How should you respond to emotionally charged, highly personal posts on social media?

What is an acceptable reaction?

Is a heart emoji enough to convey your deep concern?

Although I’m neither Emily Post (the etiquette lady) nor Ann Landers (the advice columnist), different people have asked me to address the best way to handle those sad or upsetting public announcements. Yes, as Write Lady, I constantly evaluate the question of what to say and what not to say based on the purpose and potential impact of words and silences; however, I still find myself wondering what I should do in those delicate, personal situations.

Should I respond. 

If so, how?

Should I reply publically, privately or both? 

What should I say?

Each circumstance requires a unique and thoughtful approach. If I were to ask ten wise individuals to give an opinion, I’d potentially receive ten different answers based on ten, one-of-a-kind interpretations of the matter.

Ultimately, the decision is yours to make, but the following steps may help you find the right words and best way to convey a comforting message:

1. List the indisputable facts. 

- What you know about the news source

- Your relationship to the news source

- Your connection to the individual(s) impacted

- The broader audience and your connection to them

- The nature of the news

- The medium in which it’s presented

2. Identify elements that influence your intentions.

- Your genuine reaction (sadness, no emotion, etc.) to the news

- Any desire to alleviate the pain of those affected

- Any motivation to lecture or take a stand versus console

- Reasons to share your thoughts or some message related to the news with others via the platform

- Any objective reason or personal desire to connect more privately

- Any objective reason or personal desire to respond with other actions

- Any objective reason or personal desire to remain silent

3. Avoid assumptions that give you excuses not to respond.

- The person sharing the news must have ulterior motives, such as to gain unwarranted sympathy by affiliation.

- The individual posting the news wouldn’t know you well enough to hear from you.

- The person wouldn’t expect or want you to respond (for various reasons).

- The person probably posted the news only to avoid contacting everyone separately and would rather not have to engage with each one of you individually.

- Your message would simply get lost among countless others.

- Posting an unoriginal or impersonal message would seem more insincere than posting nothing.

- Nothing you’d say would make a difference.

Scenario

Someone you know as a fellow member of your local business community posts on LinkedIn that his sister, a partner in his family’s law firm, has died. He tells a personal story about her longtime battle with drug addiction. Despite receiving treatment that indicated a positive turnaround with her pursuing a healthy lifestyle, she’d died from medical complications related to prior years of drug abuse. Your acquaintance says his sister had been volunteering as a mentor through the organization that had most benefitted her. Endorsing the treatment program, he encourages people who battle addiction to seek help and suggests a donation to the organization in his sister’s memory. You never met his sister.

Possible Responses 

  • You like the post to acknowledge his loss. You further comment that you’re deeply sorry and admire his openness, which could inspire others to seek assistance. You say that his sister must have been a deeply caring individual to commit to helping others.
  • You like the post to acknowledge his loss.
  • Liking the post feels odd, so you comment that you’re deeply sorry.
  • Liking the post feels odd and adding a “deeply sorry” comment among many others seems artificial, so you send a personal message via LinkedIn.
  • Rather than express your condolences via social media, you send him a personal note via email.
  • You send a sympathy card or handwritten note in the mail.
  • You express condolences when you see him in person.
  • You contribute to the organization mentioned in memory of his sister, and the acknowledgement he receives of your gift includes a personal note from you.
  • You contribute to the organization that he mentioned in memory of his sister. He’ll receive a notification that you contributed.
  • You send him a personal note but contribute to the organization anonymously.
  • You donate to a different organization in her memory.

While some would recognize only one acceptable response, others would find some merit in each individually and in varying combinations. Just as people express sorrow or pain differently, as many would never share their personal troubles online, individuals respond to such information based upon complex factors—i.e., immediate emotional reactions, cultural mores, religious beliefs, professional insights, their own experiences, and more.

Importantly, many post news with expectations of how their direct and indirect contacts will respond. Individuals, however, can be unpredictable. Likewise, their comments may be especially difficult to receive in a public or semiprivate forum. Therefore, those who have significant concerns over how people may react via a social platform should carefully consider their options and possibly choose a different manner of informing people who need to know.

By the way, if I ever shared sad news, a heart emoji in response would not only be just fine with me, but it would also touch my heart!

My best to you,

Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at www.writelady.com.