Digital Manners: Should You Drop Former In-Laws From Facebook After a Divorce? (Transcript)

Navigating the intersection of etiquette and technology.
Feb. 28 2012 4:05 PM

De-Friending Family (Transcript)

Should I nix a former in-law from my Facebook page after a divorce? (Transcript)

Emily Yoffe:  How sad that your brother and Suzie are getting divorced. Do you think Suzie would notice if I un-friended her on Facebook? I actually wish I could un-friend your brother instead.

Farhad Manjoo:  I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo.

Emily:  I’m Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist. And this is Manners for the Digital Age.

Today’s question is from a woman who wonders if she should remain Facebook friends with a sister-in-law who is leaving the family via divorce. She writes, “Dear Farhad and Emily, after about a year-and-a-half of marriage, my partner’s brother recently left his wife. Now that he’s made his move, we have started to wonder: when do we remove his estranged wife from our Facebook friend list? Should we do it immediately? Should we wait until he starts the legal divorce proceedings? Or should we do nothing and stay friends with her?” Signed, Un-Friends and Family.

So, Farhad, do you think she should cut her former sister-in-law out of her digital life?

Farhad:  This is such a weird question. It seems like these people think the change in relationship necessitates some kind of action on Facebook, and I think that’s looking at Facebook all wrong. Shouldn’t you just be friends with the person if you’re friends with them? And if their friendship is ending because of this divorce, then I think they should end the friendship on Facebook whenever they decide that they no longer want to be associated with that person. But there’s nothing automatic about divorce that would force them to remove that person from their list I think.

Emily:  Well, I think this is one of the interesting questions that comes up with the advent of Facebook. It used to be, in a case like this if there weren’t kids involved, so someone would continue to peripherally be involved in the family, that person drifts away. You usually don’t stay in day-to-day touch with former in-laws. But now you do.

I agree with you. There’s no protocol for when this happens, then what’s the Facebook action? First of all, are you friends with her? If you’re friendly with her, you enjoy her, if she’s not using her Facebook page to denounce your family, why even think about it?

Another question is, well, someone who’s no longer in the family, “Should she be knowing we’re doing family vacation?” or “What if I mention my brother, Brad, is now dating this really nice woman? Then she’ll see it.” That raises the whole larger question, which we’re still all sorting through. How much about your life, other people’s lives, do you put out there? Because it’s not an e-mail conversation, or a personal conversation, or conversation over lunch. It’s a conversation with essentially everyone you know, and potentially everyone they know.

There may be some sensitivity there. But I think saying, “Oh, you’re getting divorced; you’re off my Facebook page” is kind of mean.

Farhad:  Right. I agree. It is kind of mean. I could think of many different variables here that would necessitate ending the friendship. For example, if the husband in the situation didn’t want his family to be associated with his wife and felt strongly about it, they may feel that they need to remove her from their friends list because of that. They want to side with the brother in this. I could imagine that the ex-wife herself might not want to be friends with these people and might start un-friending the family proactively.

I agree with you that there could be this worry that you’re letting this person get a view of your life and this person is not part of your life anymore, in your family anymore. But you decide who you want to let into your circle based on relationships, right? So if the divorce in the real world has changed the relationship, if you feel this person should not belong in your family, if you don’t like her, then you decide to close her out of the loop. But if you’re friends with her, I think it’s fine. I think if there’s no problems with the brother, it should continue.

Emily:  I dislike people saying, “Okay, you have to take sides now,” unless it’s some truly grotesque violation. If it’s the normal “it didn’t work out,” let other people decide on their own relationships with your ex.

I wanted to ask, is there a special Facebook corral for former in-laws who I don’t want to be rude enough to un-friend but I want to put in a special thing where they don’t know where we’re all going for Thanksgiving? Can you do that?

Farhad:  Yeah, you can do that. It takes some work. You have to put them in a special list and make sure you don’t post stuff that goes out to that list of people, but it’s possible. I don’t know if all Facebook users can navigate the site well enough to accomplish that, but it’s possible.

Emily:  Okay, Mark Zuckerberg, we need a special ex-in-law button.

Farhad:  I think that over time people will use that function more. I hope they make it even easier. I think that’s really what our real life relationships are. We don’t all have one level of acquaintance called “friend” or “not friend.” We have close friends; we have family; we have work friends; we have college friends. For each of those different kinds of groups, we want to send out a different image of ourselves and a different level of access. I think that’s where Facebook and Google+ and others are going. I hope that becomes easier over time.

Emily:  I agree with the point you made that this now former sister-in-law may also be feeling, “Oh, geez, the last thing I want is this stream of information about this family that I’m just not part of anymore.” She may be debating if it’s rude for her, to quote Mitt Romney, and “self-deport” herself off the page of in-laws who are now ex in-laws.

Farhad:  The thing that people should know about un-friending is you don’t get a notice when someone un-friends you on Facebook. It’s a pretty subtle thing. You have to look and see when you’ve been un-friended. If you feel like you just don’t want to be friends with someone, even because of that, because you’ve left the family, I think that’s fine to do.

Emily:  We agree. There’s no protocol for casting out the former in-law. It really depends on your relationship. If you have your own relationship, your own friendship, no you don’t have to wipe this person off your Facebook page.

On the other hand, if things are such a nature that you realize “I like to cull my friends and take people out who I don’t have relationships anymore,” that’s something people are entitled to do.

Farhad:  I think Facebook should mirror your real-life relationships.

Emily: Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is digitalmanners@slate.com

Farhad:  You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week.  Go to www.Facebook.com/digitalmanners.

Emily:  And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.