Instant messaging etiquette

Over here in IBM-land we’re big users of instant messaging. The Sametime solution has a daily average concurrent connection statistic that is bigger than most companies and even some small nations… 170,000 people logged on.

Sametime business cardYesterday my frolleague Mark Holmes and I had a telephone conversation… imagine that. Yes, we do use the phone sometimes and actually many Sametime conversations consist of “hi, can I call you?”. This one started off with “can you talk?” which I responded to predictably with “yes, I’ve been able to since I was two”. Most amusing of course, and as we enjoyed the joke we took a temporary diversion onto the subject of instant messaging etiquette. I don’t recall IBM ever publishing guidelines on usage of instant messaging – maybe there is somewhere, but I pledged to have a quick dip into the world of the Interweb to see what advice was out there.

The first best practise I came across was entitled ‘knock before you enter’ and suggested that instant messaging conversations should start with “can you chat?” or “are you available?” – yes, let’s all be nice. So, first one I found and I 90% disagree with it… and actually I told some colleagues about this one earlier in the week. I suggested that people shouldn’t Sametime me with “hi Darren” and then wait for me to reply before they carry on – if you have a question, just get on with it. The main reason was that I was on a conference call for an hour – and was ignoring Sametime – twelve Sametime messages arrived and over half just said “hi” or “hi Darren”. The others I was able to deal with quickly, but for those who’d said “hi” I had to respond to say I was now available and then wait for them to type in the question… which causes delays.

Some other suggestions on that page are “be brief” and “watch what you write”. Not unlike e-mails then. And finally this one… “don’t use the instant messaging program to spy on your friends by going online under a secret screen name”. I think I’d put this one down as a reason to use an enterprise-grade real-time collaboration solution rather than the public networks.

Further down the search results I came across the hallowed pages of renowned blogger Stowe Boyd, who advises “never check whether a person has time to chat.. if he’s online and reachable, he’s all yours”. Yes, I agree. But by the time I reached “send large files without asking whether it’s okay… you know better than anyone what people need… don’t have any qualms about using up other people’s download bandwidth and hard drive space” I got the impression this wasn’t altogether serious, and looking back at the top of the page noticed that it was a tongue-in-cheek list lifted from How to Annoy People Using Instant Messaging.

The search ran out of steam quickly – loads of results but they all basically said the same obvious things. I think my favourite has to be “if you’re going to ask questions at least make some attempt to find the answers for yourself first”. Oh yes, oohhhh yes. But this also applies to e-mails or phone calls.

I’ll end with my pet peeves…

  1. Don’t start your instant message with “I know you’re busy but…”. Whether you acknowledge I’m busy or not, you’re still going to interupt me and ask a question, so let’s dispense with the false empathy. Get on with the issue.
  2. Someone asks a question and I say “hang on a minute, let me look for something” – so I leave switch to a browser or Notes and start looking, and then see the instant message window flashing because the other person has said something else. So now I break off from searching to go back to look at what they’ve said. And 99% of the time it’s “thanks”.

Despite venting a little anger, I love Sametime – you have to balance up the occasional interuptions with the incredible productivity benefits of being able to quickly reach people around the globe – they may be working from home, logged on via a mobile device or even out of hours. And of course, you can always go into Do Not Disturb mode.


  1. My number one
    Pet peeve with
    instant messaging is people who type
    before actually thinking
    about what they will say

    forcing me to wait
    for you to get to the point
    after you’ve diverted my attention
    from whatever it is I was doing in the first

  2. Hi Darren,

    Great subject. Here are a few others from IBMers and ex-IBMers I guess we were early adopters 🙂

    I did an interview with Stowe Boyd a few years ago that ended up with with Forbes creating an article and turning the advice into little cartoons.


    Shortly after my interview IBMer Ken Bisconti had an article published

    and IBMer Luis Suarez had an article with more hints

  3. Hi Darren, I agree that STetiquette is something that we all need to work. However, speaking personally, I’d prefer the “Hi, are you free to chat?” rather than the “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah” alternative.

    This is especially annoying if (a) I’m doing something else such as chatting to someone else in another ST window and (b) if I’m then trying to play catch up with the “blah blah blah” thread.

    I guess we could both be happy if we changed our status messages to read “Go on, start talking, I’m listening” for you and “Knock before entering” for me.

    Still, all approaches have merit 🙂 Perhaps we should limit each ST message to <=140 characters ?

  4. Actually Dave, the changing of the status messages is a good idea, I might try this over the next couple of weeks… although I do firmly believe that some people don’t take any notice of status or messages (like the person who last week accused me of ignoring them when my status was set to ‘In a meeting’ and the message said “Briefing a customer”).

  5. Among the techies where I work the common introductory chat is a simple “Ping” and the predictable response is, of course, a “Pong” if you’re available. If you’re not available or busy you can just wait to respond until you’re free. It’s sort of commonly understood that If I Ping you that you’ll eventually respond. It’s even entered into the common vocabulary and you regularly hear things like, “Ping me when you’re ready for lunch”.

  6. @jinksto Darren absolutely loves the phrase “Ping” in the context of Sametime. I can’t think why – Packet Internet Groper is such an appropriate phrase for social interaction via ST

    @darren At some point, it’s easier to just turn off ST, especially for those of you lucky enough to have it on the Crackberry. When certain of our frolleagues reply to me on Sametime WHILST THEY ARE DRIVING, I start to cry 🙂

  7. There are good times and bad times to login to Sametime on the ‘Berry. Good times… on the train, waiting at the airport. Bad times… while driving. Not because I’d be tempted to read and respond to Sametime messages while I’m driving (God forbid) but because people start a conversation and then you realise two hours later when you get home or stop at a Little Chef.

  8. One of the main things missing from standard installations of sametime – is a good set of extended emoticons. It seems that “business minded” designers or service owners have forgotten that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. For example in the context of Instant Messaging and etiquette – a quick “Sorry – busy right now” followed by say – a drooping flower, does takes the edge off the negative. Without that emoticon the message could so easily be taken the wrong way. Of course there is the busy status – but sometimes we find ourselves busy before we’re realised we should change our status message. If such an emoticon is used repeatedly in the same context with co-workers then in time – only the emoticon need be sent. In the same manner I use just “on (T)” to quickly let a colleague chasing me that I’m on the phone – and can do this without interrupting the flow of my conversation.

  9. Chris, I’ll feed this back to Product Management. I would guess that there’s copyright issues over images, so a set would have to be commissioned. Development efforts of any kind have budgets which are weighed up and prioritised… even humble sets of pictures.

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