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?
random_person: how are you?
random_person: what’s 10 x 3?
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?
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?
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. 🙂
Just don’t ask me if I’m there first.