The Ethicist: Was I Wrong to Facebook-Friend My Nephew’s Girlfriend?

January 6, 2019 by Joshua
in Blog, Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Was I Wrong to Facebook-Friend My Nephew’s Girlfriend?”.

I’m a 60-something-year-old man with a social-media problem. Like so many others, I use Facebook. Facebook regularly presents users with images of “People You May Know,” and the opportunity to send them a friend request. One of the people so presented to me was the longtime girlfriend of my nephew, both of whom live abroad. When she popped up in my feed, I thought it would be a friendly gesture to add her, and, without much thought, I sent her a friend request.

Not long after, I got an email from my nephew saying he had to address what he referred to as the serious issue of why I “friended” his girlfriend. After all, I didn’t know her and I was “many times her age” and she was shocked to discover that my friends included other young women, and some of them had racy photos on their Facebook profiles!

I called my nephew immediately and explained that his girlfriend just “popped up” as someone I may know and I thought it would be friendly to add her. I also explained that, as a hobby photographer, I often worked with models (he already knew about that), and if some model chose to post racy photos on her Facebook page, it was none of my business. (I should add that I never post any of my photography work on my Facebook page.)

I thought I had resolved the issue until I got a very blunt email from my sibling (my nephew’s parent, who also lives abroad), with whom I have always been close. My sibling accused me of having ulterior motives in “friending” my nephew’s girlfriend, of lying about my intentions and of having a faulty “moral compass.” I explained the situation by email and in a letter and even apologized for any bad feelings caused, but my sibling will not respond to any communication. I wrote that I wasn’t so foolish to pursue a young woman I hardly knew who lives thousands of miles away and could anyone really believe that I was so stupid as to pursue my own nephew’s girlfriend? No response.

I feel sad and betrayed, first by my nephew, who didn’t accept my explanation, but mostly by my sibling who, for the first time, has failed to support me, and who has convicted and condemned me without a hearing on the very flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.

Two questions: 1) Did I make some cross-generational faux pas in “friending” this young woman? 2) Is there some way to convince my sibling of my innocent intentions and that I have been wrongly accused? Name Withheld

My response: There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

Labeling something doesn’t change your situation. You probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than a New York Times columnist labeling something for you, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the excuse to say, “But the New York Times told me to” but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.

I’ll also note the insidious, nefarious skills of this column’s headline writers. They consistently pack the headline with the intellectual and mental equivalent of junk food—“should I . . .” “Is it okay to . . .” “Is it right/wrong to . . .” I don’t know what to call it. It’s not click-bait. It’s addictive mental junk food.

On another note, you don’t have to write that water is wet or “Like so many others, I use Facebook.

Only you know your intent, but your language makes you sound guilty to me.

The New York Times response: We’ve got an issue of motes and beams here. Sure, many Facebook users would say that you should friend only someone you’re actually friendly with. So what you did was maybe a little forward — but (ask around) pretty much par for the course when it comes to relatives your age.

That’s the mote in your eye. Now for the beam in theirs. Friending is a request, and your nephew’s girlfriend was free to ignore it at the time (or to unfriend you later). So, while yours may have been an etiquette lapse, it wasn’t a moral lapse — unless, of course, there’s something in your past behavior to support your family’s bristling mistrust. Are you sure you’ve supplied all the relevant details? If you have, I would conclude that you’ve done what you can to set them straight, and you’ll have to accept that they’ve cut you off for no good reason. Indeed, by stubbornly assuming the worst of you, they’ve betrayed the bonds of familial affection and loyalty. There’s not much you can do about that except regret it.


I am a divorced mother of two grown children. I’ve had no contact with my ex for many years. My children, now in their 20s, decided several years ago to cut off contact with their father. Their reasons rest on the causes of our divorce, which they learned of when they came of age, and because of a major broken promise on his part not long after. They considered my reasons as to why they might in the future regret cutting off contact (change of heart, medical information, no way to discuss issues around the divorce). My role was to talk everything through with them and help them make a decision based on their needs and adult status, with eyes wide open and accepting responsibility for it, which they did thoughtfully and carefully.

When they reached their full majority, they respectfully and clearly told him they wanted no further contact. A few years later, he got in touch only to say he hopes they are well and happy. They did not respond. There are no inheritance issues at stake.

My quandary is that I am certain he feels a lot of pain, regret and sadness, and although I no longer love him, I feel a bond of parenthood with him, and in the best world I would want him to know how they are. I have honored my children’s wishes, and will continue to do so, as my relationship is now only with them, but I also feel his desire to know how his children are doing — they’re doing very well — is right, justified and sincere, so I feel utterly conflicted.

I know the children will not change their minds and that they would feel betrayed if I contact him with news. But almost every day I think about my responsibility or duty to him, as my partner in creating these exceptional children, and it plagues me more with each year, due to creeping up in age and because I try to be guided by kindness and doing the least harm. If I decide it’s best not ever to contact him, I want to find peace about not doing so, but I don’t see how. I am on a razor’s edge and don’t know what to do. Name Withheld

My response: We’ve all experienced trying to help someone only to find what we meant to help got the other person angry, frustrated, or the like. We’ve also all experienced someone trying to help us who only made things worse.

I usually respond to letters with no questions by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing your story,” and not giving advice or commenting much more. Not commenting may sound like an easy way out of more thoughtful and helpful writing, but I’ve learned many times in coaching, teaching, and friendships that helping people who haven’t asked for it is a recipe for disaster.

My starting point for why is that what different people consider “helping” depends on their values, views, goals, and other factors that you, giving unasked advice, don’t know. For example, offering potential solutions to someone who just wants to be heard often leads to exasperation, frustration, and feeling devalued. But just listening to someone who wants advice can lead to impatience, frustration, and other emotions neither party wants.

However obvious you consider your interpretation of what the letter-writer wants, dozens of other interpretations exist, any of which the writer may have meant, or not. Acting on unchecked assumptions risks imposing your values on others, which usually provokes responses you wish you hadn’t from others.

I’ve found the best policy to keep neutral until the person clarifies what they want so I know what “help” means to them in that situation.

The New York Times response: Here we’ve got a very different story of intergenerational disaffection. Your children have made a decision that is, in your view, unfair to their father. You should tell them so and ask them to reconsider. If, as you say, there’s no chance of their changing their minds, you’ll at least have set your own at ease. But they don’t have the right to stop you from maintaining ties with him, any more than you have the right to stop them from severing ties with him. So let them know that you plan to pass on news about them from time to time. And if they ask you not to, you can say that just as you’ve agreed to respect their decision, they should respect yours.


A friend of mine recently did an online crowdsourcing effort to attract money to fund her new small-business venture. She obtained her goal of many thousands of dollars. The problem I have is that I stopped by her home recently and discovered that she and her husband purchased a new (used) Jeep that I’m guessing cost more than the amount she asked for. They also own newer, nice vehicles, an S.U.V. and a large pickup truck, as well as an expensive motorcycle, a camper and a boat. Now, if I needed extra cash, I would consider selling something and most certainly not buy another set of wheels. Should I mention this to her? There was not a hint of guilt when I was admiring the new Jeep. I feel stupid for contributing money toward her campaign. Should I mention any of this to others? Name Withheld, Cape Cod, Mass.

My response: “What should I do?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

What should you do? I recommend:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

Besides the problem you describe, you say you feel stupid/guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

The New York Times response: If the money she raised was from investors — as with sites like Wefunder and Crowdfunder — there isn’t necessarily any problem here. They gave her money for the business, and she owes them interest or stock or dividends or whatever else she offered on the terms that were agreed. (Let’s assume there hasn’t been any commingling of business and personal funds.) But there is a problem if this was “free” money given by generous people wanting to support someone in difficulty with no expectation of an economic return. She plainly didn’t need all the money she raised to start the business; she had funds of her own. One trouble with those sorts of crowdsourcing websites — such as GoFundMe — is that it’s very easy to mislead people. Caveat donor is a good motto here.

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