Don’t be too honest on Facebook

Truthfulness on Facebook can be negativeFacebook users are nothing if not honest. Several studies have shown that we are frequently more truthful online than we are in the flesh. Want to know the “real person” you meet? Take a look at what they say on Facebook and other social networks and you’ll glimpse parts of their personality they keep hidden from view in the “real world”. This is such a well-known feature of social networking that no self-respecting recruitment consultant would dare to employ anyone without first checking out an applicant’s activity on Facebook or LinkedIn, for instance.

But there is a reason why we are “economical with the truth” in the real world; it enables cooperation. The human species depends upon collaborative behaviour – it is how we succeed. After all, no matter how much the movie “The Social Network” might want us to think that Facebook was the pioneering invention of one man, Mark Zuckerberg, in reality it was and still is a massive team effort. Similarly, try getting oil out of the ground without collaboration, or indeed running any business without the support of others. It is cooperation which makes us succeed.

However, we don’t always get collaboration if the people around us do not like us. So our behaviours are geared to getting other people to think positively about us. But what if there is an aspect of our personality they might not like? Well, we don’t show it to them. And how do we know not to show them aspects of our thinking and behaviour which they might not like? We use feedback mechanisms to determine what to display about ourselves. These include verbal communication, tone of voice, body language and a host of other features which enable us to assess – often instantly – whether or not we should say something to another person. If we reveal part of  our personality which their prior communication suggests they may not like, then we hold back. We are economical with the truth and the result is we gain cooperation – the big behaviour prize.

Online, however, we do not have such efficient and complex methods of feedback. Tone of voice is missing, as are those micro-muscular changes in facial muscles which help us determine what another person might be thinking. On the Internet, we are working very much in the dark as far as communication is concerned.

So, over on Facebook what do we do? Well because we don’t have those effective feedback systems available to us, we just resort to being honest. It’s all we have. But that loses friends, not gains them. This is shown in research on people with low self-esteem. The study found that when people have negative self-feelings they say so on Facebook. But this makes them less appealing to their friends and it loses them the connections they so desperately need in order to boost their self-esteem. In other words, Facebook works against them, not for them.

This makes sense, of course. When someone is merely typing negative stuff, it is not the kind of material we want to read if we are in a cooperative mood. In the “real world” such negative thinking tends to be addressed straight away by a group of friends, who rally round and encourage the person with low self-esteem. It stems the negativity at the source. But on Facebook the negative diatribe simply puts people off connecting. In other words, the honest feelings of the person with low self-esteem makes them less appealing to other people – the complete reverse of what the individual is trying to achieve.

Now, you may not have poor self-esteem, but this study should be a warning to you. It suggests that before posting anything on a social network like Facebook you need to think: how will what I say come across without tone of voice, without body language, without those facial expressions? If there is any room for doubt, maybe you should select another communications method.

Don't be too honest on Facebook 1

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