The Baffling World of IM and Skype Ettiquette

I’m a reluctant IM user. Because my friends and clients use the medium, I’ve come to accept it as a necessary evil. I’m generally not keen on it, because its a pretty limited form of communication and often it can often be a distracting nuisance. Additionally, it seems to foster small talk, at which I suck.

I actually don’t mind the chat functionality when I want to talk–it’s indicating my interest in chatting which frustrates and baffles me.

Let me take a left turn for a minute, and describe a policy which Workspace, Vancouver’s shared office space, recently implemented. They’ve got little UN flags which you use to indicate whether you’re available to chat. From a Now Public article:

At the front of the space, overlooking a brilliant scene of Vancouver’s north shore mountains covered with the icing sugar of an overnight snowstorm, a bunch of red and green flags. “If you are open to networking you put a green flag out,” he said. Red means you’re on a VOIP call with angry investors, your PowerPoint is overdue, your blood-sugar level has put you out of the range of civility.

I remarked that you really only need the red flag–the green one just seems superfluous and overly eager. According to one Workspace user, the flags are hardly ever used.

The ‘flags’ in Skype are similarly limited. Here’s the reality of how I want to indicate my availability:

  • I’m almost always available to talk to clients.
  • I’m sometimes available to talk to friends. And, frankly, some more than others.
  • I’m rarely, if ever, available to talk to strangers–people’s whose names I don’t recognize.

Unfortunately, those variables–almost always, sometimes, rarely–change on a daily basis with my busyness and mood. In short, I want to be sometimes available to some people some of the time, but I don’t want to have to micromanage Skype’s availability settings. Those settings are inadequate for this kind of granularity, but I don’t think it’s a technology problem anyway.

I’ve considered, for example, adding a note saying “Work only please” or something like that, but that’s actually inaccurate. I do, on occasion, want to chat over IM with my friends or colleagues on non-work matters.

When someone calls me on the phone, we instantly exchange a lot of information about the urgency of the call. The originating number, background noise, vocal tone and speed help us to deduce whether someone’s calling to chat or to rapidly discuss something.

There are no, or few such indicators in Skype. When someone pings me on IM and I’m too busy to talk, I have two unsavoury options: ignore them, or explain to them why I can’t talk. Because of the medium, often the latter case takes way too long.

In short, I fear I’m being rude to a bunch of people over IM by ignoring them, or being overly terse. When I pig somebody on IM, I try to open with “got a second?” I hope that gives them the out to say “nope”.

Am I over-thinking this? Am I just not down with those durned kids’ communcations medium?


  1. I think your solution to first ask “got a sec” is not only efficient, but polite. The other thing to remember is that people using IM regularly (from my experience anyway) have naturally developed a thicker skin when it comes to “terse” responses. In other words, we’ve learned not to take “get back to you”, “busy right now” or “talk later” personally. It’s just like having a “closed door” at the office.

    Here is my approach: I never, ever share my IM account with clients. Only my co-workers, close friends and family get my IM coordinates. That’s because people make judgments about your online habits, like when you come on and off, how often you chat, etc., and I don’t want clients to think they can contact me casually with small talk, jokes, etc when I’m working. IM is supposed to make our lives easier, not more complex. Limiting my IM contact list to a small group keeps me calmer. Then again, my snobbish attitude on this could be because I’m a writer, and I hate being interrupted when I’m bearing down on a deadline.

  2. I like the idea of the flags. Working in an open concept office, it would be useful if we could adopt something along these lines. Red means “I’m on deadline, talk to me/talk loud at your own peril”.

    Though, on second thought, I probably would go through a lot of red flags, just to avoid being dragged into the useless discussions about the next office pot luck.

  3. I like other software (like iChat, Adium, etc.) that lets you set a custom message, like the one I have on right now, “Recovering from Surgery – IM Judiciously.” 🙂 More pointedly, those messages can be helpful — I’ve seen others saying “On Deadline – Urgent IMs Only” and so on. Maybe not quite the granularity you want.

    But having been on IM since the early ICQ days, I’m also quite comfortable having someone not respond if I ping them, or to say “Sorry can’t chat,” or whatever. I don’t consider it rude — what I do think is rude are people who insist on continuing an IM chat when you’ve made it clear you’re not in the mood for it.

  4. Quite simply, my attention span is good on some days, not so good on others. I can be one of those chatters that walks away in the middle of a conversation in the event that something else comes up or I see something sparkly.

    At the same time, I’m not great at saying what I want effectively over IM. Still, that doesn’t help when your family who uses IM as a lifeline to you from a 1000+ miles away. If you tell mom that you’re busy after not talking to her for a while, then *that* is considered quite rude.

  5. On the flip side of this: High Road (where I work) uses IM constantly. I love it AND I have a lot of my client and media contacts on my buddy list. Since Microsoft is one of our clients we’re all on Windows Live at work and the online status settings help me with the “chit chat” problem (other IM programs have these too, this is just the one I’m most familiar with). I’ve found that people tend to respect the “busy” icon and not bother trying to get me when it’s up. We have offices in different cities which contributes to the IM use quite a bit—I find it much faster to IM a colleague in Montreal rather than call her if all I want is to find out the circulation of a pub, date of an event etc. Having clients on the contact list works well for me because if I really need to chase down someone for an urgent interview IM can be the difference between having to wait for an hour, until their meeting ends and they’re near their phone, or hearing back right away on when they’re free. The trick for me has been having two different IM accounts—one for my friends and family and one for colleagues, journalists and clients. But my experience may be different than a lot of others’ because all of my clients are in the tech industry and tend to be IM addicts too.

  6. I’m also a reluctant IMer, for the same reasons you describe. I’ve just accepted the fact that ignoring people is the way to go, when you aren’t free at the moment. Likewise, I have no problem if people do the same to me. Viewed from other interaction norms it seems kind of harsh, but IM is different.

  7. I have to agree with Dustin. I ignore messages when I can’t be bothered and don’t take offense if someone takes 30 minutes or more to respond to a message from me. I have to say, though, that I was shocked when I started a new job last fall and within the first week my boss asked me to set up an IM account. Is this really how we communicate these days?

  8. (replying to a dead blog)
    I have this problem also:

    * I’m almost always available to talk to clients.
    * I’m sometimes available to talk to friends. And, frankly, some more than others.
    * I’m rarely, if ever, available to talk to strangers–people’s whose names I don’t recognize.

    what i do is use a program that can run multiple IM profiles at the same time and use a different IM profile for work and play etc – it is an obfuscated method i agree but it works – i think there are a few IM programs that can work like this – trinity, pidgen etc etc

    I group contacts and choose how i wish to appear to that group

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