either IM or talk on the phone. People are busy. IM can be rude.

  7. It really annoys me when someone asks you a question and before you respond they ask another and another and another…it looks something like this:
    questioner: did you get the important email
    questioner: are you going?
    questioner: I’m going, but i’ll be late
    In the meantime, I still haven’t responded to the first question, because everytime I try to type I have to click in the box again due to the fact that they keep pinging me.

  8. “You there” has its own issues. You may be busy and wish to talk later or you may be making a Presentation 🙂 You may also have not your idle time to the lowest possible value.

    In other words the infamous “yt” seems to be a way of seeking green light before starting with the conversation. Ofcourse, if you do happen to be at your desk and can spare the time for Im more often than not, then “yt” will get onto your nerves. So should we say dumb ppl who dont know when to lgoff/stay invisble/set idle times pay the price?

  9. YIM has this interesting feature of ‘don’t turn into idle after infinite time’ so it looks like you’re online for approximately 24 hours daily (like it is now). So, imagine if someone were looking for an answer from you for the following question:
    ‘How does Sirius compare with Worldspace radios’
    and don’t get a response for the next few hours (because you’d have gone home, left the PC switched on & YIM logged in), the other person is going to wonder if this question needs so much of a deep-rooted thinking 🙂
    At these times, ‘yt’ surely makes life simpler for the keyboard 😉

  10. “yt?” is very annoying to me. If my status is green, consider me “there”/available, and I’ll respond asap. Please, just ask the question. If I don’t respond in an appropriate amount of time to your question, then I may have stepped out for a few minutes and should return shortly.

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