22 May 2023

Chat Etiquette

At work last week on our intercompany daily update, a post was made discussing chat courtesy. The original message was to convey that instead of sending a greeting and waiting for a response, send with the greeting a question. So, instead of this:

Joe: Hello.
Frank: ...?
Joe: How do I do this?
Frank: This is is how....

This is preferred:

Joe: Good morning, Frank. How do I do this?
Frank: This is how....

The post received a load of responses. Many initially applauded the idea calling the first behavior a pet peeve. Many others countered with the opposite approach of perhaps a greeting and then asking if now is a good time for a question.

I happen to agree solely with the author's approach of asking the question along with the greeting. But I noticed that the answers did not take other factors into consideration. I believe these other factors are these:

  • Assumed/understood behaviors
  • Audience
  • Efficiency

There are assumed behaviors of how the technology works. Chat or messaging is not equivalent to a phone call. Phone calls take more or complete attention to engage. Messaging was not designed to do that but to fill the gap of not interrupting someone's flow of work to get a response.

Messaging is not email, which has come to represent a document to be read and answered with a bit more time and attention put into it at a more convenient time. There is an implied delay with email in this culture almost to the point of considering it the same as snail mail.

Chat is a hybrid of these two: A more direct interaction than email without the complete interruption of a phone call (or video call). It's designed to be an efficient means of communicating.

The approach of the latter group in the above response pool, this is how they would prefer the messaging engagement to go:

Joe: Good morning, Frank. Do you have a moment for a question?
Frank: Sure.
Joe: How do I do this?

In this case, the question to ask a question is not only inefficient but also introduces the phone-call style interruption. Frank now has to take extra moments just to respond to the question to ask a question. But even when a question is posted in chat, there is assumed sometimes that there can be a delay.

Some of the responses included "ideas" of having a status of "unavailable," something which our messaging tool clearly has as a status indicator including a do not disturb option with even a place for text, e.g. "Busy until noon." Adding more to it would be redundant. I can also see when people are in meetings and not only that but when they are also presenting. The technology helps when the uncertainty of understanding of immediacy isn't obvious.

I think the audience also factors into this. With my team and more frequent conversation colleagues, I have no problem asking them messages even without a greeting. I would take a different approach with people I have never met or only have engaged a few times. Maybe a long time since the last interaction requires a greeting to renew the connection. There are different approaches to different people. I think the less familiar you are with the colleague, the more pleasantries.

Efficiency is the biggest factor as I see chat. If I can know what you want as soon as I see your message, the quicker I can respond. More than that, I'm less interrupted and definitely less derailed. There are some who just ping me with a greeting:

Joe: Hello.

I'm in the zone. My brain is deep into some logic and needs to stay on track. Waiting for a response from me now requires my full attention. (Phone call style interrupting in effect.)

Me: Yes?

I switch back to my train of thought to not lose it. Anywhere from a few second to a few minutes later comes the actual question. Now comes my second derailment...and aggravation mainly because it could have happened like this:

Joe: Hey, what's the name of the Python library we decided to use for the project?
Me: pandas

That entire engagement took at most 10 seconds to process and answer. Maximum efficiency achieved! I'm still in the zone. And if I choose to engage more on the subject, I can.

The first approach might seem kind, but here is what you are really communicating to me:

Joe: Hello. [I am more important than what you are doing so I need your full attention to me so I can ask even the simplest of questions.]
Me: Yes? [If you had asked the question, we'd already be done with this. You are now being selfish.]

I get that different people need more interaction and this one-line exchange seem rude. So, I think the best way to approach this is this way: When you engage me in messaging, be efficient. Ask the question without having me respond or pull it out of you. It might feel rude, but it won't be. It will be efficient!