How not to give your friends a ‘digital slap in the face’: Social media dos and don’ts

People are on edge after a year of Covid. Keep these tips in mind for your next post or tweet

It’s hard to predict how posts on social media will land, especially during the pandemic. Photograph: Melanie Lambrick/The New York Times

In an ideal world, your followers would think every photo, video or thought you post on social media is like a little gift to them. In reality, it's hard to predict how posts on Instagram, Facebook and other social media will land, especially during the pandemic. After so much loss and isolation over the past year, people are on edge. That vaccine selfie may feel joyous and hopeful to you, but it could be a digital slap in the face to someone who hasn't received a vaccine or who has suffered a grave loss.

"Someone could be experiencing loss in such a way that there's no way someone else won't post something that compounds their grief," says Catherine Newman, who writes the Modern Manners etiquette column for Real Simple, an American magazine. "That's how grief is."

Still, it’s hard not to overthink things – and to worry that, despite your best efforts, you may cause someone pain. Some social-media experts say you should review your sharing practices periodically, so here’s a refresher on social-media etiquette, along with advice for some pandemic-only situations.

Ask why are you posting

First, identify your motivations. Are you sharing that picture of the exquisite cake you baked because you want praise, or do you want people to feel bad that what they made themselves wasn’t as good? If it is to receive affirmation, that’s okay. But if you find yourself trying to get all your needs met by social-media likes, it might be time to think about what else is missing in your life.


Second, focus on your friends. If you tried to consider every possible person who might be hurt by a post – your seemingly unobjectionable photo of tulips could very well remind a follower of someone they have lost – you might never post anything on social media. But absolutely think about your inner circle carefully.

Newman, for one, hasn’t posted about her own post-vaccination visits with family because so many in her immediate friend group have lost a parent in the past year. If you’re in a similar situation and you still want to post your vaccine selfie or the first time you’ve hugged your father in a year, consider acknowledging your own good fortune.

"I still appreciate it when people say, 'We're so lucky and there's been so much loss and I'm sorry if you're experiencing loss,'" says Newman, whose best friend died of cancer five years ago. Before you hit "share", read your words in multiple tones of voice, as different people can interpret the text differently, suggests Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and the founder of the Protocol School of Texas, a San Antonio company specialising in corporate etiquette training. If there's any doubt, add a cue, such as an emoticon, about your tone.

Don’t go low, go high

If you want to post something negative, keep in mind that what you say or share often says more about you. Disagree (respectfully), but avoid sweeping generalisations about entire groups of people – or about one business based on your interaction with a single employee.

Additionally, remember that any message you share, even with close family members, will be amplified to your entire online community. (The tension may also be amplified around vaccines, health measures and the stress of a not-normal year.) If you are replying to your sister online about something, that doesn’t mean you can speak to her as harshly as you might privately. Gottsman advises taking a heated family debate offline. “Don’t start a family feud on social media,” Gottsman says. “It can affect the next family holiday.”

If you are soliciting donations for a particular cause or charity, recognise that the financial situations of many people have changed this past year and that there may be many other appeals compared to times past. Skip shaming phrases, like “How can you not help this person?” Instead, Gottsman says, use ones like “If your heart moves you, I’m sharing this.”

Consider your audience

Think less vigilance is needed, because your text group is small or your settings have been changed to private? Think again. When Heidi Cruz, the wife of the American senator Ted Cruz of Texas, shared her family's plans to flee a devastating winter storm in Texas for a vacation in Mexico, she texted only a small group of neighbours and friends. Screenshots of the messages ended up with journalists.

Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert and founder of the School of Protocol in Carlsbad, California, points out that it wasn't just one person who shared the chat with the New York Times; others confirmed it. "Even if you think it's just your inner circle, there's always somebody there who isn't 100 per cent on your team," she says. "That's the person who takes the screenshot before you delete whatever it is."

Ban body-size talk

Posting about food and fitness may be even more tempting than usual, given that a lot of people have changed what they eat and how much they exercise during the pandemic. But confine your commentary to how these lifestyle changes make you feel, not how they make you look. Among other things, not all people have had the luxury of more time to exercise during the pandemic – or if they did, they might not have had the energy to do so.

Dr Lindsay Kite is a founder of Beauty Redefined, a nonprofit that promotes body-image resilience, and an author of More Than a Body. She notes that your "before" photo – talking about how fat you look – may be someone else's "after". If you really want affirmation and accountability for your fitness goals, avoid the sports-bra selfie and posts about body measurements. Instead, Kite suggests posting a picture of yourself in a blood-pressure cuff, or a less body-focused snapshot of you jogging to your favourite coffee shop.

“Loving your body and improving your health doesn’t always lead to a more ideal-looking body,” she says.

Acknowledge your mistakes

There may be situations in which a post doesn’t land as you had intended. Maybe you shared a photo of a masked-up pandemic wedding, but followers pointed out that attending still involved travel. Or you posted a video of your family’s Easter egg hunt, because all the adults participating had been lucky enough to be vaccinated.

Ask yourself how many people reacted negatively. If only one follower is unhappy, it may just be that one person is raw. “We have a genre in my family we call ‘hurting your own feelings,’” Newman says, “where you’re looking for something to hang some pain on and you find it.” You don’t have to own the person’s grief, but you do have to take responsibility for yourself and apologise. You can keep it simple, Newman says: I see your pain. I’m so sorry.

If you post something that is hurtful to a wider audience – you inadvertently said something offensive or you didn’t consider all the issues – it should be deleted if it’s causing people pain. If it’s not, consider keeping the post up, Newman says, because deleting it erases the post from public view but does not address the hurt it caused.

On Facebook, she suggests an “edited to add” with your heartfelt apology. This should not include the words “but” or “if”, as in, “I apologise if you were offended.” These words don’t acknowledge the hurt person’s truth and their situation, or your role in hurting them. “If you accidentally step on someone’s foot, you don’t say, ‘I’m sorry if I stepped on your foot,’” Swann said. “You did it. It’s not a question.”

Your apology should also include a thoughtful plan about how you'll do things differently in the future, which can be calibrated based on how grievous the offense. For lesser instances, Gottsman says, a sentence like "I'll think twice before I post" may be enough.

These are words all of us could live by. – New York Times