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:
- Does this need to be said?
- Does this need to be said by me?
- 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:
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.
Last 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.