Online as in person: basic etiquette, boundaries, & choosing your own team.

Image cour­tesy of mpclemens+.

Thanks­giv­ing is upon us, which tends the mark the begin­ning of The Hol­i­day Sea­son for most of us in the U.S. This is a time when many of us gath­er togeth­er with friends and family…and inevitably have to fig­ure out how to nav­i­gate the myr­i­ad pol­i­tics, beliefs, and lifestyles of those we may love but not always like.

With the advent of social media, I’ve found that such inter­ac­tions are no longer rel­e­gat­ed to hol­i­days and reunions, but are now part of our every­day dig­i­tal lives. What sur­pris­es me more often than not, though, is the atti­tude with which peo­ple approach social media. In recent days alone, I’ve heard that block­ing some­one on social media is nar­row-mind­ed, pri­vate walls are pub­lic forums where all opin­ions ought to have equal air time, and online inter­ac­tions aren’t real life so every­one needs to just calm down.

Per­haps I’m a bit a biased, con­sid­er­ing the sheer num­ber of friends I’ve made through online-only inter­ac­tions, but in my expe­ri­ence and from my obser­va­tions, online life is real life. It’s an unavoid­able part of life in the 21st cen­tu­ry, and it amazes me that some seem to think online inter­ac­tions sud­den­ly stop hav­ing mean­ing because they’re hap­pen­ing on a screen rather than face to face. It’s as if being phys­i­cal­ly removed from a per­son gives one license to ignore bound­aries and assume a far clos­er rela­tion­ship to peo­ple than actu­al­ly exists.

This sort of thing is incred­i­bly famil­iar to me, hav­ing spent 25+ years in a cul­ture that total­ly ignores bound­aries and con­sent in per­son (let alone online). This fur­ther solid­i­fies in my mind that the same basic eti­quette you ought to show to some­one in per­son is how you should treat peo­ple online.

Not a rad­i­cal con­cept, to be sure, but there are a few things I’d like to touch on any­way.

(By the way, if you’re not read­ing Cap­tain Awk­ward, I don’t even know what you’re doing with your life and you need to go spend a few hours read­ing the com­mon sen­si­cal social inter­ac­tion wis­dom that pours forth from the fin­gers of the Awk­ward Team. This post is heav­i­ly, heav­i­ly influ­enced by that blog, and you would just be such a hap­pi­er and bet­ter-adjust­ed human being if you made it part of your reg­u­lar read­ing.)

Listen & evaluate before you join a conversation.

I real­ly think a lot of con­flict could be avoid­ed if peo­ple real­ly paid atten­tion to a con­ver­sa­tion — both the top­ic at hand and the peo­ple involved — then eval­u­at­ed whether their input was help­ful or nec­es­sary before join­ing in. I’m not sure if we just feel like we’ve got to have (and share!) our opin­ions, want­ed or not, or if we’re just too impa­tient to take the time to fig­ure things out before par­tic­i­pat­ing. But something’s got­ta give.

Par­tic­u­lar­ly in online group dis­cus­sions, things can go real­ly wrong real­ly quick­ly. Strangers or peo­ple that aren’t close friends assume a tone, lev­el of frank­ness, or enti­tle­ment to someone’s time and ener­gy that usu­al­ly just isn’t appro­pri­ate for the sit­u­a­tion. Have an oppos­ing view? Pay atten­tion to the con­ver­sa­tion. Is there an explic­it or implied call for debate? Pro­ceed — with respect. Are they voic­ing con­cerns or sad­ness or emo­tions? Maybe pass — you prob­a­bly don’t need to stop in with, “Well, actu­al­ly…” or “Explain to me why you think or feel this way.” No one owes us an expla­na­tion for their views or their feel­ings, par­tic­u­lar­ly peo­ple that we don’t have a close rela­tion­ship with.

I think a good rule of thumb is the famous say­ing by Craig Fer­gu­son. Before you say some­thing, ask your­self three ques­tions:

  1. Does this need to be said?
  2. Does this need to be said by me?
  3. Does this need to be said by me right now?

Lan­guage alert for the end of the video.

No matter how public a conversation is, that doesn’t mean it’s an open forum.

And this goes dou­bly or triply for those who don’t have pub­lic pro­files.

My blog and Twit­ter account are pub­lic. My Face­book account is not. In fact, my Face­book account is frag­ment­ed into groups, and only cer­tain groups get to see every­thing I post. The rest are fil­tered, because while I want to inter­act with my friends and fam­i­ly on there, I do need to lim­it some of their inter­ac­tions with me on sub­jects I know will be sen­si­tive or con­tro­ver­sial.

But even on my blog and Twit­ter, I’m not oblig­at­ed to let some­one talk at me until they run out of breath or things to say. These are still my spaces. They aren’t courts of pub­lic opin­ion. I’m not oblig­at­ed to allow oth­ers free speech. My social media isn’t a democ­ra­cy. I have the final say in what I allow, and no one else can change that.

Think of it as my house. You don’t get to come into my house and say what­ev­er you want and expect me to put up with it. You don’t get to do that in my online spaces, either. Even if we’re meet­ing some­where in pub­lic, nei­ther of us are oblig­at­ed to make our dis­cus­sions open to the pub­lic, or put up with any igno­rant thing we might spout at each oth­er. It’s the same online.

You might not like that. But guess what? You can total­ly do the same on your social media pro­files and in your life. You get to decide what you post, who is allowed to com­ment, what kind of con­ver­sa­tions you want to have, whether you’ll delete com­ments or not. The pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less, so if you have some­thing you just real­ly need to say, go to your spaces to say it, just as I’ll keep using my spaces to say what I need to say.

You’re allowed to choose who and what you want in your life.

This, for me, has by far been the most lib­er­at­ing.

I real­ly can’t empha­size enough how impor­tant it is to have a Team You. A term that orig­i­nat­ed with Cap­tain Awk­ward as far as I can tell, Crim­i­nal Reviews describes it thus in their handy-dandy Cap­tain Awk­ward Glos­sary:

Team You

The peo­ple you gath­er around you to sup­port you, who are on your side and want what is best for you. Can be friends, fam­i­ly, pro­fes­sion­als – what­ev­er the sit­u­a­tion requires – and includes your­self (you are the Found­ing Mem­ber of Team You!). For advice on how to build Team You, see this post.

The best part of Team You? Is that you get to build it. You’re the Found­ing Mem­ber and the Cap­tain, and you get to choose your play­ers. Which also means that you get to choose who is most def­i­nite­ly not on Team You.

Does some­one con­stant­ly stress you out, manip­u­late you, monop­o­lize your time and ener­gy or just rub you the wrong way? You don’t have to be friends with them. You’re under no oblig­a­tion to expend pre­cious ener­gy on a rela­tion­ship that is tox­ic to your men­tal, emo­tion­al, or phys­i­cal health. Yes, even if it’s fam­i­ly. And the even cool­er thing is that you can decide how you want to han­dle it! Depend­ing on your rela­tion­ship lev­el (and the tox­i­c­i­ty lev­el of said rela­tion­ship), you can severe­ly lim­it your inter­ac­tion with them or even cut off con­tact. You can decide that you’ll only deal with them in cer­tain group set­tings, or hol­i­days, or on your turf (house, pub­lic restau­rant that is mutu­al ter­ri­to­ry) or what-have-you. It’s total­ly up to you. It’s your life, it’s your health, and you are total­ly with­in your right to lim­it your inter­ac­tions with peo­ple who have proven them­selves tox­ic to you.

What about that friend or fam­i­ly mem­ber you love to pieces except for That One Thing (pol­i­tics, pet sub­ject, reli­gious or non-reli­gious beliefs)? You can total­ly set a bound­ary with that per­son and say, “I love you and want to spend time with you, but let’s not talk about xyz, okay?” If they insist, “I’m sor­ry, this isn’t a con­ver­sa­tion I want to have. How about we change the sub­ject?” Or if it gets real­ly bad, “I said I don’t want to talk about this. Excuse me.” Then leave. You can total­ly leave. It will total­ly be awk­ward, but let it be awk­ward. If they are try­ing to cross the bound­ary you’ve set, it’s their awk­ward to deal with, not yours. Let them own it.

Here’s the thing, though. All of this goes both ways.

Has some­one indi­cat­ed to you that they don’t want to be friends or hang out? Respect that. Don’t keep push­ing your­self into their lives. That’s not okay, even if they’ve just com­plete­ly cut off con­tact. Silence is an answer, and that answer is alter­nate­ly “no” and “leave me alone.” You’re absolute­ly wel­come to have sad or angry feel­ings about it. You can’t help your feel­ings, and they are total­ly yours to feel, but don’t have your feel­ings at them. They’re your feel­ings to deal with, not theirs.

Has some­one asked you to not talk about The Thing? Then don’t talk about The Thing. Even if it’s real­ly impor­tant to you. Even if you think that if they just saw your side, every­thing would be awe­some. You don’t get to make that deci­sion for them. They’ve already decid­ed The Thing isn’t some­thing they want to dis­cuss, so drop it and move on to a safe top­ic you know you both can talk about with ease.

nopeLast but not least, it’s impor­tant to remind your­self often: set­ting strong bound­aries for the sake of your well-being is nev­er nar­row-mind­ed, self­ish, or cru­el. Peo­ple assum­ing that your inten­tions aren’t up to snuff are being nar­row-mind­ed. You don’t owe them an expla­na­tion. No one can oblig­ate you to keep them abreast of all of your deal­ings and rea­son­ings. If some­one wants that lev­el of con­trol over your life, it’s prob­a­bly a good idea to give them Major Side Eyes and shuf­fle out of the room before you lose all sense of your­self to the “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST ACCEPT EVERYONE NO MATTER WHAT” peo­ple who will drain you of your auton­o­my and health.

You get to set your own bound­aries and make your own deci­sions about your life — and respect that oth­er peo­ple get to make those deci­sions for them­selves, too.


1 Comment

  1. Emily R on November 27, 2014 at 12:00 am

    YES. So good.

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