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Solutions for Five Tricky Social Media Problems

With new ways to communicate come new ways to find yourself in sticky etiquette situations—witness these questions posted by our Facebook readers (we’ve provided them with anonymity). Real Simple Modern Manners columnist Catherine Newman shares advice.

Illustration of happy and sad Facebook usersGraham Roumieu

Q. What can I say to those Facebook friends who perpetually post negative posts?

A. We should all try to remember—and this really applies to most of these issues—that participating in Facebook is a purely voluntary activity. You post if, when, and what you like, and other people do the same. If narcissism and neediness are driving you crazy, then social media might be a neighborhood you should stay out of. Or, better still, perhaps we should be noticing—in this vast proliferation of sympathy-seeking posts—that virtual friendships are not actually taking care of us, and what we really need are more face-to-face interactions. Like our vain friend in the first question, negative posters might be cultivating bad habits, but they too are expressing a need—for compassion or for people to bear witness to their hardships.

So while it is never incumbent upon you to respond to generalized Facebook postings, you might offer sad or gloomy friends the same caring reassurances you would give in person: “I’m sorry you’re having such a rough time” or “That sounds really hard” or even, simply, “Hang in there.” If it’s a close friend, consider reaching out beyond the realm of the virtual and offering a real-life helping hand, listening ear, or shoulder to cry on.

Q. What about the friend who ALWAYS comments and turns every one of your statuses into something about them?

A. With social media, narcissism more or less comes with the territory. There probably aren’t a lot of people using Facebook for altruistic purposes—except, maybe, the Dalai Lama (and even His Holiness himself has more than 6 million “likes”). Provide a spark by posting, and you will inevitably fan the flames of someone else’s issue or agenda. What can you do about it? Beyond deciding not to post, nothing. Facebook is a more nebulous realm than face-to-face, where someone’s constant redirecting selfward would be not only tedious but also just plain rude. Social media interactions are, by their nature, more like conversational collages: disjointed, nonlinear, and shot through with randomness. Try seeing your friend’s comments in a gentler light, as her way of identifying with you—of saying, in essence, “I hear you” or maybe “Amen.”

Q. What do you do when your boss friend-requests you, then asks you in person why you haven’t accepted it?

A. Ack. While I tend to advocate inclusivity in matters of social media, this case is an exception. Just as your boss cannot insist that you pursue a relationship with him or her outside of work, it is impolitic and inappropriate (and even, potentially, harassing) for him to pressure you into a virtual friendship. Be direct. “I’m sorry,” you can say, “but it’s important for me to keep my professional and private lives separate.” If you are Facebook friends with lots of folks from work, it’s going to make that argument more difficult to present convincingly, so you might want to be cautious about whom you friend. Nonetheless, you are under no obligation to accept your boss’s Facebook advances, and he is wrong to put you on the spot.

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