Q: I’ve had some upsetting situations lately, I guess during COVID mostly with people working at home and using social media and emails more. I feel like a few of my friends haven’t been very sensitive at times, by saying things online that are judgmental and critical or sarcastic. I mentioned this to one of my friends, that I was feeling upset and sometimes my feelings have been hurt by nasty comments, but she thought I was being too “thin-skinned” and should just let it go. Am I being unreasonable to expect people to be nice online and to apologize and asking them not to use email to say anything hurtful? I’m just not sure what to do.

A: Certainly COVID anxiety and ongoing social isolation have imposed different ways to connect this past year. Being behind a screen, without engaging directly face-to-face with someone, can provide a safety net to avoid censoring our words. These last 12 months have been somewhat surreal, leading to some unusual behavior with lowered expectations and standards. We might type a quick message, muddled with unconscious anger or contempt, hitting ‘send’ without thoughtful reflection or editing. The receiver, delighted to see a friend reaching out, opens the message with an open heart, only to be hurt by the obvious contempt. Negative interactions can be painful, and it’s clear you’re struggling with some insensitive comments from friends. Unfortunately, online “etiquette” has been increasingly neglected, with technology providing the forum for less respectful communication. Sometimes the sender is simply having a bad day, unintentionally typing a message too quickly without compassionate review.

To your personal situation: If in fact these messages are directly attacking you, that’s another story. Hiding behind email to criticize someone is more about how that person handles conflict. It can often be that the sender is deflecting her/his own shortcomings onto the receiver (in this case, you). It’s challenging to determine from your question what these interactions were addressing: informal exchanges, important information, making social plans, collaboration on some project, etc. That would make a difference in how the sender(s) of these emails can be better understood and handled. With any conflict, you can focus on trying to get her/him to behave differently, to be more sensitive. Yet the only person you can successfully control is you. It may be difficult to manage your reactions, exploring effective responses, hoping to change the other person. That won’t work without drawing your own healthy, strong boundaries, assertively speaking up about how you’re experiencing the behavior. If you engage in a volley of defensive messages, the energy will become increasingly negative, limiting everyone’s motivation to behave differently.

With your comment about “upsetting situations” with online communication, it’s hard to measure the extent of disrespect or criticism. If you’ve been on the receiving end of abuse, I would suggest taking a very close look at how much power and control you’re giving to others. Are you avoiding situations in which you feel emotionally exposed, or less than this other person? Do you feel a sense of belonging in this circle of friends? When we don’t feel a sense of inclusion, we can always find validation and confirmation for how we see ourselves. Healthy self-esteem is our birthright, which is not negotiable with others. It’s important to expect kindness and compassion from your friends. That doesn’t mean friends can’t express differences or address problems with each other, but it does mean doing so with mutual respect. Does it feel safer to be silent, hoping or waiting for an apology when someone slights us, or worse, intentionally hurts us? Any shaming or blaming by email avoids direct discussion or engagement, smugly accusing or judging the other of something. Your friend’s advice to “just let it go” rules out any possibility of resolution.

Asserting that certain words or behavior are out of bounds can lead to some pretty liberating victories, bringing reason and accountability to the interaction. The person emailing might feel powerless to change and, from that frustrated position, projects a problem onto the other person. It’s easier to point the finger, to blame or ridicule the other person, than to assume any responsibility. However, can we expect to dramatically shift a conflict without relying on what the other person will or won’t do? I appreciate you’d like an apology, with your friend assuming responsibility. Unfortunately, as we’ve experienced during COVID, with people no longer hanging out, talking about their interests and their lives in person, the unintended consequence is that any conflict becomes the primary focus between them. This distorts their view of the other person. The bottom line is no one feels seen, heard, or understood.

Apologies: healing betrayals or the hurt we’ve received or inflicted — what makes an apology so important? And what makes it so difficult for us to express responsibility and genuine remorse when we’ve behaved badly or hurt a friend? Do we believe we can automatically restore peace once we utter the two words “I’m sorry”? Is it really that simple? Whether the issue is as benign as breaking a glass at our friend’s house, or as intense as betraying or attacking a friend, we need to open the door to healing by offering a sincere apology. For those unintentional hurts, the small mistakes or painful disrespect, harsh criticism, we’ve all had experiences in deserving an apology.

At the root of a sincere apology is remorse, our well-developed conscience compelling us to repair a misstep, or perhaps a more serious, deeper relationship rift. We want to be forgiven, to restore equanimity. The remorse: “Oh gosh, I really hurt Annie’s feelings,” or “I really shouldn’t have sent that nasty email,” or “That was mean to treat my friend that way.” When the apology isn’t forthcoming, it’s time to let the friend in whose relationship we’re invested know how we heard and understood the critical comment. Honestly address the emotional wounds.

Finally, so how does all this speak to your question? The goal is to reduce tension by either speaking up or not reacting. When an insensitive email appears in our inbox, here’s what we can do:

• Delete and ignore it (although the contentious behavior may become more covert).

• React defensively by emailing in a similar vein (definitely not helpful).

• De-escalate the conflict by assuming a different position.

• Suggest getting together to discuss the problem with the intention of reconciliation.

Avoid getting polarized with an issue that now could be defining the relationship. Both you and your friend have needs and interests to be addressed. If you hope to have a win-win outcome, you’ll need to re-frame the conflict to hear the different perspectives. This is most effectively done in person. When someone hides behind critical or abusive emails, the implied intention is to disarm the other person, but even more, it’s about avoiding meaningful discussion to reach a potentially positive outcome. Rebuilding trust, positive regard, and warm connection can shine a light into the darkness, creating deeper understanding.