Twitter as Dinner Conversation: A Guide to Using Replies


In this post Chuck Westbrook (follow him @cwestbrook) looks uses the analogy of Dinner Conversation to explain the basics of different types of communication on Twitter. Image by Thomas Hawk

Twitter is a lot like a dinner with a large group of friends at a big table in a busy restaurant. Everyone is chatting, there’s a lot being said, and if you’re not focused on a particular conversation, it sounds downright noisy. So just like a large group setting in real life, there are some conventions about how people tune in to listen and the most effective ways to be sociable.

Whispering: The Direct Message

Sending a direct message is like quietly chatting with the person next to you at the table. In group settings, we instinctively do this by leaning in closer when what we’re talking about is something that doesn’t really mesh with the conversation at large.

On Twitter, you should lean in with a direct message when the discussion is private or if it just won’t be of interest to others within earshot. This helps keep the noise to a minimum.

Talking Normally: An @ Reply to Begin the Tweet

Tweets that start with an @ reply are like overheard parts of a ongoing conversation at the table, bits of dialogue spoken in a normal speaking voice. In noisy conversations, we typically focus our attention and tune out these snippets when we’re not involved, and on Twitter, people do the same thing.

These Tweets will be overheard by some, but many people will just gloss over them, assuming that you are already engaged in a separate conversation. In fact, many people have set up their accounts so that they don’t even see messages that start with an @ reply unless they are directed to them specifically in an effort to reduce the noise level.

Beginning a message with an @ reply means that it will go unnoticed by many, but it’s a friendly way to talk with an individual while leaving open the possibility of someone overhearing you and joining in.

Telling Everyone: An @ Reply Inside of the Tweet

An @ reply anywhere other than the start of your message, on the other hand, is the equivalent of speaking up to share something interesting about that person with the entire group at the table. At social gatherings, we do this when someone nearby says something funny or if we hear news that needs to be passed along, for example.

People pay more attention to these because by following you they have indicated an interest in what you decide to share, so that makes it relevant to them. Use this option when you want to point your followers to something or someone they will find interesting or to promote something or someone. All of your followers will see it, and the person to which you are sending the @ reply will get far more attention as a result.

Good Manners

By keeping in mind the dynamics of a dinner conversation, it becomes easier to decide when and how to use each type of response on Twitter. Continuing with that analogy, what sort of bad tweeting manners have you witnessed? By contrast, who do you know that’s mastered these nuances to become a Twitter socialite?


  • November 17, 2008

    I think “An @ Reply Inside of the Tweet” is more like telling everybody something about somebody while that person is in the bathroom. They’ll never hear it unless somebody else tells them (i.e. since it doesn’t show up in their @Replies, they’ll have to either see it in the Twitstream or have a running search or RSS feed on their own username)

  • November 17, 2008

    Appreciate the insight in Twitter etiquette.

  • November 17, 2008

    Great analogies, Chuck! These will be helpful to share with my Intro to PR students in the spring, when I introduce them to One Week of Twitter.

    And Walt, if you use TweetDeck, anytime your name shows up with @ before it (such as @barbaranixon), it will show up in your Replies column. That’s one reason I use TweetDeck as much as I do.

  • November 17, 2008

    Good point, Walt. I do have a running search, but some people don’t. Since you are going to be saying something nice about the person, this isn’t really an issue of talking behind one’s back, but if you want to let them know what you said, just send them a DM with a link to the tweet.

  • November 17, 2008

    @Walt – I agree. That’s why I keep a RSS search saved for my @orangejack name. For others wanting it, go to and do a search for @yourname, then click the RSS button. This way I have a backup to see when people are talking to me.

  • November 17, 2008

    I see following as being able to pick who sits at the table. A bit like being in a restaurant and while there are conversations around the room only a select few are invited to your table.

    Now sitting John Chow – table of 3,000.

  • November 17, 2008

    I find it becomes increasingly difficult not to engage in private conversations “out loud” on twitter as your community becomes more tight-knit. I struggle with keeping those interactions to a minimum so as not to discourage new-comers to the party. Sometimes I even give myself twitter “time outs” where I refrain from @ replying or tweeting all together for a period of one or two days. I’ve noticed (while lurking) that more people in my twit-stream come out of the woodwork at these “quiet times.” I also actively seek new people’s tweets to @ Reply to.

  • November 17, 2008

    This is a nice explanation I can share with non-twittering friends who are having trouble understanding the tweet concept. Thanks.

  • November 17, 2008

    I agree with Walt here. That’s the reason I’m all for detecting @names inside tweets.

    Anyways (Going back to the post), I really like the analogy Chuck. It’s a simple way of making people understand how Twitter works. You may also consider some people who are not heard in the table as well as those people who talk to themselves.

  • November 17, 2008

    Rob…I do the exact same thing…have a RSS feed for my username generated via Twitter search.

  • November 17, 2008

    I think @replies are a way to see if you want to change seats at the table. Sometimes you belong in a conversation that’s going on without you. How else do you meet everyone at the party? That being said, I am not one to Tweet about my dinner. I try to keep it relevant and pertinent on Twitter. I hate small talk and don’t like meaningless mingling — IRL or on Twitter.

  • November 17, 2008

    If you use a Twitter interface like a href=””>Twhirl, I think you see even @username replies that are deeper into the message. It highlights them in green. I’m a big fan of Twhirl as a way to manage my PLN (personal learning network).

  • November 17, 2008

    Great analogy. Twitter is just a really big way of eavesdropping. I like that.

  • November 17, 2008

    Very interesting analogy here but it’s very true. I didn’t know there was an option to turn of @replies unless they’re directed to you, but I’m not following enough people to consider it annoying (yet), so I’ll leave those on because they can spark another conversation easily.

  • November 17, 2008
    Rachel Hauck

    Great post. Excellent examples to help up understand. The only bad manners I see, at least in my opinion, is people who post half thoughts that make no sense, or they post constant links or business ideas/thoughts. It’s like someone sitting at the dinner table and constantly talking business or making announcements. Yes, we want to hear good news, but some of it’s too much!

    People who post six – ten times an hour. Too much.

    Also, people who use uppercase. Shew. Never read those posts.


  • November 17, 2008

    I agree with the group, Chuck – this is a great metaphor for Twitter etiquette. People shouldn’t act any differently on Twitter than they would in a public restaurant. Thanks for the @Reply settings tip. I missed that one when I set up my account.

    Rob Williams – Thanks for the RSS tip. I set it up in my Google reader and realized someone I was not following had asked me a question.

    Manners are manners.


  • November 17, 2008

    I followed you from the Entrecard forum and I thank you for all of this wonderful information. Too much to consume, but I will return to continue my Twitter education.

  • November 17, 2008

    I have my @-replies set so that I only see replies to people I am following. It’s like I’m sitting at a big table and there’s lots of noise that I ignore but I’m friends with Bob and Jane then I’ll pay a bit of attention to their conversation even if I’m not really part of it and I know that I can pipe up at any time if it gets interesting.

  • November 17, 2008

    Every once in a while, I do a search in twitter with my name bryanbro without the @. This way I catch any tweets where my name is inside of a tweet.

  • November 17, 2008

    I love the dinner metaphor. Apt for the medium.

  • November 17, 2008

    Great analogy Chuck. So the person at the end of the table, the loud, drunk and obnoxious one is the one blasting every blog post on his blog one right after the other?

    For those of you following your rss searching for @yourname. Tweetlater just launched a new service to send you an email when it spots an @yourname. You can set it to email you every 5 mins up to a daily digest. Login to your account and set it up, link is on main page after login.

  • November 18, 2008

    Not sure if it’s bad manners as such, but I find it really annoying when people just spew endlessly about their every single move. If they were at this dinner table, I wouldn’t be interested to know that they are ‘going to the right back’ … ‘back now. feel better’… ‘ that’s twice today’ … ‘oops, did i say that out-loud?’.
    SHUT UP. This is just too noisy for my taste.

  • November 20, 2008

    Good theam some times begganer in twitter dont know how to use ach one of the ways to comunicate to other so it make the comunication whit them harder. in my case i comit some of doze error and litle by litle am improving am not pefect but something is something.

  • November 29, 2008

    Love your site here Darren. Ive just recently hopped on the Twitter bandwagon and am still very much working it all out.

    This is by far the best place to work out what its all about without making too many mistakes and coming across as rude or weird or whatever. Cheers.

  • February 8, 2009

    Too many PC rules takes the fun out of this. i have cognitive problems due to chronic Lyme Disease and am just lucky to @reply people. Why does it have to be so difficult? i will continue doing what i do and if peeps miss it, too bad. i don’t have the energy to be overly concerned about silly things like this.

  • February 11, 2009

    thanks. I’m new to social media and appreciate the lesson.

  • April 12, 2009

    whew…so much to learn & assimilate.

    i appreciate this post as i am new to twitter & wondered the protocol & etiquette.
    i know i don’t like when someone tweets me a link to a “teleseminar” or to “sign up” for a class or tips or something for money or is requiring my email address.
    however, if it becomes an organic interest i will purchase what is being offered.

    thanx :-)

  • August 18, 2009

    This is an incredibly useful guide for people new to Twitter; thank you!! I will definitely be directing people here.

  • August 2, 2010

    I hate when people replies like this:
    “RT @name: message // comment”

    I usually end up unfollowing them.

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