Some types of jerk behavior are obvious. Calling names. Laughing at someone’s ideas. Stealing a coworker’s lunch out of the office refrigerator (come on, are you an animal?).
But it’s also possible to be a jerk by accident, especially in writing. Have you ever found yourself worrying that your two-sentence email will sound cold to the person on the other end? Or are you just now realizing that’s something you should worry about? (You should—warmth may be even more important than competence when it comes to establishing business relationships.)
Chat programs like Slack and Hipchat complicate the etiquette of office communication even further. For those of us arriving in a Slack-centric office after a string of email-only jobs, it can seem downright baffling. Here are a few things to watch out for if you want to avoid rubbing your colleagues the wrong way.
1 Passive-Aggressive Periods
Periods often come off as passive-aggressive or even angry. Is it right? Is it fair? Should everyone just get over it and stop reading so much into an innocent punctuation mark? Maybe, but whether you share this perception of periods or not, it exists among at least some of your colleagues. It’s not going to just disappear, either. To them, there’s a real difference between these two conversations:
Colleague: Have you had lunch yet?
Colleague: Have you had lunch yet?
Here’s the translation. “No.” means “No, I haven’t had lunch, but if you were about to invite me, forget it. Also, I want you to leave me alone and I might be mad at you.” “No” (sans period) means “Go on . . . ”
It’s OK to leave out the period at the end of your sentence when you’re texting or using an instant messenger. Even if you think it’s silly, remember that being “right” will only get you so far if everyone thinks you’re a jerk.
2 Too Many Follow-ups
2:05 Hey, can you send me that spreadsheet?
Chat clients make real-time communication easy. You can see when colleagues are online. You can chat back and forth instantly without a bunch of one-line responses clogging up your email inbox. In some programs, you can even see when someone else is typing a response. But sometimes people are just busy with other stuff.
Don’t barrage your colleagues with a flurry of follow-ups because they haven’t gotten back to you even though you can see they’re online. If it’s truly that urgent, get up, walk over, and talk to them with your actual mouth.
3 Calling Out Mistakes on Public Channels
Colleague: There’s leftover cake in the kitchen for anyone who want’s some!
Correcting people in public is tricky. Even if you’re just trying to be helpful, you might seem rude or disrespectful, especially if the other person’s mistake was pretty harmless. Correcting someone in a group chat is even trickier because you have the unspoken rules of written communication to contend with.
When someone makes a mistake that could be costly or dangerous, send the person a direct message and give him the opportunity to correct himself to the group. If time is of the essence and you need to correct him on the public thread, be polite and give your colleague the benefit of the doubt.
Colleague: Heads up, the CEO wants our report on his desk by 5:00
You: Did you mean 3:00? That’s what the email said
Misunderstandings will never completely go away unless humans discover a way to read each other’s minds—but at that point we’ll probably be living in a dystopia anyway, so inadvertently offending your deskmate will be the least of your worries. In the meantime, knowing how to communicate effectively with colleagues will remain an invaluable skill.
What are your rules for staying polite and productive in instant messages?