Friday, May 15, 2009

The Butler Did it

Are you scared to turn off instant messaging, lest someone not be able to contact you for five seconds? Apparently people are, for reasons passing understanding. Instead, researchers at Cornell have found, people indulge in "butler lies." Huh?
Just like a real life butler might be, these lies are deployed to protect us from unwanted guests politely, without hurting anyone's feelings or appearing rude. By tracking the messages of 50 IM users the Cornell team determined that around 10 per cent of all messages sent were deceptive, and 20 per cent of those were butler lies.
The ones most commonly used quickly draw a conversation to a close, some by inventing imaginery work committments:

"I have a prelim tomo tho so I gotta study for ittt and then head to a meeting"
Huh? (I don't know why people get so worked up about English as a national language when people now communicate like this. But, c'est la vie.) But I digress...
Others by exploiting the time of day:

"im gonna go grab some lunch now i guess"

"sleep! Time"

Butler lies are clearly useful, yet by now most IM users are wise to old chestnuts like those. In the name of polite etiquette, we desperately need a new set of more imaginative - but still plausible - ones.
How about "I'm going to get my Shift key fixed" or "Searching for apostrophes"? (Yeah, I know, I should be used to this by now. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.)

As for butler lies, they're hardly unique to instant messaging. How many of us do the same thing to get off the phone? I knew someone once who had on his computer a recording of a phone ringing. When he wanted to get off a call, he would trigger it, then say "Oh, that's my other line. I have to go." Rather clever, really. I've found that "Sod off" works just as well, particularly with telemarketers.

While I prefer instant messaging to telephones any day, like anything else, it has its uses and its abusers, and maybe I'm fundamentally more antisocial than most people because I have no problem just turning it off and hiding when I'm in the middle of something and don't want to be bothered. Though there have been days when the sound of the iChat plinking noise will drive me into complete madness—which is not that far a drive to begin with, I suppose.

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