Monday, January 3, 2011

Chat behavior

(the following originally appeared at but was moved here in 2011. It is part of a 2009 TESOL presentation: Uncharted but breathtaking: Chat in writing class which can be accessed here.)

Students will encounter several kinds of online chat environments in their futures, and it's hard to predict what their future will look like in terms of what they will use more often, and what they will need. Will they need to function in group chats? In one-on-one personal chats with bosses and/or clients? Using semi-formal English or less formal? Or even formal English, or bilingual? My inclination is to say all of the above. As the world turns more to writing as an informal conversational medium, all we can be sure of is that we can't be sure what will happen, but we can be sure writing will be more important. We can only imagine, based on what we now know, that the most difficult aspects of their experience in general will probably be responding to chatstream dialogues with any kind of timeliness, and remembering basic politeness requirements.

What politeness requirements? One might be inclined to ask this question, given the relative newness of chatting as a medium, and the general lack of politeness that has been observed by traditionalists who favor the slower, gentler media, and who criticize the new ones for their youthful insolence (1). Students will be the first to point out that one the hardest things about chat as a medium is coming and going, saying goodbye, etc.; while one instinctively knows that some politeness is required in a formal situation, particularly with one's teacher, the lack of any visual cues to make up for language weakness makes this aspect of chat very uncomfortable for non-native speakers (2). Upon learning this, and noticing that they did appear to be rather abrupt in our class conversations, I began requiring saying hello and saying goodbye, among other things, just as a way of ensuring that students remembered to at least practice these skills (3).

Immediately we noticed that group chats had, as one of their distinguishing features, the characteristic of holding several threads at once; it often confused people who assumed that a comment was for them, when in fact that comment was meant as a response to an earlier thread. People who, by nature, need a minute or two to respond to a comment, might find their own message misinterpreted as a response to a more recent one; thus, the challenge for them is really developing faster and more accurate reflexes to deal with the chatstream that could carry any number of ongoing dialogues. Better to work on this skill now, while the price is low, and the teacher is forgiving; later on, fatal flaws can be made, with the victim never even aware that they had happened. I myself noticed that, going back over transcripts, I had occasionally missed a question or a remark made by a student, due to being preoccupied with another thread. In oral discourse, i.e. the classroom, I am used to this, and can go back and answer the original question later, by holding it in reserve while I deal with the other thread. In chat, it's a little trickier.

In practice people often deal with this by just putting the name of the person they are speaking to, with colons, at the front of their message. This is the oral equivalent of looking at someone to show that this particular comment is intended as a response to something they had said. This use of handle (or chat- name, or whatever one uses) is something chat has evolved naturally to help its users sort out these situations.

Emoticons appeared instantly and naturally, and the big ones (smile, frown, etc.) were, in general, mutually understood, though I was never sure that all of them were mutually understood (see below) every time. I in fact did not understand some of the first few I encountered, and was never quite sure I understood all of the ones I encountered; I imagined that a small survey meant to find out how universal certain chat terms in fact are, would be more than useful (4), but haven't actually carried out the project. A chat therefore involves a large number of symbols, including routine English words, that one or a few conversants may have trouble interpreting; one of their first challenges, then, is to learn how to successfully clarify what they have tried to understand. We see here what students find difficult about routine English conversations in the oral realm; I would be happy if these same high-level students could successfully clarify what they had heard in oral classroom discourse. We have successfully taught, in various high-level oral settings, the skills of clarifying, asking to repeat, hesitating while holding the floor, etc. (5); there's no reason we couldn't teach the same, in the writing medium. From the students' point of view, the assignment therefore contained many new and dazzling requirements, first of which was keeping attention focused on a chatstream while simultaneously dealing with new symbols, unfamiliar words, and any number of unusual discourse laws. The rules of English discourse would be assumed to apply to a chatspace that is serving as an ESL classroom, but not all of these discourse conventions are, even in the oral world, mutually understood (6).

So the student has a number of politeness requirements to remember: say hello and goodbye; learn how to communicate when you don't understand something; be careful how you address the teacher (and your friends); remember that it's a classroom, in spite of the fact that most or all of your chat experience may involve less formal situations. Finally, tell people what you're doing: when you're leaving, when you've turned your back on the computer, etc. Use emoticons only when you're sure everyone understands them.

There's the rub: in a truly international environment, how many of the emoticons are truly universal? If I can't answer this question clearly, surely I can't expect students to know, yet I always challenge them: if everyone understands it, go ahead. Prove that everyone understands it! I challenge them freely and in the genuine spirit of curiosity. Everyone recognizes a wink, most people recognize the emoticon wink; most in the American culture are familiar with the social uses of a wink in a live conversation; many would recognize the similar uses of a chat-wink; but are these universal? Similar in all cultures? How about the tongue sticking out?

The new environment has many appealing shortcuts, some of them automatically generated by students who have logged many hours of one kind of chat or another. The transcripts, I believe, will be golden cultural artifacts, at some point, when researchers try to piece together what happened in the first chats, among people of truly different backgrounds, as they tried to negotiate meanings and intentions in environments where those are so easily obscured. It has also been pointed out that the chat setting is much more intimate than more formal oral classroom settings; that people tend to share more, impulsively, in chats, than they would otherwise. I have found this to be true, but can't speculate as to exactly why. I, as teacher, should model controlling my impulses and saying only what will encourage learning, etc. Yet I find myself, along with them, sharing much more of myself, almost impulsively, due to the environment. I enjoy knowing people better; I put more of myself on the line, and learn more about them in the process. Yet, in the process of chatting, I have learned more than I really need, and in some cases have learned too much, I've learned things I really would rather not have learned (6).

My students have pointed out the value of learning to "think before you speak," as if to say that this was something they had to learn as part of participating in the new media, but I beat them to it; I tried to learn it myself; then, I mentioned it in class as part of the assignment. Then, I assumed it was as difficult for them to learn it as it was for me, I gave them a wide berth and an easy manner, said it was hard for all of us, and forgave them easily, as I would in an intermediate conversation class, when a student would say too much, or say it in the wrong way. Cultural conflict, after all, will be present in virtually every exchange, no matter what the medium, in international settings; this, like the medium itself, is something to be gotten used to, the sooner the better.

I should mention a couple of other kinds of rudeness that I had not quite predicted when I undertook the venture. Not being prepared for the intimacy and freewheeling nature of the medium, I wasn't prepared when students said things to each other that struck me as insulting. They, it seemed, were far more used to this than I was, and thus felt they could do as they wished in this situation; I had to remind them that this was a class, and that my expectation was that they would behave as if we were talking, with polite tone and manner. It has been said that chat seems to add a sarcasm or bite to messages that weren't intended that way; it could be that, in the absence of visual cues, we read into them things that aren't put there. In any case, people take offense easily in the chat medium; they have to get used to finding out and clarifying what was originally intended, and apologizing when necessary.

Another problem revolved around the "handle". Generally students used things that were already familiar to me, as their e-mail address, blog url, or nickname. Occasionally they used things that weren't familiar to me; once a student logged in as another student. How was I to know? I hadn't prohibited it (yet), not having thought of the possibility. I won't get caught that way again!


1. Two good examples of this are Marcus (2009) and McCormick (2009). These are just examples of the offense people take naturally at a medium that basically affronts their sensibilities by being quick and not having the visual aspect to reinforce the feelings one wants to convey.

2. I first learned this by doing a survey; it was pointed out to me by one of my students. It makes sense to imagine that students know that one must make preparatory remarks before one simply leaves; that this is more important, and more complicated, in somewhat formal situations; and, that it still has to be done in the context of a conversation that is already going on.

3. I also required telling what you were providing (we dropped URL's of our essays and such; so, rather than just dropping the URL, which would be lit up, we would want to say, "this is my essay: http://..." Also, I required that they at least try to answer questions that were directed at them, though I made it clear that any answer would suffice. So for example, if someone said, "how are you?" they could be free to say, "No comment," or "None of your business," but not free to simply ignore the question.

4. A recent article (McCormick 2009) pointed out that LOL has come to mean much more than simply “laugh out loud,� and in general is much milder than actually laughing out loud, which it is assumed to represent. It is my contention that variations in meaning are a kind of dialect, likely to get wider as people in certain chat environments spend more and more time together, isolated from others. In a classroom setting, however, one assumes the opposite: that we have come from widely divergent places; that we have very little in common except semi-formal English; that some of us have very little actual exposure to any chat environment. Still, I found symbols, emoticons, and acronyms and chat abbreviations prolifically bantered around, as if they were universal. Perhaps they are; LOL certainly is.

5. Naming these skills and actually laying out their acquisition as teaching objectives was to me one of the signatures of the communicative era; communicative practitioners were correct in pointing out that perfect grammar and vocabulary were pointless in situations where one couldn't clarify, ask for repetition, hesitate successfully, etc., as well as do the previously mentioned: say hello, say goodbye, indicate that one needs to leave soon, etc.

6. Most common of these, which I believe I have already addressed, is students' general inability to figure out what to call the teacher when needing to address the teacher only. It has always been high on my priority list to teach students how to address their professors and other formal authorities in my life, since I am keenly aware of how it grates my own ears to be addressed with family name only, or "Mr." plus first name. Teaching with chat, I have at least gotten the opportunity to try.

7. One example: one term, I learned that my student had lost a couple thousand dollars in an eBay scam. Should I tell others what I knew? What could I do for this person, and would telling authorities really help anything? It felt awkward, and I didn't know exactly how to respond.

Barker, T. (2009, March 13). Texting surges as tool for more than just the young. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. ECD541041F7853698625756E0012DB17?OpenDocument. Accessed 3-09.

Fischman, J. (2008, Oct. 13). Dear Professor, Students want to chat with you., Wired Campus. want-to-chat-with-you. Accessed 10-08.

Leverett, T. (2008a, Sept.) Chat assignment: most students blast chat (6-2008). where u at w/chat weblog.

___ (2008b, April). brb: Using chat in an esl/efl writing class. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City.

___ (2008c, April). Digital fluency as goal and objective. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City.

___ (2007a, Mar.). Fluency first: Fluency as a construct. From Student weblogging for fluency, skills and integration, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2007, Seattle WA.

___ (2007b, May). Dialects in a changing language. Global Study Magazine 4, 3. London. pp. 56-57. Available online at:

Marcus, M. (2009, Jan. 5). Social networks are intrusive. Martinsville (IN) Reporter-Times. Accessed 1-09.

McCormick, M. (2009, Mar. 5). Meg's Moments: Reality: the chatroom of the future. Accessed 3-09.

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