When to Unfriend vs Unfollow a Friend or Colleague on Social Media

There's a lot of middle ground on social media between "friends who share everything" and "mortal enemies" — here's how to clean up your feed without feeling bad.

Social media gets a lot of attention for the “media” part—after all, who doesn’t love seeing pretty pictures, funny memes, and interesting videos? But when it comes to the effects on your real-world life you need to be paying just as much attention to the “social” part because ultimately Facebook, Instagram, and the like are just as much about relationships as they are about information, says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, and founder of The Protocol School of Texas.

When everything works well, social media is a great tool to connect with like-minded others, maintain good relationships, and have fun. As anyone who’s ever spent any time on the sites knows, however, things can take a turn for the worse, fast. Social media can do really weird things to your mind. All it takes is a racist uncle, a feud, a work conflict, or opposing views on an upcoming election to turn your fun feed into a nightmare. But before you give up social media for good, know you have a few tools at your disposal to clean up your feed.

Unfollow vs. unfriend

Just like in the real world, there are a lot of relationship levels between “people who share everything with each other” and “sworn enemies,” and social media tools can help you sort out exactly how much engagement you want to have with each “friend,” Gottsman says. “Think of unfollowing someone on Facebook as taking a little break from the relationship, while unfriending them is a serious breakup,” she explains. (Note: On Instagram, “mute” is akin to unfollowing and “unfollow” is similar to unfriending.)

When to unfollow vs. when to unfriend

Knowing the difference is one thing; knowing how to use these tools is another thing. But it’s an essential skill for handling the most awkward social media situations. Don’t worry, we’ve got you. Here are some common social media situations along with advice for the proper etiquette in handling them.

Unfriend: A neighbor keeps badgering you to host a “party” for the makeup she sells

Social media has become the method of choice for people in multi-level marketing business to hawk their wares and expand their down-lines. But whether they’re selling fashion, jewelry, diet pills, makeup, hair products, oils, fitness programs, or romantic aids, the bottom line is that their posts are self-serving. “These friends see you as a way to make money and are using your relationship with them to that end,” Gottsman says. If you like the products, it’s not a problem but if you feel overwhelmed by their requests simply unfriend them, she says. “If it’s a really close friend, talk to them in person first about how it makes you feel and then unfriend if they don’t respect that boundary,” she adds.

Unfollow: Your boss, current or former

Even if you’re on great terms with your boss, it’s a best practice to keep your work and personal life separate and not be friends with him or her on social media, Gottsman says. (LinkedIn is the appropriate site for making and maintaining business connections.) However, if you’re already friends then it might jeopardize your working relationship if you suddenly unfriend them, so unfollowing them can be a middle ground, she says. Also consider setting a filter to not show certain posts—like your weekend party or vacation trip—to your boss. If you insist on being friends with work associates, make sure you know what your social media profile is really saying about you.

Unfriend: Your ex after a bad breakup

Sure, some people remain friends with their exes but that’s probably more the exception than the rule. Staying social media friends with your ex can make a difficult breakup even harder by showing you everything they are (or aren’t) saying about you and how well they are moving on. “If you’ve decided you don’t want to have a relationship with them in real life there is zero reason to keep an electronic relationship,” Gottsman says. Spending more time in the real world with loved ones is one of the 10 ways to have a healthier relationship with social media.

Unfollow: Your college roommate posts 20 pictures a day of her new baby

Even people who love seeing pictures of cute babies, kids, and pets can have a hard time matching the zeal of the proud parent, especially one who enjoys posting every burp or bark to social media. While this can get annoying, your friend isn’t technically doing anything wrong or offensive and she’ll likely move out of this phase eventually, at which point you may want to re-follow her, Gottsman says. Unfollowing will give you a covert breather.

Unfriend: Your super fit friend who sends you into a shame spiral

Comparison is the thief of joy, and nowhere is the old adage more true than on social media. If you can’t stop looking at a celebrity’s or friend’s pictures and envying their lives or bodies, then it’s time to unfriend—for your own mental health, Gottsman says. And don’t forget that much of what you see on social media is an illusion anyhow.

Unfollow: Your mom who comments on every single post she reads

Social media works by showing you not just posts from your friends but also their activity—what they’ve liked, commented on, or purchased. This can really clog up your feed with unnecessary information if you’re friends with people who like or comments on every single thing they see. Simply unfollowing will clear the clutter while still allowing you to maintain an online relationship with your mother, Gottsman says. “This way you can look at her posts and comments when it’s convenient for you and limit the time you spend on it,” she says.

Unfriend: That one friend who can’t resist turning every conversation into a political argument

They have a right to share their political beliefs. And you have a right to not read them, Gottsman says. “Ultimately, these tools are about setting appropriate boundaries,” she explains. “It’s your peace of mind you’re protecting.” Unfriending them will save you the risk of an ugly public confrontation and help you stay sane. In the meantime, make sure you’re not guilty of any of these 9 social media mistakes that can seriously damage your relationships.

Unfollow: Your cousin who won’t stop posting political rants about the upcoming election

Wait, what? Didn’t we just tell you to unfriend the politics-obsessed friend? First, your cousin isn’t just some friend of a friend, he’s family and therefore deserves extra consideration, Gottsman says, adding that it’s worth having a face-to-face conversation about how his screeds affect your relationship. Second, the election will come and go and hopefully he will calm down after the point and resume posting corny jokes.

Unfriend: That one person you’re hate-following

Social media should be about finding things that uplift and inspire you yet sometimes it’s tempting to “hate follow” someone. Whether it’s a celebrity, a political figure, or an old classmate that you love to loathe, this type of social media relationship can be very toxic—and you’re the one being hurt by it, Gottsman says. This type of masochism is one of the hidden downsides of social media. “If someone is taking up too much space in your mind or you’re spending a lot of time looking at their page, then it’s time to unfriend,” she explains.

Don’t worry, they won’t know

Some people hesitate to use the unfollow or unfriend tools out of fear of hurting someone’s feelings. You can let this one go—9 times out of 10 they won’t even notice you’ve done it, Gottsman says. The apps don’t notify people when they are unfriended or unfollowed, and most people have too many friends to worry about checking their lists, she says. “Understand that unfriending someone doesn’t mean you don’t like them, it just means you are drawing a boundary on social media and sometimes that can even be better for the relationship,” she says.

Block

There’s one last tool you need to know about it: The block user function. Unfortunately some people use social media to stalk, harass, bully, intimidate, coerce, or otherwise hurt and manipulate. If you find yourself in a situation that feels unsafe for any reason, don’t hesitate to use the “block” function, Gottsman says. Not only will this unfriend a person but it will prevent them from sending you future requests or messages or even seeing your profile. You can also use the “report” feature to let Facebook or Instagram know if the person is breaking the rules of the platform. And don’t be afraid to call the real-life police if things get seriously bad, she adds. Blocking people in an unsafe or toxic situation is completely fine, but you may want to stop braking any of these 13 social media etiquette rules.

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting, and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX, and NBC.