Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email email@example.com.
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Dear Swipe This!
My sister never interacts with my social media posts. I know I sound immature, but it hurts my feelings, especially since she constantly posts pictures of her kids on her accounts, so I know she’s actively using them. I always like and comment on her posts, so I don’t understand why she won’t comment or fave any of mine.
For the record, I don’t post anything controversial, political, or offensive. I post normal stuff, like updates about my interesting job, pics of blueberry muffins I made from scratch, and photos of my cat looking adorable. Just toss me a like! Is that so hard?
In real life, we’re semi-close. We’re not in constant contact, but we do speak regularly. She’s my younger sister and lives a half-hour away so I see her about once a month. I’m the middle sister—I’m almost two years older than her—and we have an older sister who lives in Boston. My little sister treats our older sister even worse than me. She’s very dismissive and rude to her.
Things weren’t always this way. My little sister and I were very close until she got married six years ago. Her husband is very wealthy so she doesn’t have to work to support herself—though as a rich housewife, she seems fairly miserable. She has a toddler and is pregnant with her second child right now. She’s rarely in a good mood, nor does she take much interest in my life. She usually only calls me if she wants something, never just to say hi or to ask how I’ve been.
She seems to resent my professional accomplishments. But honestly, I have no idea how much she cares or thinks about me. She told me she wants to work on having a closer relationship a few months ago, but she still won’t like or comment on my social media posts. She seems to expect me to offer her unlimited support (she’s called me more than a few times when she was annoyed or upset about a family member to vent) but isn’t very good at supporting me, emotionally or otherwise, so I’ve stopped expecting that from her.
I don’t think I’m asking for much here. Just a like or two once in a while would be nice! Should I say something to her? How do I handle it?
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Dear Likable Sister,
There is a huge myth that only silly young people care what people think on social media and I’ve found it simply isn’t true. The fact is people of all ages want to be seen and feel valued. And, while people can rail all they want against social media for being superficial or shallow, it is essentially a tool for connection. It lets us share small bits of ourselves with the people in our world and, perhaps more importantly, it lets us send and receive small doses of attention and affection.
Wanting to be loved isn’t childish. It’s deeply human.
But this totally human aspect of social media is also what makes it so treacherous. When we share a post with the world, it can feel as if we are saying, “Here I am—am I likable?” And then, we can watch in real-time as the likes and comments pour in and say, “Yes, yes, absolutely, enthusiastically yes!” Or, a steady whisper, “Sure, mmhm, kind of…” Or, in the worst-case scenario, when there are limited likes and comments, or they don’t come from the people who matter to us most, we hear a deafening ellipsis of silence.
First of all, let me assure you that you are likable. And secondly, your posts are too! I love carbs and I love cats, so if I were your follower, you’d definitely be getting regular likes from me. I cannot explain why exactly your sister isn’t liking your posts, but I can tell you that who “likes” your pics isn’t always determined by who likes and values you.
Let’s take a quick look at how Instagram’s algorithm works. Most articles written about the platform’s algorithm are directed at brands and entrepreneurs who are looking to build an audience. But the rules of the algorithm give insight into how someone who cares about you might not even see your posts.
When you post an image to Instagram, it becomes visible in the feed of a few of your currently active followers. If it receives a high volume of likes and comments, Instagram decides it’s “quality” content that will engage more users and that image shows up in the feeds of more of your followers and closer to the top of their feed. However, if you receive minimal likes and comments because, say, you posted those blueberry muffins at a time when most of your followers are still hitting snooze, Instagram decides it’s not a high-engagement post and shows it to fewer followers and closer to the bottom of their feeds. For this reason, many brands and entrepreneurs work diligently to hack the algorithm, posting at key times and keeping tabs on which kinds of posts are doing well with their followers.
I’m not advising you hack your sister’s brain for the kind of content she’ll like, or figure out what times of day she’s most active on social media so you can snag her attention. But I do think you should consider this context. She may not be ignoring your posts at all, or at least not with the frequency you imagine. It may simply be that her posts of babies are getting a wider audience because her Mommy and Me group is on a similar schedule and they’re all going gaga for each other’s toddler pics, or because, let’s face it, most people are basic and very likely to “like” a picture of a baby, even a medium-cute one.
Which brings me to your feelings about the life your sister has chosen versus your own. A two-year age difference is very small. And I imagine you’ve spent much of your lives feeling as though you were going through it very much together. There may have been a lot of support, there may have been a bit of competition, but you describe the moment she got married as the beginning of a big rift. It must have been painful to suddenly feel so separate from a person you’ve shared so much with. And I wonder if your sister has felt that loss, too, perhaps in ways that aren’t as obvious to you.
You describe your sister as miserable, and she may be quite unhappy or even feel trapped in her current circumstances. She may envy your independence and your career. But that didn’t stop her from making a vulnerable move. I think it takes real courage to come to someone you love and say, “I want to feel closer to you.” For all the lack of support you say she’s shown you, I think she’s doing the best she can. And while she may not have the tools to be as supportive as you’d like, I wonder if you made more direct asks for her time and attention if she would, in fact, be happy to hear from you. Reaching out to say, “Hi, I miss you. I wanted to see how you’re doing,” is far more vulnerable than waiting around for an Instagram like. And I wonder if you’ve stopped asking for your sister’s attention because you’re afraid that it simply won’t be available to you.
You say your sister isn’t very good at offering emotional support and she comes to you when she needs to vent. To me, it sounds like you both see your relationship as a space where attention can and should be given only in a crisis, or in moments of achievement like her baby or your career. But what about the kind of attention you initially built your relationship on as kids? What kind of games did you play? What made you laugh? What caught your attention then and made you want to run to your sister so you could show her?
A few years ago, The Atlantic published an article on a long-term study that hoped to reveal the secret to happy marriages. As simple and cliché as it sounds, kindness and generosity were the essential ingredients. While the focus was of course on romantic partnerships, I think the lessons can apply to all intimate relationships. One passage in particular stuck out to me. It describes the moment in the study where researchers could truly observe partners making requests to connect.
Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.
The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.
People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”
These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.
These “bids” remind me of your social media posts. You are patiently waiting, hoping your sister will take notice of you and the things that matter to you. And each time she doesn’t, your relationship deteriorates a little bit more. Because not only do you feel your life doesn’t matter to her, you feel less safe and thus less willing to reach out and share.
But I believe you need to get brave. Go a step further and make a true bid for her attention. And it doesn’t have to be heavy. In fact, I think it’s more meaningful if you don’t want for a crisis. Instead, I’d advise you to text her or call her the next time something interesting or funny piques your interest. Maybe it’s a great book you’re reading or maybe it’s a funny animal video you found on Instagram. Show her something that arouses joy or wonder within you. Maybe she’ll respond with warmth and gratitude that you thought of her. Maybe she’ll be too busy to respond to you right away. But hopefully, when and if the moment is right, you’ll get a chance to be sisters again and just play.
If you don’t get what you want right away, don’t despair. Remind your sister that she asked to be closer to you and tell her this is you reaching out and trying to do that. It’s not always easy to be the one who does the reaching, but in my experience, it’s a lot more rewarding than sitting quietly hoping someone will notice you’re missing them, too.