IM etiquette: the dreaded question mark

"Bob" and "Sarah" just met a few months ago.  They really enjoy talking to one another and have become close friends.  Today, Bob tells Sarah about a new web site he just found:

Bob says (10:02 am):
  Hey, check out this link,

But Sarah has her status set to Away and is at work.  She returns 6 hours later and replies,

Sarah says (4:26 pm):

But unfortunately Bob’s away and/or has closed the conversation window.  So what does Bob do when he returns to Sarah’s lone message?  He hits the ? key and smashes Enter without another thought.

Bob says (5:26 pm):

Sarah takes great offence to this, tells Bob that he obviously doesn’t care what she has to say and to not talk to her ever again.  Poor Bob, what did he do wrong?

Wikipedia defines a question mark (?) as "a punctuation mark that replaces the full stop at the end of an interrogative sentence."

As a single instant message to someone, the ? doesn’t really mean anything, makes little sense and comes off as rude and smug.  But you can avoid Bob’s catastrophe by using Messenger’s ‘show my last conversation’ feature. 

To get there, open up any Messenger window and press the Alt key on your keyboard to open up the menu bar.  Choose the Tools menu and then select Options.  Select the Messages category, and finally turn on the ‘Show my last conversation in new conversation windows‘ feature.

Of course, you’ll need to have Messenger’s message history engaged for this to work.  There’s no need for the question mark if you can see the previous conversation!

Now Bob can respond to Sarah correctly as he can see exactly what she was referring to. 

But Jonathan, I sign in on multiple locations or I don’t save my message history and don’t want to!
Then your best bet is to send a smiley, start on a different topic or just ignore the message all together. 

When you’re faced with a message like Sarah’s "neat" and are not sure what it refers to, it is your responsibility.  Even if you don’t have the ‘show my last conversation’ feature turned on, you can still access your message history (or use another application to log your conversations, like Messenger Plus Live!) to figure out what’s being said.  In a worst case scenario where it is imperative that you know what the message was associated with, you can simply ask your contact, "What was that ‘neat’ referring to?" or "Can you remind me what that was about?" 

I’ve also personally received the dreaded question mark by SMS on my phone.  This is even worse as someone spent money (or at least a portion of their text allotment) to send me a single question mark.  I promptly deleted the offending mark and didn’t bother to respond.

Don’t be the next Bob and Sarah; keep your question marks in your sentences where they belong!


Posted on November 27, 2007, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I can\’t really see how "?" is so offending… I think it\’s pretty clear that it just means "I don\’t get it". Of course, I agree that people should be more resourceful and use logs instead of doing that all the time. But somehow I doubt Sarah would respond that way… 😛 I see it as "software illiteracy", not as rudeness.

  2. Interesting post Jon.  I do sort of agree with Sock, but people should be more aware of their conversations with IM friends.  Treat instant messaging just as any other form of communication, be clear and concise, and ask poltely when you don\’t understand.
    Great article!

  3. SonicS©am says:
    Well maybe if Sarah was not a douche and answered like 14hours later maybe Bob would make babies with her

  4. Accurate representation of a typical IM thread without the string!
    Sarah – if she were a true IM-ite – would have understood that a hanging comment [neat] can be confusing when there is no stringing context.   Especially for those who do have lives and communicate from various sources. 
    Bob would be better off with someone else to share with. 

  5. I totally agree. It is a well-known observation that a lone question mark with or without context is *almost always* rude. If written after an unanswered question, it comes across as impatient and aggressive.

    The only time it is remotely acceptable is if added *immediately* after a question where the person has forgotten the question mark. Even then, you still shouldn’t use it if it was clear the previous statement was a question.

    Even worse is multiple question marks either at the end of a sentence or on their own. Again, it is hyper-aggressive. Just as you wouldn’t say “huh? huh? huh?” in real life if someone was busy and failed to answer your query immediately.

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