Online Boundaries

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about boundaries; one of the things I realized was that I’m much better at online boundaries than I am in person. In person, I’ve only been enforcing (some) boundaries for the last few years. Online, I’ve been enforcing boundaries since 1992, and doubling down on them since 2016.

It turns out that I know many, many people online who are good at in-person boundaries but are struggling to enforce online boundaries right now. Here are some of my rules of thumb:

  • You are not required to tolerate bad behavior on a social media post that you control, even from old friends, business connections, and close relatives. If you can delete it, it is your “house,” and people must abide by your rules if they wish to remain.
  • You are allowed to compartmentalize your relationships. It may not be appropriate for you to connect with coworkers on social media, particularly if they try to take advantage of that connection.
  • “Keeping the peace” means telling others that it is okay to hurt or take advantage of you, and of anyone else in your presence.
  • You are not required to make contact with someone else in a way that makes you uncomfortable. For example, if you hate using Facebook and someone insists that you must be on Facebook in order to talk to them, then what they’re doing is making sure they only speak to you when you’re in a mood to compromise.
  • You don’t owe anyone an explanation for not responding, not responding soon enough, or not responding in a way they want to hear. “I saw your message but didn’t feel able to answer at the time” should suffice, if you’d like to respond.
  • You are not required to tolerate the presence of anyone who sexualizes a nonsexual interaction without your consent. They are trying to determine the extent to which they can control you.
  • There are no awards for being the person who never blocks, unfriends, or mutes people who make you uncomfortable. The people who want to make sure “you don’t live in an echo chamber” are mostly concerned that you don’t live in their echo chamber.
  • You lose nothing by distancing or cutting off a relationship that makes you uncomfortable. The person in question was never going to support you, either personally or professionally, except as it benefitted themselves. Make room for people who truly support you.
  • The bare minimum for an online connection is that the person is pleased and supportive of your successes, and disappointed for your sake for your setbacks.
  • Even the most heated discussion can be held politely, with respect for each other’s autonomy. If one party insists on a level of polite behavior that they do not hold themselves to, they are attempting to control you.
  • If someone is attempting to control you, you are allowed to withdraw your politeness. You don’t need to be positively rude, although you certainly may. The worst thing you can do to an asshole online is to refuse to play—but please do take screenshots, and if you must respond in order to defend your reputation, do it in a place that you can control, and can delete responses from assholes.
  • Politeness without the ability to snub another person for their bad behavior is not politeness, but submission and compliance.
  • Decide what your boundaries for interaction in your spaces are ahead of time, such as “no politics, sex, or religion” or “no personal insults or manipulative or harassing behavior” or “doubling down on bad behavior automatically gets the perpetrator a block.” Decide what you will do to enforce those boundaries—and stick to it. In my opinion, multiple warnings should turn into a block. (Be careful about unfriending people; they will often return to continue harassing you, if your posts are at all public.)
  • Decide how you will respond to rude behavior ahead of time, so you’re less likely to be pressured into making a fool of yourself in a heated moment.
  • Decode how you will be wrong ahead of time. I suggest first acknowledging the situation, then stating what action you will take, which may or may not include an apology. “I didn’t know that. I’ll think about it” is a good phrase to use in order to give yourself some breathing room.
  • Apologies are a way to influence a bad situation. You don’t need to grovel or explain. “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand how important this was to you” is a good apology. Combining it with your plan for what you will do about the situation—whether or not that plan makes other people happy—makes it a great apology.
  • A bad faith apology is worse than no apology, especially on social media, where it can be recorded, shared, and brought forth for decades. “I’m sorry that you’re angry about this” is a manipulation tool, not an apology.
  • Assholes don’t have relationships; they have degrees of control. If they cannot control you, they will often take a sour grapes tactic: your lack of cooperation means that you’re worthless and/or incompetent. This is often called “the devaluation phase” in psychological literature.
  • Assholes want to win. They do not care about fairness, duty, sanity, good health, safety, legality, or nuanced points of view. They do not believe in your autonomy or personhood on a very basic level, and often can hardly imagine their own existence beyond the present moment. Their actions toward you are not truly personal. You need not take to heart anything they say.
  • Fallacies exist to train you to recognize bad faith arguments, including your own. Everyone has some point upon which they become an asshole: the thing is not to make a habit of it.
  • If you’re not sure whether someone is being an asshole or not, ask them to clarify their statement. “I’m not sure what you mean here; it sounds like you’re saying ____” will often do the trick. Be open to people with poor communication skills who are supportive and mean well.

To sum up:

  • People who support you are happy for the good things in your life, and disappointed for your sake for the things that didn’t turn out well.
  • If you want to be surrounded by people who support you, you have to make room for them by cutting out the people who do not.
  • You can’t “win” against an asshole, but you can plan ahead how best to allow them to defeat themselves.

Good luck!

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