The Chat Etiquette Manifesto – Private, Work, and Support
Not knowing your chat etiquette can get you in trouble. When my grandmother passed away, one of her daughters broke the news to her sister via text message. A poor choice of channel, indeed.
Not everyone grew up with chat rooms, MSN, and WhatsApp; not everyone is familiar with the implicit social agreements that have developed over the years.
That’s why we need a manifesto of chat etiquette. A document you can send to friends, family members, or colleagues who are unknowingly breaking social chat conduct.
From private to professional, here are the 16 rules of chat etiquette.
1More !? is less
Some people chat as if in a constant state of awe. “Really??!! When?!!” “I’m on my way!!!”
More exclamation and question marks weaken your message, rather than enforcing it. Exclamation marks can liven up emails and chats, but they should be used in moderation. Max. 1 per sentence, and only when you really need to stress something.
2All caps make you smaller
The use of all caps sentences is a primal sin in chat. In written language, capitalized sentences stand for shouting. So don’t send emails or chat messages THAT READ LIKE THIS. People will think you're being commanding or angry at them.
3Control your emoji
Emoji are great for adding meaning to written language, even in business communication. They can make chat more personalized, shape its atmosphere, and ease situations in which a word could be interpreted negatively.
Take the word “ok”. It’s neutral but can be interpreted in so many different ways. With an emoji behind the word, it can express so much more than just an ok :)
But mostly, more isn’t better. Only add an emoji when it has meaning – when it clarifies the meaning of your message – and avoid double emoji as you’d avoid double exclamation marks.
Also realize that not everyone interprets the same emoji the same way. This is partly true to the different emoji fonts used across platforms.
To avoid misunderstandings, it’s best to stick to the usual suspects, like “:)”, “:D”, “:(” “;)” and “:P”. This is especially true in chat for customer support.
4Abbreviate with purpose
Chat is about speed, so abbreviations have their rightful place and time. But excess use of them makes you come off lazy and disrespectful. “Y r u l8?” sacrifices your partner’s reading comfort for your typing speed.
As a rule, the less orthodox and time saving the abbreviation, the less justifiable it is. “brb” saves me four words (I’ll be right back); “k” saves me one letter.
If you’re an extreme abbreviator, consider using a text expander app.
5Avoid emotionally loaded topics
Compared to all channels, chat has the lowest barrier to contact. That’s one of the reasons why we’re texting so much, but it also makes chat unfit for emotionally loaded topics.
Messages about, say, a deceased family member, aren’t meant to be exchanged so effortlessly. Emotions need to be felt by both the receiver and the sender. What’s more, the written nature of chat allows less for infusing feeling than phone does.
So for highly loaded topics, grab the phone or meet in person.
6Assume positive intent
With chat, it’s easy to take offense at what’s said. The lack of implicit communication increases the likelihood of ambiguous meaning. And our mind’s negativity bias makes us wired to interpret all ambiguity as negative.
The monster is scariest when it hasn’t fully appeared on screen yet. When receiving an ambiguous message, our mind tends to wander towards the worst possible interpretation.
Most messages, though, aren’t meant negatively. To prevent lingering discomfort, opt for the positive interpretation. If you're convinced of a negative undertone, make it explicit by asking about it.
The other side of that same coin. As a sender you should aim for minimal ambiguity in your messages. Sarcasm can be great, but chat isn’t the channel for it.
On the phone, you’re quick to realize when the other side isn’t paying attention. With chat, it’s not so easy.
As mentioned above, ambiguity leads to negativity. So, to prevent your chat partner from doubting what you’re doing, it’s good to be as transparent as possible.
One way to do that is to infer verbal nods, e.g. “yes”, “I see”, “alright”, when the other person is sending you messages. This clarifies that you’re still on track.
Another is to indicate what you’re doing if it might interfere with your chat conversation. “Just checking something”, will already be enough to halt the negativity bias.
9Don’t stress about typos
Chat is about speed, so don’t worry too much about typos. You can always send a *correction message, but mostly that’s not necessary either.
And as a receiver, there’s no need to point out your chat partner’s typos. Remember that they result from their desire to serve you quickly.
Chat is like a spoken conversation in text. One great feature of spoken conversation is that you can cut in. We’re taught interrupting people is inappropriate, but in some cases it’s inappropriate not to do so. When your partner misunderstood your question, for example, you could save her time by cutting in.
For this to be possible in chat, messages need to be broken up into smaller parts. Some people send email-like messages over the chat, that way foregoing many of the benefits it has to offer.
One exception is when you’re sending a ‘negative’ message that needs some contextual follow up. When a customer asks whether we have a certain feature, I might say “We don’t have feature X, but we do have feature Y, which you could use in a similar way.” If I’d send “We don’t have feature X” separately, there’d be some negative thoughts arising before I could send the follow up.
11Instant messaging ≠ instant replying
Most of today’s private and collaboration chat is done through messaging (e.g. WhatsApp, Slack). These are great channels for sending messages instantly, since you don’t need the other side to be online to do so.
But that doesn’t mean you should expect an immediate reply as well. Chat tools like Slack can be great for coordination, but they can also wreck your workflow.
So send your messages directly and get them out of your head, but don’t feel entitled to receive – or pressured to send – instant replies.
12Use a real image
If you’re offering chat support, your customer will wonder whether he’s chatting with a chatbot. Your avatar is how you communicate your humanity. So please don’t replace it with a logo.
13Guide across the website with care
This one is specific to chat support as well. Chat tools like Userlike offer the option to guide visitors across the website with a ‘push function’.
If you do this without any warning, however, your visitor will think her browser is tripping. So before using the push function, always explain that you will do so. You could also just send the URL through the chat, so the visitor can click it herself.
14Don’t reply on unsent messages
Userlike also offers the option to see what your web visitor is typing in real time. The advantage is that you can respond much faster, but with great power comes great responsibility.
Until the visitor has hit the send button, she is still constructing her thoughts. Responding to an unsent message is like a breach of privacy. Don’t do it.
15Tailor your level of formality
Chat is a modern channel, and most who use it are used to writing in a colloquial manner.
”Kindness and courtesy are at the root of a positive customer service experience.”- Shep Hyken
Some prefer to stick to formality, however. If you’re doing chat support, you show good etiquette by adapting your level of formality to your chat partner.
16Forgive a breach of etiquette
Last but not least. True enlightenment shows itself through tolerance of others’ lack thereof.
Not everyone has grown up with chat. Not everyone has been so blessed to have read this chat etiquette manifesto. So even when someone breaches etiquette, don’t whine about it – move on.