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The Etiquette of ‘Liking’ Bad News on Facebook

I recently shared on Facebook that a good friend had passed away unexpectedly.

The post received 22 “likes.”

I realize people didn’t actually “like” that my friend had died. I, too, have reflexively tapped the “like” button in response to more than one somber announcement — a malignant tumor, a missing golden retriever, a layoff after 25 years on the job — as a demonstration of empathy. To this point, last year Facebook rolled out five additional reactions — Love, Haha, Wow, Angry and Sad — acknowledging users were often put in the awkward position of “liking” a post about death the same way they would “like” a photo of a bacon cheeseburger. “We kept hearing from people that they didn’t have a way to express empathy,” Facebook product manager Sammi Krug told Forbes.

But while perhaps more tonally accurate, is a “sad” face any better? Or better put, is there an appropriate way to post and respond to bad news on social media — Facebook in particular?

I asked three social media etiquette gurus — Ravi Shukle, a social media and relationship marketing expert who helps brands like Samsung U.K., Amazon App Store and T-Mobile with their online etiquette; Diane Gottsman, founder of The Protocol School of Texas and author of Modern Manners for a Better Life; and Jo Bryant, a British etiquette expert who has edited more than fifteen books on modern manners— as well as some Facebook friends, to offer best practices on delivering and receiving bad news on Facebook. Here’s what they had to say:

A close friend died suddenly, and my post received 22 “likes.” What are your thoughts on “liking” death?
“Liking” a tragedy can unintentionally show the person posting that you support the sad news they shared. A “like” doesn’t tell the owner of the post how you really feel. Stick to the comments to share your thoughts. That way the owner can get a personal message from an individual they can relate to rather than a “like” that can confuse others.

Gottsman: The like button is tricky because people are showing their support for your post, but there are limited options. I prefer to comment with something heartfelt and not hit the thumbs up button.

Holly: My son and husband died a little more than two years ago so when I speak about them on Facebook, I’m happy to just see a heart or something. Words are just words especially when you’re in agonizing pain. To know someone understands or is thinking of you by “liking” is just as good as words.

How else can you show empathy on Facebook?
It depends. I’m not a big fan of people emoting endlessly on FB, but I do appreciate and respect someone’s decision to share. I also think responding is dependent on many factors. I most often respond privately but, to me, it might seem okay to respond with a brief public comment. Overall, though, communication is hard, and there’s no one right way to make it through any conversation.

Bryant: It depends on how well you know someone, and sometimes a simple ‘like’ will suffice to let them know you have seen the post, and are thinking of them. Many people use social media to respond to tragedy as it is easier than trying to find the right thing to say. However, for the person who is suffering, those who make the extra effort to support them in person will always be best. Good friends deserve phone calls and IRL visits.

Claudia: I don’t know why people think it’s wrong to write about (or react to) tragedy on Facebook. We long to comfort and help each other. After something painful happens, are we to call or write an endless amount of people? We don’t have the emotional strength or time.

Tatiana: It depends on how well I know the person. If it’s a good friend, I usually write something cliché but then follow up with a phone call.

Robert: I go with a heart emoji or “Wow.” I hate the weeping emoji because it’s overused and maudlin. Be imaginative and sincere. Avoid cliches like “in my thoughts and prayers,” “my heart goes out to you,” etc. Being creative shows you care.

Could you be perceived as insensitive if you don’t “like” it, or add another reaction?
Adding empathy especially on Facebook shouldn’t be expected from any individual. This should be an emotion that you share because you can relate to the person’s situation. If you feel there’s no need to add a reaction or even comment, it’s totally fine. If you’re a close friend or family member, you can always reach out via phone, text, email or private Facebook message to share a more meaningful exchange

Gottsman: There’s no guarantee the person even saw the post, so no, it would be hypersensitive on your part to be sensitive that someone didn’t “like” or react. Not everyone sees every post based on the FB algorithm.

A “sad” emoticon almost feels trite. At what point should you follow up with a call, text or IRL visit?
If you feel a Facebook “reaction,” like or comment doesn’t really portray how you feel, it’s time to reach out on a one-to-one basis. When following up with the individual, you should always add a personal approach as now the conversation is between the two of you. Take the time to listen and have a more meaningful conversation.

Tagging seems like the most inappropriate response — i.e., “So sorry to hear about @briansmith’s golden retriever getting hit by a car.” What’s the etiquette on tagging people in these scenarios?
Tagging can get out of hand especially on Facebook as we’ve seen people tag a lot their friends just so their post can get more likes or shares. When tagging an individual on Facebook there are two things you must take into consideration:

  1. Does my update add value or offer additional information to the person being mentioned?
  2. Is this update relevant to the person being tagged?

If the answer to the above is “no,” you’re better off just typing the user’s name.

Gottsman: Tagging is always rude without the permission of the person you’re tagging.

Bryant: In difficult times, the person who is the victim of the tragedy should lead the social media presence. Many an upset has been caused by someone else tagging and sharing the news before the important people have been told. If you want to sympathize, send an SMS or What’s App instead.

A colleague’s mother died six months ago. A number of people wished her mom a happy birthday last week on Facebook, having not heard that she passed. Is it now on the daughter to share that news on her and/or her mom’s Facebook pages?
When it comes to sensitive matters such as the loss of a family member, you must always remain respectful at all times. Therefore, you must not blame those who’ve wished her a happy birthday as they genuinely wouldn’t have known about her passing. Instead, the daughter could reply by posting an update on the mom’s account letting them know that her mom has passed but thanking people for their birthday wishes as she would’ve been pleased with so many others sharing well wishes on her special day.

Gottsman: The daughter should either privately message the people who wished her mother a happy birthday, or make a public message such as, “Our family wants to thank everyone for wishing my mom a happy birthday. For those who may not have heard, she passed away in November. Again, thank you for thinking of our mom.” However, at some point, it’s no longer necessary, or the responsibility of the daughter, to answer remarks on her mom’s page. Those who the family wanted to know at the time of her passing would’ve been informed privately.

Is it appropriate to announce a divorce on Facebook? What are things to keep in mind / avoid?
When sharing such important news via Facebook, you must be sure that everyone important has already been informed. Close friends and family should be told in person rather than find out the news from their Facebook feed. Proceedings should be private: avoid going into too much detail, don’t criticize your former other-half and never use social media as a way to point score.

Shukle: When looking at announcing any personal issues on Facebook, it’s always best to first take into consideration how this would make others feel. With regards to a divorce, it could be seen as a good thing if you were getting out of a bad relationship, but to your partner’s family, it could look insensitive. Best practice is to keep the sentiment neutral, and if you want to post about it, do so without causing any harm or ill intent toward others as this will only make matters worse if the message isn’t clear. For instance, you want to avoid venting or taking the matter personally on Facebook as this will only cause the situation to get worse. Keep things neutral, and if you want to have a more meaningful conversation on the matter, have it offline or on a one-to-one basis.

Gottsman: Many people use FB as a therapy session, or feel the need to explain themselves. Less is always best when sharing sensitive information online. Those that need to know already know because you told them. Always keep in mind, when sharing news, you’re also opening yourself up to comments you may or may not want to respond to.

What about sharing that a loved one was diagnosed with a serious medical condition?
Facebook can be a great place for support in times of need. There may be others reading the post that can help, offer further guidance or have even been in the same situation themselves. When sharing this type of information, it’s important you also protect the privacy of the person who’s sick. There’s no need to go into specific details on symptoms, side effects or even doctors’ visits. Highlighting the condition and if you require support will give you all the feedback you need.

Bryant: Some people find Facebook as a method of support and help during tricky times. Be warned that you may find long, lost friends suddenly offering words of wisdom, so be prepared to withstand lots of reactions and responses from many different types of ‘friends’.

What about letting people know you were terminated from a job?
It’s important when it comes to posting about your job that you remain respectful to your company. Depending on your privacy settings, most posts shared are public and can be viewed by mutual friends and their network. This means if you post a personal or angry response at the company there’s potential for not only your employer but future employers to see how you’ve reacted. This could work against you when looking for your next role. You can post that you were upset at being let go as this is a natural reaction; however, you want to remain neutral toward any staff or managers that you dealt with. Most importantly, don’t share any information that could harm the company as this could lead to legal action.

Robert: Absolutely because of networking and putting it “out there.”

Bryant: Share the news if you wish — it might open up other opportunities. Avoid burning your bridges, however, as venting anger and frustration at your former employer for all to see will never enhance your professional image.

How about posting a photo of your beloved schnauzer who was hit by a car and died?
If you feel comfortable and receptive to the flurry of sympathy, then go ahead and share. But remember, you probably loved your dog in a way that many others might not understand, so don’t feel let down if the news doesn’t stir up quite the levels of sympathy you were hoping for.
Also remember: When you engage with and respond to bad news like deaths, your FB algorithm shifts and your feed fills with similar info — in other words, an obituary in perpetuity.