Thursday, May 28, 2015

To unfriend or not to unfriend

Back in March I posted a question on FB asking people what their thoughts on circumcision were. I probably should have known better because it's one of those contentious things that's associated with sex, and religion, and parenting. And any idiot knows it's dangerous territory questioning how people raise their children. Asking about these things on FB is also a great way to get unfriended, but more on that later. I think sex, religion and politics and parenting are exactly what we should be discussing because how we think about these things, how they drive us, or affect how we live our lives, has a very direct impact on the world at large. Also how can you possibly begin to know someone unless you know their opinions or beliefs on these things?

The circumcision question led to a torrent of heated response. It was a shit storm actually. And for a large part of the weekend over which this took place, I felt like I was backed into a corner with a chair in one hand and a whip in the other to defend the fact that I had dared raise this topic for discussion in a public forum, and for my own opinion on the matter. The responses from people went something like this: Those in favour cited everything from religious reasons, to health and hygiene benefits, to aesthetics (like father like son). Those against started off with the relatively tame: There is insufficient evidence to make this a necessary procedure. To those who felt it was an unnecessary painful and traumatic experience to put a baby through. To those who said it was infringing on the rights of a child to perform such a cosmetic procedure before they were of age to consent. To those who felt it was akin to female circumcision because you are removing a part of the penis that has a role in sexual gratification. 

You see where this is going right?

We all want to do what is right for our children - and that was abundantly clear even when the bullets were flying in this debate. No one was circumcising their child to mutilate them or deprive them of later sexual gratification - and no one was not doing it because they didn't care if their child, as an adult, might be more at risk of STDs. People were making decisions based on what they felt was right for their children, and there were good intentions all around - even underneath all the vitriol.

The content of this debate is valid but not the point of this particular post. What was interesting to me was that people are a lot more defensive of their beliefs than I had expected. I mean, really really defensive. It was easy to see how things like this lead to massive arguments on and off FB and the much dreaded 'un-friending'.

I question everything I believe in or think because arriving at some kind of informed objective truth is far more important to me than being right, and there are many times when I am proven to be wrong. It's also why I take advantage of using FB as a kind of vox pop source of information for things I am interested in or want to write about. By today's count I have 392 FB friends.You better believe that among these 392 people I am going to get a lot of very varied opinions, also included in that some direct experience and professional data because of the nature of some people lives or their work. It's an interesting, valuable and handy source of informal information, especially if you are genuinely interested in what people think, rather than people just agreeing with you. In my personal non FB life, I don't surround myself with people who are just like me either, but there is something to be said for likemindedness amongst one's friends. Discussion and even heated debate is something I value in my friendships and admittedly a commonality we share. We argue about pretty much everything, and in an ideal situation this happens over wine and good food. It is one of life's great pleasures and more so it serves a vital role in our personal development, education, and the continued betterment of the world at large.  

Among my 392 FB friends, some of these people I have known since I was five years old, but haven't seen in 30 odd years. Some of them are mums from the school run, people I used to work with, others I've met socially along the way, or through a class I am doing. And sometimes they are through another friend on FB which means I haven't actually met the person in real life. I'd say 98% of these people are not a regular part of my day to day life in terms of people I see socially, talk to on the phone or email. And there's a good chance that were some of these people a real and active part of my life, the friendships might not actually translate and endure.  

How often have you been genuinely surprised by people's posts or responses to things you post on FB? Certainly I have often thought to myself: Wow, I kind of thought I knew you, but I had no idea you were so religious or had such and such political views, or that you had a predilection towards kinky stuff, or that you were a gifted artist, or that you like base jumping or believe in spanking children etc etc etc. Recently someone I thought of as an artist and free thinker posted something intimating a strong anti gay marriage sentiment. I was at a loss for words. You make these assumptions about people, based on a handful of things they post and to a large extent what you want to be true about them, and then it turns out there's a sting in the tail. I suppose it's a cautionary tale of how we often get taken by con men for example, because we desperately want people to be like us and essentially good guys, and we project a whole lot of stuff on to them that is often nothing at all to do with that person's own character. But it's all good - differences are what make the world a more interesting place. I might not agree with this persons' feelings about not wanting gay people to enjoy their basic human right to be as unhappy as all the other straight married people in the world, but I'm not going to unfriend him over it. At the same time, geographical limitations aside, I'm not going to have him at my dinner table either. 

It occurred to me that people's FB posts and exchanges in the comments are a reminder of a few things: 1. Sex, religion and politics seem to be discussed a lot more and a lot more freely on FB than we do face to face.  2. Even though they might like your stuff from time to time, people you are friends with on FB are not always going to agree with you and not everyone is going to like what you have to say. So if it's important for you to be liked - don't share your opinions on FB. Stick to cute pictures of animals. 3. At some point, you are going to get unfriended or do some un-friending yourself.

I got lucky following circumcision-gate.  To my knowledge, or at least regarding people who I know well and care about, I was not unfriended for raising the topic or for my own stance on the subject. I am so used to healthy debate in my real life friendships that it would be a genuine shock to me that someone might actually unfriend me simply because we disagreed on something. However I also appreciate that by raising the subject I was not able to edit other people's responses, some of which were considered deeply offensive. I'll take that. I also however see this as freedom of speech in action, and all concerned had the option to simply opt out of the discussion at any time or silence it from their feed. No one was forcing any of us to fight this to the death - me included. But then personally, I am tenacious and stubborn like that, often to my detriment.

Following on from this, I was curious to find out what sort of things people do unfriend or get unfriended over. So once again I took to my handy population of 392 to find out what they thought, and posed the question. Have you unfriended or been unfriended (to your knowledge) and why? The responses were interesting, and not all of them for the dramatic reasons I might have imagined.

This first response sent to me by a friend articulates what I imagine most people fall out over - politics and religion. Those big serious subjects that people take so personally, and feel very strongly and emotively about. Also I appreciate his honesty where he talks about actively provoking people because I think we've all, at some time or another, been a bit guilty of that.

This is what he had to say:
"My unfriendings were mostly due to disagreements on two topics: religion and South African politics. In the former category, I suspect people unfriended me because I've been vocal about my own anti-religious views and they happened to be religious people, and in the latter category, I'm pretty sure I was unfriended because I called out white South African hypocrisy and racism, and that puts some people on the defensive. In terms of unfriending, I find Americans to be way more tolerant of different - even offensive - posts/views than South Africans. Most of my unfriendings, by far, were from South Africans and resulted, as I've said, from disagreements over politics and religion. Come to think of it, the few American FB friends that I've had serious disagreements with have not unfriended me. They might have unfollowed my feed, but I'm still "friends" with them. 
The most acrimonious FB disagreements I've had were with white South Africans (former classmates from either high school or college) who took exception to my liberal views on SA politics and race relations, and the accusation frequently thrown at me is that because I live abroad I don't know how "bad" things have gotten in SA and therefore can't judge the validity of their (right-wing) views. To be fair though, I do enjoy provoking people (because I believe it serves a purpose), and I'm therefore not all that surprised when my FB comments draw an outraged, angry reaction from certain people. 
I've also done my share of unfriending, and I usually do so because of overt racism on their part or because of insanely conspiratorial right-wing views. A few years ago, I unfriended an acquaintance because she referred to black people's dreadlocks as "dirty." I've also unfriended a number of American acquaintances because of their rabid - and frankly, racist - anti-Obama beliefs. No big loss there. 
Finally, I just want to say that I think the common wisdom that FB is a truncation of actual face-to-face interaction is actually quite wrong. The fact is that we tend to self-censor much more during face-to-face interactions because the threat and consequences of disagreement and offense are so much closer and immediate, whereas the indirect nature of FB actually allows us to disclose more and display parts of ourselves that would otherwise remain hidden. In my experience, FB has actually allowed me to "know" people in greater depth than before, and vice versa. FB doesn't obscure our "real" selves; it often brings them out into the light and puts them on display for the world to see."
Another friend added: 
"Once that I know about I have no idea why. Maybe because of my conversations with x where I sometimes take positions that others (including myself at times) wouldn't like. I have unfriended because of game requests. Otherwise I shunt people into a group that can see a limited part of my feed and profile. I take great pains to interact with people on fb as I would in real life." 
One person told me she often gets unfriended because she posted things about her vegan beliefs which some people felt were too harsh, but told me they weren't as bad as some of her other vegan friends who posted a lot of upsetting photos on the subject. She wondered why people didn't just silence her posts. This same person told me she in turn unfriended someone because they were advertising puppies for sale - something she felt very strongly about.

For a lot of people unfriending appears to simply be a pragmatic thing, but drama queens beware!
"I used to have exactly 100 friends and a strict one in, one out policy! I have no qualms about unfriending people. I normally do it because I want to limit the audience that I share with. I've relaxed a bit about it these days though..."
"Every now and then I go on a "spring clean " my friend list. They are mainly the needy, attention seeking drama queens. With us moving every 2.5-3 years there's just some people who don't need to follow my next chapter in life. I'm sure I've been Un friended for a number of reasons. I'm just not everyone's cup of tea." 
"Depending on how close I am to the person I unfriend or silence them. I usually unfriend people I've never met, or old "friends" from school days that I don't interact with, people that I am not close to who are drama queens, or who constantly post things I am not interested in. If I am quite good friends with them or I don't want to upset them, I'll choose to unfollow them - then I don't see their posts but I can still interact with them from time to time. Really like the comment above about interacting with people as I would do in real life and I also try to do that - not always successfully. I think it's key to remember that it's easy to offend via FB/email/text as it's the mood of the person reading your post rather than the mood you were in when you posted it that determines their reaction."
Interestingly, it also appears that people get unfriended when there is a change in relationship status:
"I got unfriended when I made some comments on somebody's picture and she did not like it. Another girl unfriended me once when we were still starting to get to know each other. I asked her what up, then she added me again. But I think a month later, she unfriended me for good when she got married and had a baby to her exercise coach. But that's ok. I gained two more friends from her."
"I've also had quite a few incidences of guys getting engaged and suddenly vanishing (in some cases because they did and others I suspect the fiancé went through and deleted on their behalf...)"
Some people seemed concerned about unfriending because they didn't want to offend people. This strikes me as a real life problem too - how many of us put up with genuinely unpleasant family members or people in our lives because we don't want to offend them? So effectively because we want to be considered nice people, we allow others to be awful.
"We all want to be liked I think it is definitely a form of rejection, which no one likes, so we take it personally. Even if we are not particularly fond of the person who had un-friended you."
"I discussed the topic with my teenage daughter and she uses the silencing thing, so as not to hurt other people's feelings OR cause trouble, as she says." 
"I contemplated the one in one out at 100 too! ... And I use the silence / I don't want to see these posts thing. I hesitate to unfriend due to possible offence being taken. I accidentally friended someone I don't really know recently and they accepted - feel bad now unfriending."
Personally, I have only unfriended a total of 2 people since I joined FB at its genesis all those years ago. For one thing, I am a lot more forgiving of people's nonsense, because I myself an guilty of it all too often. People say stupid things all the time, it doesn't make them a bad person. Also rightly or wrongly, I always assume ignorance first rather than genuine malice. I think were more people given to introspection, empathy, lateral thinking, properly informing themselves on a subject,  as well as good impulse control, life would be a lot easier for them and they'd alienate a lot fewer people.

However there are times when people post pictures of dead bodies, dead or tortured children, or likewise animals that have been subjected to unthinkable cruelty. And this is my greatest bugbear with FB. I can tolerate pretty much anything - even the bigoted crap, but to be unexpectedly
 faced with an upsetting photograph (where I've not actively been in a position to choose whether or not I see it by clicking on the link) I find close to unforgivable. I posted something about this a few months back and someone rightly pointed out that I was adopting a head in the sand attitude to the very real cruelties that are happening in the world. It's true, sometimes I do, for my mental health, there are days I cannot be reading about human and animal atrocities. But equally most days I'm clicking on news links and informing myself on another example of why man is hell bent on destroying himself, along with this beautiful planet, as much as the next person. I just ask, and is it so much to ask? to give me a little warning - so depending on what kind of head space I am in, I can prepare myself for what I am about to see - rather than get some horrific image staring back at me first thing in the morning right next to the ad that tells me I can lose 95% of my belly fat. These days I simply click on the 'I don't want to see this post' and it seems to be working - a lot fewer visual shocks first thing in the morning.

I see the unfriend button as this very serious daunting absolute last resort kind of thing - not unlike the big red 'fire missiles' button you see in war films or ones about nuclear devastation. That once pressed - there is no going back - it's final. So you've got to be pretty damn sure and you've got to live with the consequences of it.

The first of the two people I unfriended was a guy I was at junior school with who was an on off boyfriend - in that innocent way early childhood boyfriends are. I hadn't seen or spoken to him since I was about 13-years-old and saw him on FB and jumped at the opportunity to find out what had happened to him and where life had taken him. Something I'd often wondered about over the years. It started off well enough, and then he started posting these really snippy and gradually plain nasty comments in response to fairly innocuous day to day posts of mine. The words internet troll came to mind. It was like he had some weird bone to pick with me (unresolved relationship issues from when we were 8-years-old?) and I got a distinct toxic somewhat disturbed disengaged vibe from him. I unfriended him and that's the last I heard.

The other unfriending was actually a pretty big deal. A good and close friend of mine for many years and I got into what was a fairly stupid disagreement following a post about the origins of my family's ancestry. It moved off of the page into direct messages. We went back and forth a few times and it was escalating. At one point I offered an apology to deflect what was getting seriously and disproportionately out of hand and my friend continued to attack me with some very personal character assassinations. Feeling there was genuinely no way in for a resolution, I unfriended him. Had this been anyone else I wouldn't have cared, but it hurt deeply. A year and three months later of no contact both in the real world and on FB, I got a message with a heartfelt apology and fences were mended. I have no doubt that were we face to face when that initial conversation about my family had taken place none of this would have transpired, especially as our relationship had withstood a good few squabbles over the years. But, however narrowly, we survived it, and it was a slap in the face reminder of the dangers of how quickly these kinds of exchanges can lead to real destruction.

A big thanks to everyone who contributed to this post. This is by no means a well researched or exhaustive piece on the subject. It's simply an opinion piece and I'm sure there are still many instances of why people unfriend that I haven't covered. So if you would like to add your two cents worth or relate your experience on the matter, please leave a comment following this on FB or in the comments below.

And finally, here are some examples of FB and social media exchanges that didn't have quite such a happy ending:

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