Ambient Chatting

Ken AshfordScience & TechnologyLeave a Comment

I’ve occasionally felt vaguely guilty that I’m inattentive online chatter. I wander away from the computer, forget to respond, sign off without warning, pick up conversations two hours later, and generally treat the blinking little IM window as if it’s optional.

But should I feel guilty?  What’s the etiquette for IMs and video chatting?

Speaking primarily about video chatting, I think this blogger is on to something….

I think it depends on how you use IM. My preferred method is to have ambient chats — conversations that continue, with varying levels of activity, throughout the day. Ambient chats are characterized by the following informal rules:

  • Immediate responses are neither required nor expected.
  • Unless they have just posed or been asked a direct question, either party can sign off at any time without explanation or repercussion.
  • It is acceptable to send links or other media with no introduction.

In ambient chatting, your friends are there, but they’re not making any demands on you. Often an ambient chat will become an active chat for five or ten minutes at a time–you’ll send responses quickly back and forth about a particular issue. But at some point, things will trail off, no "got to go!" or "cya l8r!" necessary. Maybe they had to go make a sandwich, or you just got sick of the conversation. Maybe there was simply nothing else to say. Ambient chatting requires a great deal of trust. Without it, you run the risk of snubbing your partner when you delay a response or sign off quickly.

Think of ambient chats as the opposite of telephone conversations. Telephone conversations force you into an artificial mode of interaction characterized by the expectation of constant, unrelenting conversation. This is totally unnatural. Face-to-face conversations are filled with pauses. Some are short, while your partner considers what you’ve said. Some are long, as you just sit together in companionable silence until the next topic comes along. But on the phone, we are expected to fill each available second with talk, and a pause of even a few seconds will produce a panicked "Is everything okay??" (or, in the era of cell phones, "Can you hear me?").

So, I’m not rude.  I’m an ambient chatter…. when I’m a chatterer at all.  I like to think of IMs as occupying the space between face-to-face or telephone conversations (where response is immediate) and emails (when you reply when you can and want to).  From my limited IM experiences, I think most people are the same way, as the above article suggests.

But I find it interesting how we collectively develop social norms for new modes of communication.  Without, you know, government intervention or whatever.  It appeals to the social psychology major in me (that I am).