Facebook Etiquette: 6 Rules For Responding To Bad News

by Ashley Fuchs
A woman holding her baby and scrolling through Facebook on her laptop
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Love it or hate it, Facebook is firmly rooted in society. It’s how we get news, stay connected or kill time. Whether you think it is a “good” or “bad” influence in our lives, it is a tool, and like any tool, its value depends on the user. I love Facebook, but I have always followed a very clear code of conduct when using it

Some people really need a code: Their online faux pas are damaging their IRL relationships. To cover all the nuances of how to behave on Facebook would take an actual book. So let’s focus on the area where I see the most glaring issues: the sharing of bad news.

You may have an opinion about whether deeply personal, sad or sensitive news should be shared online. In defense of the practice, it is very useful for someone to have the ability to tell their story to many people at once. I have recently been diagnosed with a serious medical problem and have given updates about appointments, an upcoming surgery as well as links to a help site where people can assist my family. In this way, Facebook has been my megaphone, saving me precious energy. While it is useful for delivering bad news, not everyone should use it to send messages back to the storyteller. Who you are, and how you respond, matters. Here are six rules to help guide you:

1. Stay real.

Do you have a close, personal friendship with the person IRL? See them day-to-day? Have their phone number? Then do not post your sentiments through Facebook, no matter how heartfelt you think they are. Social media is for people who have limited access to each other’s private life. If you are “sending them love and light” on their wall, but don’t also personally deliver your sentiments or a hug the next time you see them, then you are just grandstanding with the other people who responded to that status. For the storyteller, messages from the Facebook friends who barely know them or don’t live nearby will touch them deeply, but your message may not have the same effect and may even cause resentment. Private message or text them, if you must. But better yet, call them or make a point to see them.

Sidebar: If you don’t know what to say, that’s OK! “I have no words for you. I just wanted to give you a hug,” is enough. Remember, even if you are thinking about that person all of the time, if you don’t translate that into some sort of meaningful action, that person isn’t going to know. People are losing a piece of their identity when they go through an illness or a loss. Don’t make them lose the authenticity of your relationship along with it

2. Don’t compare.

“At least it’s not ______.” Or “Well, you should be grateful you’re not my aunt in Des Moines. She had the worst case I’ve ever seen.” Someone shares a personal hardship and gets gratitude shoved down their throat like bad medicine. It is not our place to thrust gratitude upon others. People have a right to their feelings. If you want to be a good friend, then sit with them while they are in that place and offer validation. There will always be someone who is worse off than someone else, and it doesn’t matter.

3. This is not about you!

Someone posts something sad and vulnerable in public, so that everyone can be informed and treat them kindly, and these asshats jump in the thread to one-up them: “You think that’s bad? I had 46 stitches from my _____ to my_____!” And look, we’ve all inadvertently done it. Stories make us think of our own lives, and sometimes relating our experience can help the storyteller feel less stupid or alone. But before you type, think about why you are disclosing your tale. Is the storyteller expressing angst because they think they are the only one who has ever had or done this? Green light, share away, but make sure you start with something about them, and end with something about them.

4. You are not the expert on their problem.

Unless the storyteller is specifically asking for advice, don’t give it. (Confession: I have been a repeat offender, though I am working on it.) I experience this phenomenon a lot, because I have a chronic illness. People who don’t know me well are unaware of my 10-year nursing career, and that I am an award-winning health advocate for my syndrome. And yet, whenever my posts are vaguely medical, I get a lot of unsolicited advice about all of the things I have to try to fix my problems, which they know all about from the four lines they just read on Facebook. I know people are just trying to be helpful, but it’s always best to start by asking questions: “Can I ask what you have tried already?” or “Do you have a good care plan to manage this?” are great ways to open the door for advice, should it be welcome.

5. Clichés suck.

“Everything happens for a reason” and “God never gives you more than you can handle” are extremely overused and impersonal responses to this person’s very personal issue. If you have nothing else to say, then say nothing.

6. The ‘rule’ on ‘Liking’ is vague, so tread carefully.

Some people see a Like as an “acknowledgment” of what the storyteller is saying, and offer it up as an “I see you. I am here with you.” Other people are much more literal, and get very upset and offended if they see you “Liking” someone’s post about their mother dying. I would say, if all you have time to do is Like a status about death and offer up no words of comfort, then you don’t have time to be on Facebook. Get off, and contact that person later in a more appropriate way.

For many of us who lack “a village,” Facebook has provided a sense of community that fulfills an important emotional need during certain transitions in our lives. As social media continues to evolve around us, we need to balance our virtual relationships with our IRL ones, and as we embrace the new ways of showing our support online, we shouldn’t abandon the tried and true ways of just being human.