Instant messaging etiquette: Five simple rules

IM is huge at work and at play--and there are faux pas to avoid in both spheres.

The popularity of instant messaging has grown exponentially in the past decade, but the communication platform's immediacy presents users with endless opportunities to come off the wrong way. These tips will help you stay in the good graces of your IM buddies.

Respect limits in IM. Not everyone can interrupt their day for a 30-minute impromptu chat session with you. Try to be mindful of the time you are spending on an instant messaging session--especially during office hours, when excessive IM dalliance can land a person in trouble at work.

Avoid crosstalk. It's common for IM sessions with a single contact to split into two or more simultaneous conversations, since thoughts arrive faster than fingers can type them. Things get tricky when one side writes "I hate that" and it isn't clear what they're referring to--potentially offending the other participant. If a session starts getting unduly complicated, table one discussion and return to it later.

Be cautious when IMing strangers. Even if an IM account is made public, IM to it more cautiously than you would send an e-mail to an e-mail address. Like a phone call out of the blue, IM operates in real time and puts the recipient on the spot. If you do IM a stranger, introduce yourself and explain the point of your contact in your first message. Don't be offended if the recipient ignores you. If that happens, try sending an e-mail message instead.

Respect IM status updates. If someone takes the trouble to set their IM client to "away" or "BRB," respect that status notification and send your message later, unless the situation is so urgent that you need the recipient to see the message the minute they return. Instant message windows sent and left open on the recipient's screen while the person is away can cause them embarrassment, too.

Multiple IM sessions are okay. It can be awkward to carry on multiple IM sessions with different people at the same time, but if you manage to keep the conversations straight--and you're competent enough to type in the right window--it's no more rude than playing several chess games simultaneously.

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Christopher Null

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