You're sending a message

I rely on instant messaging to communicate with my friends and colleagues. It’s a necessity for me, as I work from my home office with co-workers across the world. It’s more immediate than email and handy for quick exchanges of basic information when a longer email or a phone call isn’t necessary.

Like many people, I tend to think of IM as a necessary distraction. I don’t really like using it, but it’s often the best way to get things done.


IM has the potential to create more problems than it solves. In email, most people take the time to express their thoughts carefully. When instant messaging, people intending to be brief can come across as terse, creating a style of communication that can send the wrong message.

I believe the cause of this problem is the mindset and circumstances surrounding email vs. IM use. When people are working through their email, the task is usually their primary activity, while most people on IM are multitasking. The IM receives less attention and therefore less time and importance, and sometimes this results in an unintentionally pithy response.

There are two ways to fix this:

  1. When somebody IM’s you, stop what you’re doing and focus on the conversation.
  2. Use your away status to more effectively communicate your actual status when #1 isn’t possible.

Many people unintentionally abuse their friends and colleagues with incorrect away statuses. There’s a good chance that you may be one of these people without knowing it.

Away status abuse

Setting an accurate away status can be incredibly helpful to the people you communicate with on IM. Setting an effective message sends a clear signal to your colleagues as to your real availability. If your status is Available, most people probably won’t bother reading your away message and will just message you. If your status is Away, many people won’t contact you, even if it’s important.

There’s a simple guideline you can follow to help people in this regard:

When you’re available, set your status to Available. When you’re busy or away from your computer, set your status to Away. Many IM clients can automatically set your status to Away if you’re idle for a specified period of time.

This recommendation sounds logical, but too often, people will leave their status set to Away or Available into perpetuity. Are they really available at 5:30am? Are they really away at 2pm? This practice probably sends the wrong message to people. It says you don’t care enough to take a moment to let people know if you can be contacted or not.

Setting an accurate status means pausing for a moment when you’re leaving or returning to the computer. It’s a good opportunity to be mindful of the present moment, too.

Here are some guidelines which can really help your friends know when it’s best to communicate with you:

  • When you’re available for a conversation and don’t mind being contacted, set your status to Available.
  • If you don’t want to be disturbed and must keep your IM application running, set your status to Away.
  • Simple status messages are better. Custom Available/Away status messages may draw more attention to you, or put people off.
  • When you leave your computer, especially when you’re done for the day, quit your IM app or, if that’s not possible, set your status to Away or even better, to Idle.

Some people get creative with their status messages, beyond the more typical “song title as away message” type of thing. A few of my friends use unicode symbols like stars (✭) as a kind of “rating” in their away status. This is pretty clever, but I don’t actually understand these statuses or what they are supposed to indicate. Would three out of five stars (✭✭✭✩✩) mean that I can ping the person? Should I wait for four stars? What if their status is set to Away, but has all five stars? Do the stars just represent how their day is going? I have no idea.

One day I believe we’ll have a better way to communicate quickly and efficiently, but until then, IM will have to do.

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