Advice

My Enemy Wants to Be My Facebook Friend

Brian Taylor

March 01, 2010

Question: My nemesis, Professor Treachery, has just retired, which makes me think there may be a God after all. He's said to be immersing himself in incunabula, homunculi, or some such—but it seems he's also discovered Facebook. And so I've just gotten a request to be his Facebook friend. I'm tempted to stab the "Ignore" button. How do people get such nerve?

Answer: Ms. Mentor sympathizes with your distress. Baby boomers are living longer; they're not slinking away; and they're not giving up their tenured posts. Many cannot afford to retire and take off for Florida or Arizona, whistling "Born to Be Wild."

They're staying in College Town forever. You see them in the supermarket. They cut you off in traffic. They meander in the mall. Some become superb citizens and activists; others find new ways to snarl. No doubt some will expire while orating in the classroom about the follies and perfidies of the current age. Students will have mixed reactions.

Some retired curmudgeons still attend department meetings, expressing their opinions with as much color and venom as ever. "Professor Senex," of Ms. Mentor's acquaintance, even blocked—through endless filibusters—the hiring of a young superstar in his own field. "Puerile and pretentious," sniffed Professor Senex. No one dared oppose him.

But now, via Facebook, you think you may find revenge. Professor Treachery wants to "friend" you.

Ms. Mentor does try to imagine what Professor Treachery has done to earn his name. She's sure he's sent hundreds of hostile e-mail messages. Maybe he's denounced you, your publications, your teaching, your haircut, and your dog even to those who don't want to know. Maybe he's blocked innovations, curriculum revisions, or hiring decisions you supported. Maybe he's a sexual harasser who's somehow evaded punishment. Maybe you've had to hear complaints from students who feel he's wronged them. Maybe he never erased the blackboard, leaving it with foul squiggles for the next teacher.

Ms. Mentor is starting to think that "No, I won't be your Facebook friend" is like hurling a toothpick at Goliath.

And yet, Professor Treachery is no longer Goliath, whatever fancies he may hold about his own importance. Since there's no required retirement age, he has chosen to leave for some reason. Burnout? Illness? Travel? New schemes?

His Facebooking suggests that he still has a lively curiosity—though Facebook is no longer the raunchy venue it was a few years ago. Wanton youths have taken their drunken, naked photos to MySpace, Ms. Mentor hears, making Facebook now the fastest-growing scene for the 30- to 90-year-old set. During this winter's storms, snowbound adults doubled their numbers of Facebook friends.

Ms. Mentor's sources have admitted to Googling long-lost high-school sweeties and studying their current pictures, all in the disinterested pursuit of knowledge about the processes of aging. Some sages have sought out their honor-society chums, and chortled to find who's made it in life and who hasn't.

Professor Treachery, nouveau Facebooker, may be mellowing—or not. He may be eager for the casual communications he couldn't have while employed, because his temper was too intense. He may also be lonely. Newly retired faculty members, especially scientists who no longer have labs, often go into a period of deep sadness, unless they develop new pursuits. It's difficult to go from being a mighty professor—respected, fawned over, begged for recommendations and grades and favors—to being, professionally, a nobody.

Is Ms. Mentor saying you should forgive Professor Treachery, friend him, forget what he dragged you through?

Not necessarily, but she urges you to consider whether not friending him (pounding on the "Ignore" button) will make you feel better. You might prefer to hug your anger or stash it under your pillow, where you can hear it pulsating at night. Maybe what he's done is so heinous that you'd like him to waste away, writhing with some horrible condition. Or maybe you'd like to confront him, face to face, with a list of his misdeeds, demanding that he apologize. Maybe he will.

Will you have won, or simply managed to bully and embarrass an old man who can't correct the past anyway? Maybe you could have manipulated matters differently?

Ms. Mentor reminds her flock, especially the young ones, that you can win battles when you know the difference between expressing (telling Them what you really feel) and communicating (getting Them to do the right thing, whether they feel your pain or not). A woeful "I'm so hurt that you chose to drop the Sumerian requirement!" may net you a pat on the back, an apology, a Kleenex (and the thought: "What a hysteric"). Instead: "It's unwise to drop the Sumerian requirement because it's needed for economic growth and cultural enrichment" may get the case reopened. It appeals to what academics most flaunt: their intellects. It doesn't require Professor Treachery to have a heart.

But Ms. Mentor is maundering, hesitating to point out that the elephant in the room is really rather a gnat. Whether to friend Professor Treachery looms large for you: Are you forgiving, endorsing, or welcoming such an awful person? For Professor Treachery, though, you are probably one of at least 50 or 100 people invited to be his Facebook friends.

If you hit "Ignore," or simply unofficially ignore his request, nothing will happen. He's not apt to take it personally. He may not even notice.

What happens to an insult unheard? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Ms. Mentor wonders if you might just go ahead and agree to be Professor Treachery's friend. You can tell yourself that it's best to keep friends close, and enemies closer. You can decide that an air of mild condescension goes with your spring ensemble. You can smile smugly as you hit the "Add as Friend" button. You can congratulate yourself, rightly, on your gracious behavior. You can even let others know how bountiful and magnanimous you are.

Self-righteousness is a gift that never loses its savor and flavor. It is always your friend.


Question: A Facebook friend who is on the job market has a habit of expressing his frustrations and describing the "dolts" and "moral midgets" he meets in rather recognizable detail. I've told him that hiring committees can easily log on to Facebook to check on candidates. Maybe he'd best use an alias, lest he come across as a total boor. But he says, "Nah, they're too old for Facebook. Those old dudes'll never see what I write." I suppose he believes that. Do you?

Answer: No.


Sage readers: Ms. Mentor wishes for everyone a warmer March, full of daffodils, dissertations, and job openings. To those not getting hired or being let go, she urges that you move on—neither wallowing nor fuming, nor hanging on hopelessly. Be a friend to yourself.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes rants, gossip, and queries for future columns. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never immediately. Identifying details are always minced and pureed, and confidentiality is guaranteed.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. She is the author of the recently published "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.