How to Chat Online Without Being a Jerk

Instant messaging is kind of a no-man's-land where etiquette is concerned, inhabited by tweens and people who type like them. And yet most of us must use it — often even for work. Let's take a look at how we can do so in a less dickish fashion.

Know your audience.

I solicited a number of IM pet peeves for today's column, and one big one was the content-free IM that says "hey, whats up." Says Dodai, "I'm not just hanging out online waiting for someone to talk to me" — if you're going to IM her, you'd better have something to say. But of course, some people are hanging out online waiting for you to talk to them. I was going to say many of them are high-schoolers, but teenagers these days are probably beaming their messages directly into each other's brains. And I'd be lying if I claimed never to have killed an hour in a GChat about nothing. Really, the key is to know who you're messaging — are you talking to someone who enjoys shooting the shit and will happily respond to your "hey wassup" with "nothin, whatsup w you? makin a sandwich"? Or is your correspondent someone who wants you to get to the point and send that cat video already? When in doubt, assume the latter. Then if your buddy starts being all "im bored" at you, you'll know you're safe to talk to them about your tea dilemmas and how you hate that it's only Tuesday.

Another important audience consideration is style. I talked to web pioneer and digital strategist Aliza Sherman of Tech With Aliza, who points out that in general, IM is pretty informal, even if you're at work. But that doesn't mean there are no standards. She says,

When using IM for business within a company, you can probably use abbreviations, acronyms, and informal language. However, when in doubt, check with your boss. Of course, if you are the boss, you can set the tone and should think about writing up some online communications guidelines including appropriate times and ways to IM.

When using IM for outside business conversations, err on the side of formalities. Watch your spelling, hold off on the slang, write in complete sentences. Then follow the lead of the other person. If they are more relaxed, you can loosen up a bit.

Just click the link already.

Sam Biddle of Gizmodo (where they know a lot about instant-messaging) told me,

I think my biggest IM pet peeve is when I send someone a link and they immediately reply "What is this?" If you want to know, click the link. JUST CLICK THE LINK AND FIND OUT. At least pretend to click the link and reply "haha." Everyone should click everyone's links and laugh at everyone's jokes, always.

If you're actually too busy to click the link, just be like "gahh slammed right now, will look later." But don't make your friend explain "it's a python eating a hippo and then exploding." He'll just feel silly.

Don't be "half-there."

Jenna says her least favorite thing about IM is "the insecurity of not knowing whether someone is actually there — or there-there, or kind of there, or around but not actually there. [...] When I have a dozen replies and the person I'm talking to is more circumspect/entirely silent I start to feel bad, like I'm bothering them. But probably they're just not there-there!"

It's not so bad when you message someone a few times and they don't respond at all — they probably left their IM open while they went to the store. Much worse is the "half-there," where the person responds just enough to let you know they're online, but not enough to seem actually engaged in the conversation. This is the IM equivalent of leading someone on, and it's incredibly stressful — says Jenna, "you are emotionally vulnerable to a disinterested party." To keep your friends from landing in this painful state, just be clear about your status. If you're too busy to talk, say so. Or ...

Use an informative away message.

Sometimes you have to be online for work, but you don't really have time for personal conversations — in this situations, a simple "work only pls" lets your friends know you're busy. Or maybe you're cleaning your house but your AIM is open — "in and out" will tell them why you're only responding once an hour. Both are more effective than the generic "away." Because they're specific, your friends are more likely to pay attention. And they also explain your half-thereness, rather than keeping people guessing.

Respect people's away messages.

This is the other side of the coin. Look, I know the meaning of the away message has degraded drastically over time. Says Sam,

The away message has lost all meaning. We're all at our computers at all times, and we all know it. I go with the red "busy" status on gchat because I think it lends some cachet, but most of the time I will reply to your IMs within seconds because I'm so desperate for attention.

I'm guilty of this too — and let's be honest, if your message just says "away," that could mean anything. But if someone says "work only pls," don't send cat videos (unless that's your job, like say if you're me). And if their message reads "on phone brb," don't send them a million pestering IMs. A simple "hey let's chat when you're done" will suffice.

Don't disappear.

Gizmodo's Brent Rose did a whole guide on IM etiquette last year, and this is one of my favorite tips:

Abruptly logging off in the middle of a conversation is kind of a dick move. It's the electronic equivalent of getting up and walking out of a lunch while someone is mid-sentence. IM Land is not as formal as the real world and there's no need for long goodbyes, but a simple, "Crap! Gotta run!" with an optional "Catch you soon!" goes a long way, and it takes all of two seconds. The possible exception to this rule is if the conversation has already kind of petered out on its own say five or ten minutes ago. If you've both moved on already, don't worry about it.

But if you haven't, a quick "gtg" is enough to keep the other person from being all sad and lonely at the other end of the interweb. Similarly, if you're stepping out for a minute, a quick "brb" will keep your correspondent from getting confused. Says Brent, "BRB is the least annoying instant message specific abbreviation there is. It is not only allowable, it is encouraged."

Be clear.

As Brent notes, "Sarcasm does not come across well in instant messages." Nor does nuance. Over IM, you just have to explain things a little more clearly than you would in person. Instead of "eh," say, "I'm not feeling well, I don't think I should go bowling." Also, asking more pointed questions can lead to better IM results. So instead of "im confused," say, "how are you going to get all those cats in the suitcase?" A little explanation will go a long way towards forestalling misunderstanding.

If you're invisible, you're an asshole.

Says Sam,

IM invisibility is the greatest internet cowardice. It's great, because you have all of the opportunity of IMing with none of the liability of annoying or unwanted messaging, but imagine a world in which everyone indulged? We'd all be invisible, and the whole thing would be ruined. It's wrong and selfish, unless there's someone you really don't want to talk to, in which case, go hide. But feel guilty while you're doing it.

Look, we've all ghosted on IM a time or two. But just know that you're being kind of a jerk, and feel appropriately bad about it. Unless you're just on for work — in this case, says Sherman, being invisible can be a good alternative to an away message.

Exercise caution.

IMs fly by so quickly, it can seem like what you say just disappears into the ether. But often, Sherman reminded me, this isn't true. She says,

Always watch what you say in IM or chat. Just like with email, it can be archived, copied and distributed. What you publish online — even in what seems like an informal or private setting — is fair game and no longer really private after you hit the Send button.

Basically, don't say anything over IM that you wouldn't want saved on someone's computer somewhere. This is not the medium for planning covert spy missions. It is, however, a good medium for lots of other things, from sending your coworkers links to keeping in touch with your friends in faraway places. IM gets a lot of shit, but it's very useful — as long as you keep a few basic tips in mind.

Tech With Aliza [Official Site]
Gizmodo's Guide to IM Etiquette [Gizmodo]

Image via Jiri Vaclavek/Shutterstock.com