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.
Q. A friend of mine is constantly posting pictures and comments that are clearly attention-seeking. She posts three to five a day! Pictures asking friends about how cute her hair or outfit is. Comments about how someone told her she looks like a celebrity, or that a coworker asked her if she was a younger age, then asks if we agree. I feel somewhat obligated to comment or like her statuses out of friendly concern, as she is very attentive of my occasional post. Any suggestions?
A. Facebook is an obvious outlet for folks seeking affirmation, validation, and attention: You can cast a wide net, and you can cast it quickly and often to maximize the amount of feedback coming your way. For those of us on the other side, of course, it can be a different story, and this constant trolling for flattery can induce a kind of eye-rolling compliment fatigue. Nonetheless, Facebook relationships, like real friendships, require a certain amount of give and take: If you care that she responds to your posts (and you do) you will indeed need to respond to hers.
But don’t feel obligated to weigh in on every single hairdo or sweater. Hitting the “like” button every now and then is a pretty painless way to say “I see you” without extending yourself overly. Or try taking a completely different tack and “hide” a post of hers here and there. Because Facebook uses an algorithm to train itself in response to your input, it will learn to add fewer of your friend’s posts to your news feed. And if feedback dwindles a bit, perhaps she will decide to post less frequently.
Q. I’ve dodged my mother-in-law’s friend request for years. Every few months my husband downloads pictures and videos of our kids to her computer. I think this is sufficient. However, I’m beginning to get more pressure from her. How do I avoid hurting her feelings any further? Becoming my “friend” really isn’t an option for me. Ever.
A. Really? Not ever? Because it does seem as though the easiest thing to do—unless you are looking to make a point—is “friend” your mother-in-law and then adjust your Facebook settings to control which of your posts and comments you share with her. I spoke with Jessie Baker, a technology communications manager at Facebook, who reminded me of two easy ways to manage how you disseminate information: (1) When you’re composing a post, click on the audience selector icon just to the left of the “post” button, then choose “custom” to select precisely with whom you’d like to share (or not). And (2) notice that when you click on “custom,” you’re offered the option of sharing with particular lists. These are curated lists of the people you’d regularly like to include in your audience—or that you’d regularly like to exclude, such as your mother-in-law. An added benefit of lists is that they can spare your college friends endless photos of your kids, or spare your family weirdly inappropriate inside jokes.
Another option, of course, is to continue snubbing your mother-in-law—but then don’t be surprised when she feels snubbed. Facebook occasions a more explicit kind of rejection than we tend to encounter in regular life. (You would not, say, wear earplugs while your mother-in-law was trying to speak to you. At least ideally.) Given how weak, widespread, and undemanding Facebook “friendships” are, she is likely to have hurt feelings by your refusal to consent to even this most diluted kind of relationship. If I were you, I would brainstorm with your husband and figure out the best way to maintain your privacy while smoothing out his mother’s ruffled feathers.
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.