November 27, 2023

Dear Conflict Coach,

I was getting to be friends with this person in my group project and we had made plans to hang out. Then, I got a message from them, saying that they had been looking at my social media posts and that they didn’t want to hang out with me anymore or even speak to me because of some political opinions I expressed. It seems so unfair! That’s my right to free speech and they aren’t even letting me explain. How can I convince them that politics shouldn’t ruin friendships?

–Unfollowed by an Unfriend

Dear Unfollowed–

I can imagine how much your almost-friend’s message hurt your feelings. I’m guessing you felt misunderstood and, as you say, this person didn’t give you a chance to explain. I can understand and even appreciate your perspective that politics shouldn’t ruin friendships.

And also, just like your political posts, that is your perspective, but not everyone’s. While your speech might be protected against action by the government, part of free speech is that people have a right not to engage with speech they don’t like. Your almost-friend is drawing a boundary, maybe to protect themselves from a political perspective they don’t like, or maybe to protect themselves from a political perspective that harms them. You don’t say what the particular perspective was (and maybe the almost-friend didn’t say either), but it almost doesn’t matter.

Someone is drawing a boundary about how they want to interact with you. I get that you would like to interact with them more, at least to explain yourself. Despite that, insisting that you get that opportunity to interact with them further isn’t likely to make them feel more comfortable addressing their boundaries. Instead, demonstrating that you will respect their clearly articulated boundary is a first-step. I don’t know whether this respect will lead them to trusting you enough for them to re-engage, but respecting that boundary is probably a necessary first step towards building that trust. Sending a single message that you are disappointed and would like to spend time with them and that you also understand and respect their right to determine their relationships is probably reasonable (unless they’ve said that they never want any communication with you again under any circumstances). You can let them know that you’ll welcome their future outreach, including if they want to share more about what made them feel uncomfortable with you. Once you’ve shared that invitation, then I think you need to leave the ball respectfully in their court.

I want to applaud you and your almost-friend for deciding to have this exchange privately. Social media is great for many purposes, but individual-to-individual critiques on social media rarely improve the relationship. Keeping the communication direct and private is likely to help both of you move forward–whether together or separately.


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