Personal Relationships: Drawing Boundaries for Face-to-Face Interactions

Personal Relationships: Drawing Boundaries for Face-to-Face Interactions

Brianne Neptin

Coordinator, Coastal and Environmental Fellowship Program, College of the Environment & Life Sciences, University of Rhode Island

Sometimes I worry that we spend so much time taking care of our digital personas and setting up boundaries for interactions with students on social media that we forget we should take as much care in setting boundaries for our face-to-face interactions. For me, it has always been the face-to-face boundaries where I have struggled - the social media questions always seemed to sort themselves out.

None of my internship students have wanted to be Facebook friends until after they graduated. That actually might be commentary on how lame I am, but in the end, it’s one less thing to think about so I’m okay with it. My Twitter account is entirely public so I am always careful with what I tweet. If a student wants to follow me all they’ll see are 140 characters on my favorite things – food and education. LinkedIn is completely professional so I hope all of my students request to become a contact.

Generally, I tend to take more care with what I write. I agonize over the simplest email because I recognize how much we depend on tone and facial expressions to understand the true meaning of a person’s words. Unfortunately, I have a bad habit of taking less care during oral communication. I am a woman who is, more often than not, without a filter. It doesn’t occur to me that sharing that embarrassing college story might be a bit too far. I simply like to talk and I am a rather open person. But, my students are not my friends, and sharing that “I did that stupid thing too” story in an attempt to relate might not be the wisest choice.

That’s not to say we can’t have an everyday conversation that is more social than professional with our students. I just believe we should take an honest measure of the status of the relationship. How long have you known the student? In what capacity do you normally see the student?

I do attempt to maintain a bit more dignity and professionalism with the students who are actively participating in my internship program or those who I have in class. I’ll be a bit more like my after-work self with the older students I’ve known for a couple of years.

I realized I needed to start drawing the line when other people reacted to how I behaved with my student workers. Not that I was physically doing anything inappropriate, but I have been known to have a solid understanding of various cuss words that may or may not just find their way into my normal vernacular. Colleagues within earshot would get this surprised look on their faces and say they couldn’t believe I had just said whatever it was in front of a student. Not that I think other people should be dictating how any of us behave, but it opened my eyes to how other people may perceive our behavior. I had to decide if I was okay with how I acted around my students and how I would interact with other students moving forward.

The other side of the situation, of course, is how the student feels. As I indicated earlier, my students have never expressed interest in being Facebook friends. They too have decided what boundaries they will have for our digital relationship. Therefore, it wouldn’t be surprising that they also set up boundaries for their face-to-face interactions with faculty and staff.

Just because I feel comfortable sharing a personal story or relating my weekend activities with my office’s student worker, does not mean she will reciprocate. She is in the office to do a job, not be my friend, and that might be exactly how she likes it. That is a decision that needs to be respected.

Navigating these relationships and their fluctuations over time can be very awkward for students. They are very much in the non-dominant role, even if we as the holder of the dominant position, don’t recognize it. There is sort of a lowest common denominator effect at work in these situations. The person who wants the least social relationship is the one who gets what he or she wants. I look at it like this, if a faculty member requested to be Facebook friends with an undergraduate student, just about everyone would find that weird. So, it is no less weird if that same faculty member tries to initiate a more social interaction with a student who is sending up clear rocket signals that they are not ready for that change in the relationship.

It’s all about the boundaries. As an extreme extrovert, I need to be reminded that’s a real thing. But, in reality, we all have them to some extent. It’s important to learn to recognize when others have laid down those boundaries and respect that decision.

Of course, saying we need to learn to recognize other people’s boundaries lends itself to the question: how do you recognize when someone has put up that boundary? Well, that deer-in-headlights look as a response to a crazy story about your weekend might be a clear signal. More often than not, however, you probably need to look for more subtle clues. Maybe your sharing is not matched story for story, indicating they would prefer to keep conversations to work issues. Think about how you signal that something is off limits. Are you direct and say you want to keep things professional or do you leave it to body language? Did you even realize you had set up a relationship boundary with that person or for that situation? Sometimes we draw them with purpose – desiring to create a deliberate type of relationship with our students. Other times we look back and realize the line just sort of happened and we are perfectly content to keep things as they are.

So, just because I’m curious, do you know where your boundary lines are?

About the Author: Brianne Neptin graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a B.S. in Environmental Economics and Management and from the University of Connecticut with an M.S. in Agricultural Economics. After spending 2 years in Eastern Europe volunteering with the Peace Corps, she was hired as URI’s Coordinator for the Coastal and Environmental Fellowship Program. That position helped her realize her true passion was working in higher education and chose to enter into the College Student Personnel program for Master's degree round two. She enjoys spending her free time cooking, writing about cooking, and getting crafty. Feel free to connect with her on twitter @brianep.

Brianne Neptin

Coordinator, Coastal and Environmental Fellowship Program, College of the Environment & Life Sciences, University of Rhode Island