Instant Messaging Etiquette at Work

by Staff - Original publish date: January 18, 2012

Dear Annette,

My coworker and I work very closely and constantly share information and results. Our offices are right next to each other. We email each other constantly. Lately I've been getting the cold shoulder, and have finally learned why. Apparently he’s frustrated because I send him email messages that have just an attachment and a subject line. Am I supposed to put smiley faces on all my internal correspondence?

Frowny Face

Dear Frowny Face,

Email customs seem to stimulate the amateur documentary filmmaker in all of us, and I'm certainly no exception. It can be fascinating to read all the different styles of email – the urban legends, the newsletters, the virus hoaxes, and the genuine correspondence from real people. Many people are still asking themselves whether email is writing, speech, both, or neither. The answer depends on the type of email.

You and your coworker are exchanging messages and files in a form of correspondence that is like speech. And in speech, you can't just hand someone something. You’ve got to say a few simple, courteous words, like "Darling, would you care for another strawberry?"

Even if you say, "Here is the Strawberry file" as you press the Send key, it is in your best interest to enclose a little message with your message. There are practical reasons – your esteemed colleague can find the precious document later, you can later demonstrate to your biographer that indeed you sent it. And there are interpersonal reasons as well. Your one-line missive, complete with greeting and closing, tells your coworker you think he's fabulous enough to deserve a complete message every time.

Besides, if you have ever been on the stage, you know an actor never forfeits a line. Think of each message as an opportunity to reinforce your individuality in the minds of those who might someday be called upon to evaluate you. Like a good actor, get in character, and stay in character. Develop a special quirk, a way of signing messages perhaps, that personalizes them and makes the recipient look forward to receiving them. Your signature file is not enough, just as a piece of letterhead doesn’t substitute for the message it carries.

Use this calling card every time you email. Like any habit – using a turn signal even when driving home from an afterparty at 4:00 in the morning comes to mind – consistency is the key to success.

If you want something even more immediate and more informal than email, consider chat.

The most successful email establishes mutual fabulousness when you treat your recipient as though he were the most important person in the world and, in the style with which you do so, reinforce what an outstanding character you are.

Stay fabulous,