Chat etiquette and assumptions

Feb 20, 2020

Have you ever broken into an argument via chat with someone only to easily solve it the moment you met in person? Or have you grown anxious when receiving a "seen" for a message you considered important? You're not alone.

I've talked about chat with several people over the past few months. By chat I mean  the textual messaging form, be it mobile or desktop. As an incredibly common behavior, I fear we take it for granted without fully understanding it. I've spent plenty of time thinking about it, and analyzing my own behavior as well as that of others.

There's some valuable insight to be gained by doing such. The main thing you learn is that you cannot assume ill intent over chat. Thus, I hope you find the following tips useful.

Chat is slower than you think

Chat feels fast, especially when compared to many other forms of communication we participate in. Emails, lectures, monologues, posts on public forums (blogs and facebook comments included here). Yet it is obviously not as fast as speech. As I noticed this, I realized my brain tends to do several other things during chat and therefore it never has my full attention. It edits more often, but it also goes on tangents and returns.

Particularly, I've sometimes believed I typed something and later realized it was missing. Not everything that goes through your mind makes it to the other side, and as you don't hear your conversation you can make mistakes. Your mental content is more dense than the chat, and not everything you think of was said (by any of the two parties). And that's OK.

Know that the speed difference can always alter the intended message, possibly in subtle ways. Don't expect a single line of text to be precise. Clarify if needed.

Chat doesn't share remote context

Which of the following have you done while chatting?

  • Watching a movie
  • Driving (and chatting at a stop light... let's keep this legal)
  • Talking with other people
  • Partying
  • Working

The list goes on and on... I've no idea what the other person is doing, or how that may influence its state of mind. I don't know if they are relaxed, stressed, or just busy and doing other things. I don't know if their internet cuts out, or suddenly have to enter a meeting.

Silence over chat is not an answer. A "seen" can often mean the person just cleared a notification accidentally and is not always an intentional move.

Not everyone's online

I'm a programmer. I spend a lot of time interacting with programmers and they share a common feature. They are very close to their computers and their phones. This feature is present among a large part of the population and several people will in fact follow the trend and answer within 15 minutes. Lately, I've been getting compliments for actually answering quickly, even though up to a few years ago I've felt comparably fast with most of my peers (almost everyone was a student, or a programmer).

There are plenty of exceptions! Not everyone's a tech nerd. I've learned to never expect people to answer quickly. If I sent you a chat I can usually wait for your response. And if you take your time, don't apologize for being slow, there's nothing you've done wrong.

Non-verbal cues are absent

You might have noticed sarcasm is hard to do in textual form. I've certainly offended people accidentally at times trying that. Although I work on my language, I've learned to not fear explicitly stating "that was a joke" right after typing something that could be interpreted wrong. 90% of the contextual information regarding your attitude is just not there, not available to the other person.

More importantly, you can't be sure if the other person was serious or not at times. If the message was offending, if you feel the other person misunderstands you always take a moment to think: "could this be an unfortunate joke?" More often than not it is, and there's no reason to feel attacked.

If you feel it was important, if going beyond the joke matters to you, make a mental note of it and dive into the topic when you meet face to face. You'll find the lack of nuance available in chat may predispose you to overthink and get much angrier than when having the same conversation live with the same person. Remember that chat is also slow and not all thoughts you are experiencing are part of the actual conversation.

Group chats are wastelands

No one reads things there, even if they are important. They are good ways to get your message across to about half the group, but always assume the other half is busy. They are useful, but as I'm making use of them more and more I learn they are not 100% robust.

Also, people will often avoid stating their opinion if they don't care very much about it. If no one seems to reply then flipping a coin is just as good for making a decision.

Bottom line

Most people aren't intrinsically jerks, they're not ignoring you on purpose, and they have real lives besides their phones. If you assume that the default stance of chat is that it is a lightweight form of conversation, every time, even when the topic at hand appears very important to you there's a good chance you'll avoid arguments none of you actually cared about.

Also, if it's urgent, call the damn person!