Ethical Communication: How To Keep Boundaries Online

Ethical Communication online is vital for your business success and emotional wellbeing. How do you keep boundaries during an over-sharing pandemic?

In a BBC Radio 4 programme, the pioneer of therapeutic writing James Pennebaker joked that “in 10 years time, a new therapy will come out called ‘Shut Up! Keep It To Yourself!’”. Three decades after his groundbreaking research demonstrated the powerful impact writing about oneself can have, he speculated that the more open culture of today, where “people are connecting differently”, has caused expressive writing to lose its edge.

Over-sharing takes two forms: quantity and quality. You know the first kind – the tedious Tweeters whose 100 daily tweets chart every personal banality, or the Facebook friends whose immensely personal posts make you squirm with discomfort. The ‘quality’ over-sharers are those who post risky information that could compromise their security (phone numbers, addresses, D.o.B, location etc) – as apparently 52% of us do.

Are You An Over-Sharer?

In terms of volume, the optimum number of daily Tweets (the so-called “Tweet-spot”) is surprisingly low: 4, according to an in-depth 2012 report from Buddy Media. How many posts do you make?

The reasons for over-sharing seem to fall into 4 categories.

  • Lack of self-awareness, or a naivety around what is and isn’t ok online. A bit like when your mum shouts her PIN number to you as you stand at the ATM
  • Attention-seeking…an over-inflated sense of self-importance
  • A lack of real-world connection. One theory goes that social media is so popular because so many of Generation Y were raised in broken homes
  • Trauma. Are you inadvertently – or inappropriately – working through an unresolved trauma online? Do you seek solace and support in your social media usage?

Could any of those apply to you?

You probably don’t know you are doing it, so to check you should…

  • Print off your Timeline or Tweets for a week. Put it in a drawer and forget about it. A couple of weeks later dig it out and see what your objective reaction is.
  • Ask a friend you can trust for their honest opinion
  • Tweet the question: ‘Do I over-tweet?’ The Twitterverse is not normally backwards in coming forwards. (Hint: If you add ‘pls RT’ you are almost certainly an over-sharer).

Boring and Annoying

A survey recently revealed the Top Ten Annoying Social Media Habits. Are you guilty of any of these?

1. Diet and exercise boasting
2. Sharing pictures of every meal
3. Writing cryptic status updates
4. Game inviters
5. Proud parents
6. People who share very personal details
7. ‘Checker-inners’
8. Event spammers
9. Constant engagers who like and comment…on everything
10. Self-promoters

Loose Lips Sink Ships

As the news reports often show us, unboundaried activity can cost you your job. It can also endanger your life. If you are in any doubt about the power of social media, the use of Twitter in the Middle East for women in Femen and throughout the Arab Spring shows the pen, or keyboard, truly is mightier than the sword.

Graduates and job-hunters are increasingly unstuck by their online selves. In a recent survey, nearly three quarters of recruiters said they checked up on applicants’ social media pages. And if you do get as far as the interview, observe Tw-etiquette: 27% of employers said they’d be annoyed to receive friend requests from new staff.

Good Social Health

Being boundaried online is imperative for your social health. You need to find the intuitive balance between sharing-to-connect and sharing-to-exist. This can be difficult when different social groups, or parts of you, collide.

In the 2011 Yahoo paper ‘Faceted Identity, Faceted Lives: Social and Technical Issues with Being Yourself Online’, Churchill and Farnham explored the issues people experience managing personal boundaries on email and social media. They asked participants about the different parts of their identities and social groups, and how this manifests in their online behaviour.

The study takes the premise that the Internet can lead to the “sometimes useful, but often socially awkward, convergence of different areas of users’ lives”. The research demonstrated that “people maintain social boundaries and show different facets of their character according to the demands of the social situation.” Single professional men had the highest level of incompatible facets and the most difficulty managing boundaries.

…And Emotional Health

We have written about our belief in being your whole self online; having boundaries does not mean adopting personas. It’s not self-censorship; it’s just thinking before you speak, that old advice your mother gave you. She might not have called it mindfulness, but some folks do and it seems to be a very helpful concept. Ethan Nichtern has some great strategies for using social media in a mindful way, including this:

“Before pressing “Tweet” or “Share”, take three deep breaths. Then ask four questions associated with the practice of responsible speech: A) Is this True? B) Is this Helpful? C) Is this an appropriate time to share this? D) I am an appropriate person to share it?”

…And Business Health

Poor communication boundaries compromise your storytelling. You will experience a drop in people listening to you and a tumbleweed silence where there should be deafening chatter about how amazing you and your products / services are.

How To Be More Boundaried

1. Decide your comfort zone

  • Review other people’s online presence. What makes you feel (a) bored (b) annoyed and (c) uncomfortable? Make a list and see what the common themes are.
  • To test this, experiment with a few posts of your own that you wouldn’t normally make. You don’t have to send them live, if you don’t want to, or you can delete them straight away. The point is to see how it feels hovering over the ‘Send’ button.

2. Set your ground rules
How will you strike a balance between being open and being safe? Give yourself an external comms policy, for instance: ‘I will never post photos of my kids’.

3. Check your settings
All sites have privacy settings, but you will need to customise them. You may also choose to segment your audience (family, colleagues etc).

4. Do Unto Others
Boundaries are part of the bigger picture of positive communication. Use your boundaries to spread nice stories and make people feel good. It’s simple really – just ‘tweet’ yourself as you would want to be ‘tweeted’.

Get in touch

If you'd like to find out how we can help your business, please fill in the form and we'll get back to you in 24 hours.