How to politely navigate the world of social media.

By Catherine Newman
Updated May 23, 2016
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My mother has always had a strained relationship with her brother, but after a recent falling-out, it got much worse. She sent my siblings and me an e-mail requesting that we remove our aunt and cousins (her brother’s wife and children) from our social-media accounts. I want to respect my mother’s feelings, but I’m hesitant to cut ties with extended family members. Viewing and “liking” one another’s Instagram photos and Facebook updates are the only ways that we keep in touch. What should I do? — L.B.

It’s lovely of you to take your mother’s feelings so deeply into account, but I agree that you shouldn’t unfriend your family on social media. It would be a shame to miss out on contact with your relatives because of your mother’s personal conflict. Unfortunately, you will need to tell her why you can’t comply with her wishes.

“I know that you and Uncle X are estranged and that it’s painful for you,” you can say, “but I don’t want to lose my connection to that part of the family.” Clarify that this doesn’t mean that you’re taking sides in the quarrel. If you think it will mitigate her unhappiness, explain that social media is not a very intimate form of association. If you’re up for painting the bigger picture, you might also want to remind your mother that you’re an adult in charge of your own relationships and that you’re unwilling to damage them.

Ultimately, by not cutting ties with these family members, you are doing your mother a great service. Thanks to your continued bond, it will be easier for her to reconcile with them should she ever choose to do so.

Every time my 13-year-old daughter, whom I’ll call Lily, posts to Facebook, my mother makes a comment. The notes are generally positive, along the lines of “Great job, honey!”—though they’re occasionally skeptical, such as when my daughter posts about her political views. Either way, Lily is embarrassed by the constant stream of grandparent commentary. I admit, I sympathize with my daughter, even though my mother means well. What can I say to get her to back off without causing offense? — J.H.

I sympathize with Lily, too. Middle school is a tricky time, and it seems nearly impossible to ask a girl to navigate a conversation involving both her teenage peers and her plugged-in older relatives. So intervene on your daughter’s behalf: Suggest to your mother that she back off a bit, identifying the impulse to butt in as a problem you share. “Mom, I’ve actually stopped commenting on Lily’s Facebook posts because it’s mortifying to her when her friends see all of us adoring relatives posting. I love that you’re so involved in her life and activities, but I’m wondering if you would be willing to do the same.” Then encourage your daughter to take up a private e-mail relationship with her grandmother. Your mom will still enjoy the back-and-forth with Lily, and your daughter will enjoy the discreet nature of the exchange.

How do I deal with someone who makes rude or inappropriate comments on my Facebook posts, such as off-color religious or political jokes? — Name withheld by request

Your Facebook page is like your front yard. You can plant whatever you want in it. And if someone sows weeds in your yard, you can uproot them. In short, delete the disturbing comment. Then e-mail the offending party and request that he not post that kind of material on your page. Remind him that he’s not just making these comments to a small group of intimates in his living room; the comments are public. If he does not cease, consider unfriending him. A true pal wouldn’t enjoy making you feel uncomfortable, right?

I have an acquaintance who goes on Facebook to “friend” the girlfriends I introduce her to over brunch. She has even reached out to one independently of me, to receive a favor—which I felt was overstepping. Am I being too sensitive? — J. B.

On the one hand, I completely understand your sensitivity here. Friends becoming friends with one another can trigger jealousy or insecurity, and if this acquaintance is the kind of person who seems to want to be living your exact life, you might feel encroached upon and claustrophobic. On the other hand, other people’s actions and relationships aren’t yours to control. Worst-case scenario: Your friends feel harassed by this interloping acquaintance. But that’s a situation that they can handle as they see fit; you do not need to intervene. Best-case scenario: Your friends are creating meaningful relationships with one another, thanks to you. Muster your most generous expansiveness and see yourself as the helpful hinge that you are.

Call me vain, but I am really upset with a family member who whips out her smartphone, snaps my picture, and immediately posts it on social media. Many times I consider the image to be unflattering, and I am dismayed that hundreds of her online friends see me in that light. Call me old-fashioned, but I, a senior citizen, think it is common courtesy to be asked if I want my picture taken. Then I should be able to preview it and decide if I want it posted. Am I being unreasonable? Am I out of step with the times? — D. B.

Yes, you are out of step with the times—and thank goodness, because, no, you are not being unreasonable. The proliferation of technology has given folks an “all bets are off” feeling about common courtesy. Every documentation of a double chin or an unattractive expression is fodder for public consumption, and you are well within your rights to balk at this dignity-defying new normal. I would say to your family member what you say here: “Call me old-fashioned, but I’d appreciate the opportunity to vet your photos of me before you post them.” If the photographer is taken aback, you can joke that it’s not as if you’re asking to be seated in a Victorian blouse for your daguerreotype session—you just want to make sure you’re looking your best. And besides, it’s unlikely that your family member posts photographs of herself looking less than terrific. (“Who cares that this old lady is eating a ham sandwich? My hair looks great!”) In other words, it’s not that vanity has dropped out of the picture—it’s that courtesy to others has. This is an important phenomenon to point out and for all of us to think about remedying.