• Christine Silk

Dear Facebook Friends: Who is Your Real Audience?

Knowing the difference between your intended audience and your real audience can make a huge difference in your personal and professional life. At the very least, it can save you embarrassment.


Most people tailor their communications to their intended audience, forgetting that their real audience includes everyone who can access their message—including those who may not be receptive toward what you have to say, or those who may even be downright hostile.

Consider the story of Doug, Brent, and Shannon. 


Two old college buddies, Brent and Doug, met for dinner. Brent brought his wife Shannon, whom Doug had not met before. (Doug’s wife, Alicia, was away on a business trip.) The three of them were having a great time at dinner, the wine was flowing freely, and there was lots of laughter.


Doug and Brent reminisced about people they used to know at college.


“I dated Kira Smith,” Brent told Doug at one point in the conversation. “Do you remember her?”


“You dated Kira?” Doug said with amazement. “She was one of the most beautiful women on campus. How in the world did a mere mortal like you manage to date a goddess like Kira?”

Brent shrugged and smiled.


“Wow,” Doug said. “You must’ve been the envy of about fifty other men on campus.”

The two men had a laugh over that comment. Then the conversation changed to how bad the college football team had been.


Later that night, after he arrived home, Doug was seized with regret and worry. What if Brent’s wife Shannon had secretly taken his comments about Kira the wrong way? Nobody enjoys hearing glowing reviews about their spouse’s old flame—especially from a college buddy who didn’t bother to consider what effect his words would have on the very real wife who was sitting right there across the table.


Shannon had certainly been nice all evening. During dessert, she had even suggested that Doug and his wife come over for dinner in a few weeks. But Doug still felt as if he could have handled the situation better.


Real Audience versus Intended Audience


Doug forgot the difference between a real audience and an intended audience.

The intended audience was Brent. But Doug’s real audience was both Brent and Shannon.

Had he remembered this, Doug could have saved himself some regret. For example, right after mentioning how gorgeous Kira was, he could have turned to Shannon and said: “Your husband certainly knows how to pick beautiful girlfriends, but he out-did himself by marrying you.” Yes, it’s obvious flattery, but what woman (or man, for that matter) doesn’t want to hear such words? At any rate, it would communicated to Shannon that Doug wasn’t ignoring her, and was trying to be considerate of her feelings.


The real-versus-intended-audience distinction is behind the advice our mothers gave us when they told us to never whisper secrets in front of other people. Your intended audience is the person to whom you are whispering. But your real audience is all the other people in the room who are watching you whisper.


Closely related to this is when you behave a certain way for someone’s benefit (your intended audience) but that behavior doesn’t take into account the reactions of other people who are there (your real audience).


Here is an example. Twenty high school students attended a history lecture, along with their parents. The students sat in the rows of chairs directly in front of the lecturer. Parents sat in the back of the room.


One girl, Ashley, sat in the very front row. Her best friend Tessa sat behind her. Every time the speaker made a humorous comment or observation, Ashley would turn in her seat and exchange significant looks with Tessa. A student named Jake asked a question. Ashley turned around again to Tessa, rolled her eyes and grimaced, indicating that she thought both Jake and his question were idiotic.


Ashley’s intended audience was Tessa. For her, no other audience existed.

But in fact, Ashley’s real audience was whoever could see her actions, including the other students nearby and the parents in the back of the room. Ashley didn’t intend for them to pay attention to her, and she certainly didn’t pay attention to them. But they saw each and every message Ashley mimed to Tessa. Several of the parents (including the Jake’s mother) later complained to the teacher and to Ashley’s parents that Ashley’s actions were distracting, inappropriate and a bad influence on other students. Adults who initially had high regard for Ashley now revised their opinion.


Had Ashley remembered that her real audience includes everyone in the room, she could have modified her behavior and avoided being reprimanded by the teacher and by her parents.


Avoiding Trouble on Facebook


Facebook is one place where people could save themselves a lot of trouble by remembering the difference between a real audience and an intended audience.


People who narrowly tailor their comments to an inside circle of friends who “like” and comment on everything they post are forgetting that there are others reading that page. Great Aunt Mildred might be lurking, deciding which nieces and nephews should be in her will. Posting about how you blew half your week’s salary on a “good time” Saturday night isn’t going to improve her opinion of you. Worse, if your boss reads your page and sees that comment, he might decide you’re not one of his better prospects for promotion.

Is it fair? No. But it is reality.


The fact is, everything you post on the Internet is available to anyone at anytime. Yes, I know there is supposed to be a wall of privacy on Facebook, just like all of our personal data is supposed to stay, well . . . personal. Except that with each new scandal of data security breaches, that illusion is fast eroding.


So who is your real audience on the Internet? Think about it this way: Your audience includes anyone who wants to follow you and who can access what you write. It doesn’t matter whether they like you, or whether they are friends in the traditional sense of the word, or in the Facebook sense. Your real audience may very well include people who are waiting to pounce as soon as you say something that will make you look bad. Maybe you don't have real enemies. But there still may be one or two people in your life, such as an envious co-worker or a romantic rival, who have it in for you. They may decide to call attention to some of your less prudent Facebook or Internet postings in order to knock you down a peg or two.  


Most of the time, the people in your real audience are not trying to be malicious or to hurt you. But if you are not careful, those same people may be truly miffed by what you write online.

Let me be clear about something. I’m not saying you shouldn’t post or write about controversial topics. Of course you should, if you want to. If you write about religion or politics for a living or a hobby, you will attract people who loves what you say along with those who hate it and want to debate you. That all comes with the territory.


My focus here is on the interpersonal level, on the mindless things every person should avoid doing so that he doesn’t needlessly cause hurt or anger. Even the most diehard polemicist doesn’t want to say or write things that will use up personal capital among his intimate circle of friends and make him look like a jerk (unless he’s extremely desperate for attention). These “things” include personal slights and insults that are preventable.


Here’s an example. I have a friend who hosted an impromptu party for her adult daughter. For various reasons, she could not invite all the relatives and friends in town. The next day, her youngest daughter posted photos and glowing descriptions of the party on Facebook. The youngest daughter was thinking only about her intended audience: her close circle of girlfriends who want to share in every joy, big and small.


But the daughter’s real Facebook audience also included locals who learned about the party afterward, and felt snubbed that they weren’t invited.  Both the daughter and her mother had to spend time smoothing the ruffled feathers of those excluded relatives.


So what can you do to protect yourself against a social faux pas, both virtual and fact-to-face?

Always keep your real audience in mind. Just because you intend your words to reach only one person (or a small group of people) doesn’t mean they’ll be confined only to those people. Word gets out—especially when it is digital. So before you post or write, ask yourself: Will this post hurt or anger someone I don’t want to hurt or offend?


As an old journalism teacher of mine used to say, “There is no such thing as off the record.” Everything you write, post, email, and say in public is all on the record. Just make sure you know the effect it will have on your real audience, and tailor your words accordingly. 

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© 2020 by Christine Silk. All rights reserved.