the etiquette must catch up with the technology

Say you walk up to two people having a conversation. It is obviously rude to just interrupt that conversation with whatever it is you want to talk about, and the norm is to hover about until you are acknowledged, politely apologize for interrupting and then say what is on your mind. Similarly, if you walk up to someone in their office who is on the phone, the norm is to wait quietly until either the person is off the phone or makes clear they can talk while on hold.

Yet, if you walk up to someone in a conversation with another person chatting on IM, the norm, as far as I can tell, is to assume they are doing nothing important, that there is no third person involved, start talking away right away. As far as I can tell, it is considered rude to ask someone to wait while you finish an IM conversation. And yet, that is a real conversation with a real person. That conversation started first and should take precedence. But somehow, because we are used to interrupting people who are typing, we haven’t caught up to counting this as a conversation in our etiquette.

I was the interrupted one today, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell the in-person conversation to wait, even though I wanted to, and even though I thought it was the right thing to do. Maybe the next generation will have a different set of internalized norms, but I am hopeless.

7 thoughts on “the etiquette must catch up with the technology”

  1. Hear, Hear! This logic applies to the whole general area of typing, by the way. Sometimes people walk into my office and get obviously impatient while waiting for me to finish typing a sentence. The same thing when I’m reading. You can’t wait 30 seconds while I finish a thought? I really don’t understand why all of my immediate activity is subject to the convenience of your arrival in my physical space.


  2. And I’ll add another: whilst I am watching a video or listening to a song. While I recognize these are leisure activities on some occasions, if I am doing it in my office you can be sure it is work (and given that some of my research is on media, you know…its a safe bet for that reason, too). If I was doing it for fun, I wouldn’t do it in such an ergonomically correct position, that’s for sure. Also, I WOULD BE AT HOME.


  3. This is something that tickled/troubled me when I was working on my Master’s thesis (about the community surrounding blogs). When people would talk about their life online, they’d often use the phrase “in real life” (IRL for short) to distinguish between social interaction online and offline. And, although I’d heard it many times before, my project caused me to hear it a lot in a concentrated way… and I realized it makes no sense!

    The phrase reveals a strange underlying assumption which is that the social interactions that happen online are somehow not real or that they are separate from face to face life. I wasn’t looking for a systematic effect, so I don’t know if the use of this phrase (and way of thinking) can be mapped to another characteristic like age or familiarity with the Internet. Perhaps someone has already done that research. But, from a purely anecdotal perspective, I think many people do feel this schism between social life online and off. It’s like people think online interactions are somehow disposable, but offline social life “means business.”



  4. I guess I sit on the opposite side, or maybe I just use IM differently than others. When I am having an IM conversation with someone, I ASSUME I am going to be interrupted, or that they will be interrupted, and that’s why I use IM instead of the phone or something.

    I remember once sitting in a hotel room with a colleague on a business trip, and I was having an IM conversation with my husband. My colleague said, “Why are you using IM, why don’t you just call him?” And I said, “Because this way, neither of us has to give our full attention to the other. We can talk and still each watch our own TV shows, but without the awkward silences of doing that on the phone when you really want to pay attention to the other thing, instead of that person.”

    Ooh, maybe that says more about our relationship than our IM habits.


  5. I mostly IM only with my children. I have some conversations with them via IM that are as intense and engaging as phone conversations (although you still have the down time waiting for the other person to finish typing), while I have others that are of the “hi, how are you?” low level checking in for which the interruptibility of the medium makes it ideal.

    Occasionally I’ve used IM for work interactions where the whole point was we were working independently but needed to pass results or questions back and forth. More like email, only more immediate.

    I’d group the response to someone IMing with the response to someone typing anything else, or reading — it appears to be a solitary activity that the interrupter is interrupting. From the perspective of the person waiting, I don’t see how they’d be able to tell the difference between an IM conversation or writing an email or writing a paper. I’d agree with Blue Monster that it is irritating if someone thinks a solitary activity should be dropped instantly in favor of a drop-in visitor. Of course, if said visitor as an appointment . . .


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