This has been a test of your emergency Facebook alert system…

Dear Amy: This past week my stepson was suddenly admitted to the hospital for tests. His wife did not notify us directly but left a message on Facebook to that effect.

A relative saw the Facebook message and called us to ask if our stepson was OK.

We were at a loss because we didn’t know what was going on. We do not use Facebook and are not highly proficient on the computer.

How do we communicate our concern that if something should happen we would appreciate the consideration of a phone call?

— Worried Parents

Dear Parents: The thing about Facebook is that it provides one portal (so to speak) to convey and receive messages to and from a large group of people. When someone is in the hospital, Facebook might seem the most efficient way of letting people know.

Your daughter-in-law wasn’t thinking of you when she posted her message on Facebook, but depending on the nature of your stepson’s health issues, it’s reasonable that she should not be thinking of you in the middle of a possible crisis.

I realize joining Facebook seems daunting; one way to handle this with your stepson and his wife would be to ask if they could give you a hand setting up a Facebook account and helping you figure out how to use it.

Tell them, “We realize you had a lot going on but please try to remember that it would be great to get a personal call if there’s an emergency.”

Oy.  It’s amazing what a minefield Facebook etiquette has become. (Interestingly–I have yet to see a letter in a mainstream advice column asking about Twitter.  I wonder if it just hasn’t yet been widely adopted by the communities most likely to turn to Abby and Amy or if, instead, it seems more straightforward and leaves less room for the exclusion, embarrassment, and petty-ness that seems to thrive on Facebook.  I’m guessing the former–people seem to find a way to be exclusive, embarrassing, and petty in every medium, if they want to)

Anyway, Amy says: “Your daughter-in-law wasn’t thinking of you when she posted her message on Facebook, but depending on the nature of your stepson’s health issues, it’s reasonable that she should not be thinking of you in the middle of a possible crisis.” I have to think she’s going to catch a lot of flak for this one, because the letter writer (and anyone who sympathizes with her) is going to think, “Well that’s obvious–but she was thinking of facebook in the middle of a possible crisis.”  Or perhaps “…but she was thinking of the insatiable curiosity of hundreds of friends and acquaintances in the middle of a possible crisis.”

I think Amy’s probably right, that this slight was not deliberate, but that the call just totally slipped this person’s mind in the moment.  But the trouble is, since she did take time to inform others, the mistake is upgraded.  It’s one thing to be too stressed or overwhelmed to tell anyone. It’s another to tell everyone except two key people.

We don’t know whether this Facebook emergency alert was a short public message like a status update, or a private, thoughtfully composed letter to friends and family only.  I’m actually not sure which would be “worse,” from the perspective of the LW: in the first scenario, it’s easier to excuse the wife as being busy or stressed and just throwing up a quick alert–but then she’s truly announced the news publicly without telling the parents.  In the second scenario, she’s shown some thought and care to break the news to a select group–but if she had the time and energy to do that, she really should have called the parents.

It’s also possible, of course, that the husband was really in no danger–that there was no crisis. She may have posted the word because she posts everything that happens to her, and deliberately didn’t inform the parents because she didn’t want them to worry.  Or, didn’t think she needed to, just as she doesn’t think they need to know what she had for lunch, or what she can see from her office window (the rest of the world, of course, is panting for this information).  This is still a mistake, because once the word is out, it’s going to get around–and will only grow in the sharing.

There’s another possibility: this is going to sound ridiculous, but it’s entirely possible she didn’t have the number at hand.  I don’t.  SK and I don’t have a landline, and I don’t have his parents’ home number or cell phone numbers in my phone.  That should change, of course, especially for this very reason: In Case of Emergency.  I should have them.  But I don’t. Maybe she doesn’t either.

Amy’s suggestion that the parents join Facebook is not a bad one.  For people who truly want to increase contact with their relatives and friends (not just gripe and gripe that they’re not being contacted enough via their preferred medium), being willing to adapt to a new channel can make a huge difference. But in this case, I think it obscures the problem a bit. Whether she forgot to or chose not to, I do think the daughter should have called (if she could), if only because sensitive news really should be broken to the people closest to the situation in a one-on-one conversation. That is, even if they were on Facebook, where they could be included as targets of this message–that’s still not the way to tell parents that their son is in the hospital.

But, if the stepmom is supercilious about this (“we would appreciate the consideration of a phone call,” even though she’s right–consideration is exactly what it is) I think she’ll just strain the relationship and may make the DIL even more uncomfortable calling in the future.  Instead, I think Amy’s words are probably fine.   Relating the anecdote she told in her letter might help, too: “I was so shocked, worried, and embarrassed when I found out from X that Y was in the hospital.  I think X was mortified, too, to have accidentally broken this news to us.  I really wish we’d known.”

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