A colleague I just met at work has invited me to be their friend on Facebook. I don’t want to offend them, but nor do I want to share my candid photos and lousy Scrabble scores with someone I hardly know.
Can I ignore their invite?
“Can I be your friend?” might work as an ice-breaker among small children, but it’s not a question you hear often between adults, at least not outside of Las Vegas.
Friendship, it is generally understood, is a relationship that evolves through shared interests, common experiences and a primeval need to share your neighbor’s power tools.
Yet for many people, Facebook permits a return to the simplicity of the schoolyard.
Rather than inviting someone to be our Facebook friend only after we’ve become friends in the real world, many of us are using Facebook as a short-cut around all that time-consuming relationship building.
Why bother asking someone you’ve just met questions about their family, interests and ability to run a farm or aquarium, when you can simply send them a friend request and read the answers in your Facebook news feed? And so we think little of receiving friend requests after we meet someone for the first time at, say, a dinner party.
If you like the person, perhaps because they brought an excellent bottle of wine to the party, then you can accept the request in the hope of further opportunities to sample the contents of their cellar.
If you didn’t get to taste the wine because they accidentally spilled the bottle over your brand new party dress, then etiquette experts would probably agree that you can decline the friend request, send them a dry-cleaning bill and humiliate them in a derisory posting to your real Facebook friends.
In the workplace, however, the dynamic is very different. The consequences of offending someone by ignoring their friend request are greater with a colleague you see every day than with a careless dining companion you may never meet again.
So why are people you work with increasingly offering to share their Facebook output?
Joan Morris DiMicco, an IBM researcher who studies social software in the workplace, said it’s partly because some people just don’t anticipate the ramifications of sharing their personal life with colleagues.
But it’s also a function of the Facebook interface, which recommends other people for you to friend.
“Once you’ve connected to one person you work with you get recommendations to connect to others that you work with,” she said.
Of course, many people don’t have a problem with being Facebook friends with colleagues, especially those they know well. But for those who would rather keep their work and private lives separate, there are options other than ignoring an unwanted friend request.
One is to accept the invitation and then use Facebook’s privacy settings to limit the flow of information between you and your new “friend”. To do this, you can create a “colleagues” list from the Friends menu and then add to it your new friend. Then navigate to the privacy settings and use the “Profile Information” section to control what information people on the “colleagues” list can see.
An alternative, says workplace etiquette expert Barbara Pachter, is to suggest to the colleague that you connect instead on LinkedIn, a social network for professional relationships.
“You can just go ahead and ask them to join you on LinkedIn and hope they forget they sent you a Facebook friend request,” said Pachter, the author of New Rules @ Work.
“Or you can say, Thanks for asking me. I’m keeping Facebook for my family and friends. I’m asking you to join me on my professional network instead.'”
Pachter said that whatever you do, it’s important not to offend your colleague – and that’s not just because politeness is good etiquette.
“The person you offend might end up being your boss next year,” she said.