Facebook is an easy way to stay in touch with the old high school gang, share funny photos from your family vacation and wish your wide circle of friends a happy birthday without springing for a stamp. But there’s a downside, too: When you’re sitting behind a computer screen, it’s easy to mishandle conversations on social media and forget that you’re talking to a huge audience.
“People are a lot bolder on Facebook than they are in real life,” says Wendy Mencel, director of the Canadian School of Protocol and Etiquette. “There is a disconnect between what they’re writing and how they’re coming across, and they forget that their words can offend people. Social media opens us up to more scrutiny, and we have to be conscious of what message we’re projecting to the world.”
Follow our expert tips to avert your own Facebook faux pas and improve your social media encounters.
Things to Never Do on Facebook
1. Use it as a soapbox
Social media may not be the best forum for controversial subjects, says etiquette expert Louise Fox. “Political subjects are touchy, and things tend to look black or white on social media when there are no facial or vocal cues to assist people in interpreting your message,” she says. If you are keen to share your religious or political views, tread lightly or you could find yourself “unfriended.”
That’s how Cathy*, a 50-year-old university instructor, plans to deal with a high school classmate who recently sent her a friend request. “He posts political rants two or three times a day, and it has rapidly become clear that I don’t share his views,” she says. “When I posted a link to a news story, he weighed in with a 500-word reply on my page. It was like he knocked on my door, and five minutes after I let him in, he was lecturing me.”
2. Get too personal
Posting the gory details of a medical condition or photos from a drunken girls’ night could have lasting consequences, especially since our Facebook networks often include business contacts. That’s what happened when Simone*, a 44-year-old marketing executive accepted a Facebook friend request from a vendor she regularly worked with.
“He made gross comments and posted links to porn images,” she recalls. “I not only unfriended him, but his careless posts lost him my business.”
Younger generations, who have grown up with social media, may be more inclined to overshare and underestimate the downside: that future employers will search the Internet for background information on them. “Even if your privacy settings limit your posts to your friends, one of them might have a public page, so all the world can see them,” says Mencel. In some cases, this could affect a person being hired.
3. Publicly criticize a “Friend”
Posting your critique of a friend’s parenting style or sniping at a sibling on Facebook is a big no-no. “Some light teasing can be OK between people who know and understand each other fairly well,” says Fox, “but meanness or nitpicking with an audience is never appropriate. Someone could get very offended, and there are more productive ways to communicate in private.”
4. Fish for customers
Sophie,* a 30-year-old concierge, recently “unfollowed” a friend who bombarded her with posts about the health products she’s selling. “She cluttered up my feed, and I’d get notification messages and click to find ads from her company. It was super-frustrating.”
It can also get you banished to the no-friend zone, according to a survey by NM Incite, a social analytics venture. “Trying to sell me something” was the third most cited reason for unfriending someone (behind “offensive comments” and “don’t know them well”). “Tapping your Facebook network for sales is an abuse of the friendship,” says Mencel. “If you want to promote your business, it’s better to create a Facebook page for it so people can opt in or out.”
5. Try to keep up with the ‘Joneses’
Most people present themselves in a favorable light on Facebook, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Like a 21st-century scrapbook, “Facebook is a forum for highlighting your strengths and the good things that are happening in your life,” says Phoenix Deerhawke, a registered psychologist.
But when all you see on a friend’s page are upbeat posts and happy photos, it can make you feel like your life doesn’t measure up. The practice has been dubbed “fakebooking,” and it can affect you negatively. Indeed, in a 2012 study in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, sociologists found that students who used Facebook the most agreed that their friends (even the ones they don’t know personally) were happier and had better lives.
If your time on Facebook brings you down, you may need to change your perspective: “Facebook is sort of like a movie trailer,” says Deerhawke. “You only see the best parts; you don’t see the whole story, the ending or the bloopers.” If your mood is negatively affected by looking at friends’ pages on Facebook, be mindful that they’re likely not posting unpleasant stuff that is happening to them,” says Deerhawke. After all, who wants to keep souvenirs of or take selfies on their worst days?
6. Beg for attention
We’ve all seen those mysterious posts meant to elicit concern or drum up sympathy, such as “This is the worst day of my life” or “I can’t believe that happened.” They may get the hoped-for response from some friends, but others see them as pathetic attempts to garner attention. “Use your social intelligence when you’re posting and ask yourself what your motivation is,” says Fox. “Are you posting something that you really want other people to know about you or is it just self-serving, like seeking compliments for your latest selfie.” If it’s the latter, you may want to reconsider.
Things to Always Do on Facebook
1. Use your face-to-face filter
People say and do things on Facebook that they’d never do in real life, such as pestering friends about prayer chains, forwarding obnoxious links, or posting inflammatory political opinions. “When you’re alone with your computer, it’s easy to forget you’re basically talking to a roomful of people,” says Deerhawke. “Because you’re a step removed and not face to face, that physical distance gives you the courage to say things you wouldn’t in the real world.” Before you post, ask yourself if you’d say the same thing to a friend over coffee at Starbucks, says Mencel. “If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t post it.”
2. Use tools to manage relationships
Chances are you’ve got people on your friends’ list that you barely know or don’t care about. But it can be tricky to turn down a friend request from your boss or hurtful if someone realizes you’ve unfriended them. “Those friends belong on your Facebook Restricted List,” says Vancouver social media expert Alexandra Samuel. “That way, they only see content you post to the public, not your friends, and they won’t be aware they are missing out on stuff.”
To create your Restricted List, click on the downward arrow in the right-hand upper corner of the blue Facebook bar. Click on Settings, then Blocking. You’ll find the Restricted List under Manage Blocking. Click on Edit List on the right to add names.
If you’re just not interested in a friend’s posts or they consistently annoy you but you don’t want to unfriend them and you’re okay with them seeing your posts, unfollowing them is another option. Right click on one of their posts and then click on the Unfollow option.
3. Keep bragging in check
Overdoing it with “me, me, me” posts about your endless accomplishments may be a turnoff for your friends. “My cousin posts about every ‘A’ her kids get at school and never stops talking about the cool designer clothes she buys or the amazing trips she takes,” says Jane*, a 43-year-old mother of two. “Only the best stuff gets posted, which makes her life look too perfect and I know it isn’t! She’s my cousin so I can’t unfriend her, but I have unfollowed her.”
With all of the bragging and posed selfies, you may wonder if some of your Facebook friends are narcissists, and some research suggests that may be a possibility. However, Deerhawke thinks friends who appear self-involved may just be lonely. “When you’re moving through the world alone, it’s easy to take a quick picture of your food or a selfie on your smartphone,” she says. “When you post it and people ‘like’ it, you feel like they’re with you, so Facebook creates a sense of community.”
4. Group friends by shared interests
If you don’t want to bore friends with weekly posts about your son’s soccer wins or, worse yet, be bored yourself by a friend’s daily posts of silly cat videos, create custom lists of your friends. For example, you could have an A-list of the friends you interact with most and lists for friends with shared interests, such as dog lovers or foodies.
“I recommend parents have a ‘kid-sharing’ list of friends you trust whom you’re comfortable sharing identifiable info about your children with and who might be interested in what you post about your kids,” says Samuel. Lists will also make your time on Facebook more enjoyable: Rather than scrolling through posts from everyone on your newsfeed, you can scroll your custom lists so you don’t miss the posts of the people you’re most interested in. To create custom lists, click Friends on your home page, then Create List.
5. Consider friend requests carefully
If you’re an employer, it’s not fair to send friend requests to your employees on Facebook. “It’s inappropriate because there’s a power imbalance,” says Mencel. “If you want to know more about them, connect with them on LinkedIn, which is a professional network.”
As your kids reach young adulthood, you may want to consider declining their friend requests or cutting them out of your network, for your sake as much as theirs. It was the right move for Karen*, a 55-year-old registered nurse. “My 23-year-old daughter friended me and looking at her partying photos and profane posts upset me and made me worry about what she was up to,” she says. “Since I unfriended her, it’s been much better for our relationship.” And it was the perfect way to handle the situation, according to Deerhawke. “Developmentally, the job of a child at 18 or 19 is to form independence, and they’re going to be doing really silly stuff,” she says. “It’s not appropriate to share that with your parents.”
6. Be sensitive about sensitive information
“People now use social media like personal press releases,” says Fox. It’s one thing to announce a celebrity death on Facebook, but it’s not an appropriate way to break up with someone or inform your relatives that a loved one has died. “It’s too personal,” says Fox. “In emotional situations, a face-to-face conversation or a phone call is more suitable.”
*Names have been changed
March/April 2015 issue of Best Health magazine