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Why I Didn’t Respond to Your Instant Message

  • I didn’t actually get it (unlike email, most IM systems have no delivery confirmation, and client/server sync issues are unfortunately quite common).
  • You have a history of sending me and my team annoying queries that are a waste of our time, so I’m going to pretend the above happened and hope you figure out the “solution” on your own before messaging me a second time.
  • You sent the message hours ago, when I wasn’t even online, and it was just now delivered from offline mode. If I wasn’t online to begin with, I obviously could not respond to an “instant” message, so why didn’t you just send an email?
  • I’m at work, and you sent me a hyperlink that is obviously frivolous (anything with youtube.com in the URL, for example). I typically don’t have time to look at these, let alone reply with my “thoughts” on them.

Now that the cranky rant is over, I’ll try to actually be helpful. Here are some handy-dandy tips on Giving Good IM in a Workplace Environment:

  1. Be specific: Context is valuable. Bad: “hey did u see http://ambiguousurl.com/72d7a8f?” Good: “Hey, have you seen Bob Blowhard’s latest blog post on our product? (http://ambiguousurl.com/72d7a8f). If not, you should check it out, it has some good commentary on the XYZ feature!”
  2. Get to the point: If you are IM’ing because have something to ask, just ask. Don’t make “small talk” first, I’m going to be spending he entire time wondering what you’re working up to anyhow.
  3. Exercise good timing: If my status message says “In a meeting,” then a message like “What time are you getting out?” may be appropriate. “What are your detailed thoughts on the implications of yesterday’s reorg on our marketplace strategy for Q3?” is not.
  4. No reply necessary: Very uncommon, but people will love you if you do this. If you’re just passing on a piece of information and don’t need confirmation, let someone know they don’t need to reply, and save them a few seconds.
  5. Quick queries only: My general guideline is that anything that will require someone to think for more than two seconds in order to answer is probably not appropriate for IM.

People have strong existing workflows to handling incoming email. Filters, folders, flags, et al. allow the recipient to delegate the incoming flow of information and respond to it in a way that works best for them. Instant messages “jump the queue” people have set up, so while it can be a powerful medium for lightweight communication, be considerate of helping keep people from becoming overloaded.

Do you have any other tips for dealing with IMs? Post them in the comments, perhaps I’ll compile a list of reader contributions.

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