Sunday, February 17, 2013

Heard That One Before, Part 8: Keeping Small Talk Small

This is the latest in a series of posts concerned with unproductive approaches to getting support from members of the Firestorm Viewer Support team. Today's is about opening lines.  But it's about so much more than that (which is why it ended up kinda long). It's about learning lessons from the introverted that allow us to broaden our perspective on effective communication. If you'd like to start from the beginning of this series, episode #1 is here.

But for now, the next unproductive thing to say when you first try to contact a support person is:

8) "Hi."

Dammit, Jim, I'm a support person, not a dentist.

If you need help from support, please be forthcoming and don't make us pull teeth to try to figure out what's wrong. We don't want to play twenty questions with you, we want to hear what your problem is and give you an answer. We're not identical across the board in terms of how we respond to IMs, however, so let's talk about what you can expect when you contact us.

This is a tricky issue to discuss without coming off as unfriendly, so I'd like to frame it within two particular themes. One is respect for people's time; the other is challenging the dominance of extrovert-oriented approaches in social interactions. Eek, I just got really academic-sounding on that second one. I promise it won't be so painful when I get to it. We'll also talk about the benefits of listening.

Keeping the Small Talk Small

Support team members are Second Life residents. We could be doing anything at all when you IM us: creating content or shopping for it, slexxing with partners or leaving our avies afk. We need to set limits for ourselves in order not to feel as if we are "on call" to the entire metaverse at all times. Each of us does this in different ways.

Some support team members don't respond to unsolicited IMs at all. That's a little extreme for me, but hey, if they need to do that to stay happy doing support, then it's all cool. Others are perfectly ok with small talk and will welcome chat before, during, or after the problem-solving process. 

I fall somewhere in between. I just want to know enough about your issue to know how to approach it before I answer. That means that instead of saying just "Hi" or "Are you there?" or even "Can you help?" I want you to tell me your actual problem. "Friendly" introductions like these place the burden on the support person to try and get you to the point. We won't always have the patience or the time.

The IMs I respond to most promptly are the full-paragraph questions that include lots of information and give me a good idea of whether I'm in for a two-minute or two-hour helping session. (Though of course I still can't answer if I'm afk, in the middle of a class, or hosting a trivia event.)

The trouble here is that when people say nothing but "Hi," they're not generally trying to irritate us. Some of them genuinely believe that a warm and social introduction will be appreciated more than a cold, hard question. And others just don't think of it at all -- they're just checking to make sure we're paying attention.

I have no sympathy for that last one and will always ignore "Lette?" and "Are you there?" The wonderful thing about text conversation is that it doesn't always have to take place in real time. If you ask your (direct and highly detailed) question now, I may answer it hours later, but I'll usually answer it. If you absolutely require an answer ASAP, you're best off asking the support group anyway. There isn't always someone immediately available with an answer, but it's a better bet than asking only one.

As for the "warm and social" type, I do sympathize… but there's another side to that. And this brings me to the second point I mentioned above, the one involving lots of long words.

Social Skills 201: Sometimes Less is More

Even in SL, where perhaps the majority of people I've met consider themselves to be introverts in RL, we (introverts, extroverts, and fence-sitters alike) still run the risk of being misunderstood as unfriendly or antisocial if we're not interested in investing energy in a conversation with someone we hardly know. 

I use the word "energy" on purpose, not because I find you, person reading this right now, personally draining, but because for introverts, social interaction usually means an expenditure of energy, while alone time means recharging. This doesn't mean introverts are all hermits, but it does mean that they're likely to be economical with their social time. If you're IMing an introvert like me for viewer help and start in with pleasantries, you're gonna wear us out before you even get to the hard part.

So how do you know if someone's an introvert or an extrovert before you contact them? You don't, unless there's something in their profile to indicate it. But nor does it matter. This isn't about individual styles, this is about what we can learn from the existence of different individual styles.

Let me put it this way: I don't think I've ever heard anyone say, "I wish these users would engage in more small talk before they got to the point. I mean, is it really so much trouble to say, 'Hi,' 'How are you?' and 'Can you help?' before they ask the actual question?"

My point, to put it directly, is that a lot of our habits and what we think of as "courtesy" come out of a culture where extroversion is the norm. Sometimes those habits aren't always the most appropriate, which means it's worth learning from the introvert's perspective what some of the alternatives are and when it's best to use them.

When it comes to IMing someone out of the blue for something, whether it's viewer help or customer support for a store or looking to buy or rent land, courtesy is less likely to mean leading with a few warmup phrases and more likely to mean respecting the other person's time by being direct and to-the-point.

Finally, let's talk about when the equivalent phenomenon hits the support group. There are some key differences in what we see there.


It happens when a user unfamiliar with the group says, "Hello?" … "Anyone there?" And there may be fourteen streams of conversation going on around them. Questions, answers, support people caught up in the rhythm of shooting out info, links, and follow-up questions. The person starts to think that because no one is going out of their way to say, "What is it, User X? What can we do for you?" that it must mean they're being ignored. Ten minutes later, after maybe saying "Hello?" a couple more times, the person finally says passive-aggressively, "Fine, guess no one wants to help me."

Soon as they do that, a few people, usually our more regular users/non-mod helpers, will inevitably point out that the passive-aggressive person still hasn't asked a question, and then it devolves into an antagonistic spat about what the person should or shouldn't have done instead of focusing on what the person's goddamn problem was.

This isn't really a pleasantries thing. It's not really small talk. I think that usually, these poor folks just don't know the norms of our group and think they need to get someone's attention first in order to get their question answered. But what happens after the unanswered hellos is the important thing here.

Some will open with the intro phrases, notice what's going on in the group, and then figure out how it works. Those people will usually realize they just need to ask their question and will do so.

But others, the "Fine, guess no one wants to help me" people, don't catch on. Mostly, it seems they don't catch on because they aren't paying attention to any of the existing discussion. They aren't interested in observing the group's flow of communication; they just want the attention to be turned toward them. Now. Because only when they have the spotlight can their Very Important Question be enunciated.

The moral of this part of the story is: Observe. When you enter any new group or location. You don't have to lurk for days, just a few minutes. Spend more time reading than speaking, and you're likely to find your interactions going a lot more smoothly. In the support context, you'll also get your problems solved more quickly.

This is actually another lesson to be learned from prototypical introversion. Being the loudest might get you what you want eventually, but there are other ways of going about it that don't alienate other people from you before you have the chance to ask the question we want to answer.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately Ive encountered Gwen more than once and shes pretty rude and ignoring if she personally don't like you, your, question, your profile, your profile pic, your picks, your groups etc.... Give her a chance and she'll find something she don't like. lmao