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Monday, August 2, 2021

Column: The etiquette of online chatting

It’s a typical late night. I’m sitting with my laptop and chatting with a friend on AIM. The conversation is going smoothly, as indicated by the coherent sentences and replies every couple of seconds or so.

Although I’m working on a paper, I make the time to glance at the online chat between each sentence I type. That’s when I see “the word.” Actually, it isn’t even a real word – it’s an acronym. Three letters: LOL.

Dangit. Why that acronym?

When I first started chatting online (just last year – I was a late bloomer), I barely even knew “LOL” stood for “laughing out loud.” In my mind, the letters “LOL” still don’t really translate to “laughing out loud.” To me, they really mean “I have nothing to contribute to this conversation anymore.” It’s the perfect way to end a conversation, especially when you have no idea how to respond.

The advent of online chatting (and texting) has sprung an entirely new set of conversational etiquette. I don’t really have to actually bother faking a laugh when someone isn’t funny – all I have to do is type “LOL.” It must not really be that funny if I’m too lazy to type the four letters of “haha.”

So as I think through the awkward silence and inevitable end of the conversation, I turn my focus to another online conversation. That chat is with my apartment mate. She’s in the room next door. We do this on a daily basis – so much so that it’s no longer awkward. (Trust me, we used to laugh and squirm our way through replies. Well, at least I did.)

But at least we’re not in the same room, right? Well, we did the same thing last year from the same dorm room – desks touching each other, laptops parallel, chairs a foot apart.

During online chatting, not only is the situation quite awkward at times, but the conversations can also be awkward. This is especially true when you’re sitting, just waiting for your friend to reply. They don’t immediately reply, so you start to type – but lo and behold, that person finally starts typing (the pencil symbol pops up). You stop to wait for their reply, but then they stop, too. The complex mind game cycle never ends.

This would never happen if there was actual one-on-one contact. I mean, no one is really that courteous in real life with all the long pauses to formulate an articulate response and wait for the other person to speak. If you think about it, these pauses and over thinking of things really changes the dynamics of the conversation and relationship.

For example, every time I see that pencil symbol disappear midway through the supposed formulation of a thought, I go through a miniature panic attack in my head that basically goes:

What the heck – what were you about to say??? I need to know – it could’ve changed the entire conversation, and you were probably about to say something super meaningful … until you decided not to share it…thanks.

Of course, that would never cross my mind if the conversation were in person.

You can tell a lot about people from online interactions – or rather, lack of interaction. For instance, one look at your buddy chat list and you know who the procrastinators are. The number of people on the buddy list also somehow tends to lengthen on midterm and finals weeks.

But even with all this “online learning,” you can learn even more when you actually talk to the people on your buddy list in person. And no, it’s not just because “human contact is good for the soul” (which feels like something everyone lists under “favorite quotes” on their Facebook page).

Conversations in person just flow faster so you don’t get the moment to linger on some silly, annoying comment that may occur within in the chat. Plus, you don’t have to wait awkwardly for a “LOL” response after you make a joke. You just find out on the spot whether the joke was successful or not, and most likely get an honest reaction.

On the other hand, the wait and ambiguity of online conversations just make you too apprehensive for your own good. This apprehension is likely to be about your joke-making, sympathy-yielding and day-reviewing skills.

But of course, it might ultimately be nice to have the self-delusional comfort provided by the letters “LOL.”

TIFFANY LEW chatted online in three different conversations as she wrote this column. Each fulfilled the “online chatting etiquette” in its own way. E-mail her at tjlew@ucdavis.edu to help her decide whether she should stop chatting online or not.

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