Instant (Mixed) Messaging: How to Keep Online Chats from Becoming Personal Spats

Instant messaging is a quick and convenient way to chat, but a lot can be lost in translation.

This month’s article was inspired by a conversation between two women I overheard as I was leaving work one day. One woman, who seemed more than a little upset, was saying to the other, “Your status says you’re online, and then when I try to chat with you and say hello, you don’t say a *#$%[email protected]* thing to me!!!”

My first reaction to this woman was, “Whoa, lady! Calm down!” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that instant messaging, a form of communication that cuts out all audio and visual cues, leaves plenty of room for chat users to misinterpret another person’s response (or lack of response).

Instant messaging can allow for some hurt feelings, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The biggest problem with misunderstandings in online chats may be that some folks are taking the concept of “instant message” too literally… and probably too personally. Here are a few dos and don’ts that may help you prevent a nasty confrontation like the one I heard the other day:

Don’t Sweat the Silence

The idea that you can instantly communicate with another friend via Facebook, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), Google Chat, or Skype doesn’t necessarily mean that friend will automatically be available to you. Despite all the ways technology has made us instantly connected to each other, people (hopefully) still have lives to live and things to do other than spend all day subjecting themselves to the demands of their friends and acquaintances.

Furthermore, while people are spending more and more time online, that doesn’t mean they’re always able to answer an instant message. If someone is online to work, study, or play a computer game, they will probably ignore or not be able to see a chat window when it pops up. Many people also remain online even when they’re not home and therefore unable to answer an instant message.

Whatever the reason is for someone not answering your IM, just don’t take it personally. And if it’s really urgent that you talk to them, pick up a phone.

Do Post an Away Message

You can avoid accidentally offending online friends by posting a status update or away message when you’re unable or unwilling to answer IMs. This is easier to do with some instant messaging services than with others. Google Chat, Skype, and most other IM platforms let you update your status, so even if you’re online you can let people know you’re working or playing and not chatting.

AIM allows you to create and save customized away messages and even have some ready-made for you like, “I am away from my computer,” and “I am playing a game that uses my entire computer screen.” And since AIM allows you to chat while your away message is posted, you actually have the option of answering some messages and ignoring others.

Facebook Chat is probably the trickiest IM service when it comes to politely ignoring messages because usually Facebook users’ status updates have nothing to do with their online availability. Luckily Facebook Chat and most other IM services also allow you to “go offline,” which makes your appear to your friends to be offline even though you’re actually still actively using the site. And if you organize your Facebook friends into groups, you can even appear offline to specific groups while remaining available to others.

Don’t Pounce on Your Prey

Remembering that your friends may be online to do other things than talk to you, it’s important not to be that person who waits for a buddy to hop online and immediately bombards them with IMs. If you do tend to take this approach, be aware that your friend may not be up for a lengthy chat; maybe he just wanted to check his inbox or post a few pictures before heading out the door. Plus, seeing a chat window pop up within seconds of logging on can give one the feeling of being stalked.

And speaking of creepy behavior, it probably should go without saying that you should never chat with someone under someone else’s name. I say it should go without saying because although this seems like common sense, I have encountered people who log on as a friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, or roommate in an attempt to deceive others into giving away private information or creating conflict. As immature as it sounds, adult human beings actually do this. So make sure that if you have any espionage-inclined friends or family members in your life that you keep your passwords secret and log off before leaving your computer unattended.

Do Keep It Short and Sweet

Because many people aren’t just hanging out online to chat with their friends, it helps to keep online conversations short and to the point. If you’re just popping by a friend’s profile to say hello and catch up, then do just that and be on your way. When an IM session full of small talk drags on forever, it can get a little awkward once you run out of things to talk about.

There are also a few topics that, in my opinion, shouldn’t be discussed online. You should never use IM to ask someone out or to break up with them, because in both of those scenarios that person will have every right to call you a coward. You should also save emotionally charged conversations for the phone, video chat, or (best of all) a face-to-face meeting; tone of voice, sarcasm, and nonverbal cues are all lost in written communication; emoticons only get you so far, and “yelling” by typing with the caps lock on can be just plain obnoxious. My suggestion is that if a casual chat turns into a heated discussion, log off and pick up the phone before you continue any further and risk misinterpreting each other.

Don't Leave Me Hanging

While online chatting does happen in real time, it’s much different than an in-person conversation in that the pace of the exchange is delayed, usually because Internet users are multitasking rather than focusing their attention on the discussion. Many times I’ve started chatting with someone, gotten busy working on something else, and then completely forgotten that I was in the middle of a conversation. I always feel bad when I come back to my computer and realize I’m left someone hanging for two and a half hours. Oops!

Some of my online buddies, on the other hand, are excellent at ending a chat session. One of my Facebook friends always takes the time to say goodbye, even if he has to hop offline quickly. A simple “good night” or “gotta run, talk to you soon” is all it takes to give someone a definite end to the conversation.

As always, remember that if someone does leave a conversation unfinished, it probably isn’t personal. Because IM is such an informal form of communication, it’s more widely accepted to follow less traditional conversing guidelines. But a good old-fashioned “hello” and “goodbye” never hurt!

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