Ghosting: The Spooky Social Phenomenon That’s Haunting the Digital World
Here’s a scary scenario.
You’re communicating with someone via text message or email. It’s going well and then, suddenly, they don’t respond to your question. An hour goes by. Then a day. Then several days. You send another message. Still no reply.
You just got ghosted.
Ghosting is when a person cuts off communication with no warning or explanation. They just don’t respond. They disappear.
Ghosts don’t only exist in horror movies anymore. They haunt nearly type of relationship: personal, romantic, and even professional. The thought that ghosting has become a social norm in our digital communications is pretty darn terrifying (to me at least).
And like a horror story, being ghosted has the impact of keeping you up at night.
In full transparency, I’ve ghosted before. I’m sure you have too. The point of this article is to explore why ghosting is hurtful, why it happens, and to encourage us all to be better. I'll also share give tips on what to do when you’re a victim of someone else’s disappearing act.
Why ghosting hurts
At the very least, ghosting is discourteous.
When the person who gets ghosted suddenly stops getting a reply, they’re left wondering, “Did I say something wrong?” “Are they mad at me?” “Did something awful happen?”
There is no closure or explanation.
Getting blown off is one of the worst forms of rejection. Why? Because it feels like the person blowing you off didn’t care enough to tell you that they didn't want to continue the conversation. At worst, it suggests a blatant disregard for another person’s time or attention. Some might say ghosting is passive-aggressive or downright disrespectful.
Maybe rejection wasn’t the intent (possible reasons for why people ghost are listed below). But, in the words of Molière, a famous French playwright,
“It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.”
Inaction is a choice. Not replying is a choice. It has consequences. It can be hurtful.
And if you’ve been telling yourself otherwise, it’s time to face the truth. You may be being kind to yourself by ignoring someone’s outreach, but you’re not being kind to the person you’re ghosting.
Now, if you’re thinking back to a time when you've ghosting in the past and are feeling guilty, know this: at some point, everyone has probably ghosted someone, whether intentionally or not, myself included.
Even though most of us have done it, however, it does NOT mean we should just accept it as a way of treating each other.
Why people ghost
Context is of course everything. A lot of articles on ghosting discuss it in terms of dating, so I’m going to focus on ghosting in the context of non-romantic relationships and even acquaintances.
Broadly speaking, there are three main reasons why people ghost:
To avoid an uncomfortable situation
A legitimate excuse
Let’s discuss each.
1. Avoiding uncomfortable situations.
A lot of times, ghosting is the result of someone avoiding vulnerability of some kind. For example, you might feel nervous when you need tell someone disappointing news. Or, you may be anxious if you have to be honest about something. Or, simply not knowing how exactly to say something can be a cause of discomfort.
Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, defines vulnerability as, “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”
No doubt, vulnerability is uncomfortable. People don’t like being uncomfortable. So instead, we avoid it at all costs.
The problem with avoiding discomfort is twofold: 1) we miss an opportunity to be courageous and build important character and communication skills; and 2) by avoiding bad feelings for oneself, one is creating bad feelings for the recipient.
Because the recipient will eventually give up and stop trying to contact the ghost, the ghost doesn’t have to deal with the potentially uncomfortable conversation that may have resulted in the first place. By dodging the discomfort and missing the opportunity to overcome a difficult situation, the ghost feels great relief.
Now that ghost is even more likely to continue the ghosting behavior because they are even less equipped to have a difficult conversation. Also, they've learned that the way to handle it is to avoid uncomfortable social scenarios at all costs.
Social anxiety is exactly this: the avoiding of social situations because of the stress or panic that results from the discomfort of social situations. It’s a vicious cycle, because a key way to overcome social anxiety is to be vulnerable and participate in more social situations.
In a cruel twist of irony, ghosting itself causes anxiety. The person who is ghosted is often left wondering, “What did I do wrong? Should I have done...? What if they thought…?” Now that the ghosting victim is questioning their own social prowess, they may become less likely to be vulnerable and more likely to ghost someone else the next time a situation becomes uncomfortable.
It’s almost as if ghosting is contagious.
Everybody, at some point, forgets something. Life gets busy, other things take priority, and we get distracted to the point of letting things slip.
Some people are more forgetful than others, especially when it comes to online communication. They want to respond thoughtfully, so they put off responding to the point that they forget to reply entirely. They forget to check their messages, and by the time they do check, the opportunity to reply has passed. All of these can result in ghosting.
At the other end of the spectrum, some individuals intentionally create boundaries for their time and attention by limiting their usage of devices.
Don’t get me wrong; setting boundaries is an admirable and often-necessary self-care endeavor. However, fostering relationships is important for self-care too. An key part of personal growth and emotional intelligence is following through on your commitments and showing up for others. It’s a balance.
Forgetfulness and flakiness is even more accepted in today's digital age where there is little to no consequence for not showing up. Unlike standing someone up in person, if you don’t respond to messages, there’s little risk that you’ll accidentally run into someone again. So not responding seemingly poses little risk to one's reputation, again reinforcing the ghosting behavior.
We’re so used to instant gratification that the concept of nurturing relationships and making others feels seen by way of responding is painstaking. And so, people flake.
But at what cost?
3. A legitimate excuse
Although it’s hard to imagine, virtual communication isn’t everyone’s top priority. Sometimes people have other things going on. And many times, there is a perfectly legitimate reason not to respond.
Maybe their phone broke or was stolen. Perhaps a family emergency arose. Maybe they’re experiencing a mental or physical health issue.
We’ve all had “one of those days” where things don’t go as planned. Think about the last time you were having one of those days. Isn't there almost always at least one person who shows you some grace by sharing a smile, holding the elevator, letting you go first in line?
I try my best to be that person.
That being said, there also comes a time when you can and should move on, even if someone has a good reason for ghosting.
What to do when someone ghosts you
When someone is ghosting you, you probably feel frustrated. You are probably tempted to message them something like this:
“I guess you’re not interested since I haven’t heard from you,” or
I can’t blame you. Being ghosted stinks.
But take a second to imagine this: You get home and reach for your phone and it’s not in your pocket. You check your car, and it’s not there either. You search your bag, every room of your house: no phone. You spend the whole day panicked, looking for your phone, and finally hear back a day later that someone found it in the parking lot.
You’re happy to have your phone back, and spend the next few hours replying to all the messages you missed and doing the things you had to do while you spent time searching for your phone.
Then you see a snarky “Hello???” message. After the day you’ve been having, how would you feel if you saw that?
I'm going to guess that you probably wouldn't respond to it.
In an effort to avoid making anyone feel bad, I operate under the assumption that the reason my buddy is ghosting me is because they lost their phone. I know it’s unlikely, but it’s a way of making sure that I don’t make them feel ashamed, and in turn making me feel guilty if I were to then learn that they were having the most stressful day ever and I made it worse.
Now assuming that someone has a legitimate reason for not replying, you have two choices: don’t say anything and forget about it, or keep trying.
I recommend trying. Here’s why.
More often than not, when I follow up, the person will reply. And many times they are apologetic, and often have a logical explanation.
What does it look like to try to re-engage a ghost?
It feels like talking to yourself. It’s not fair. And it’s kind of silly.
So why bother? Well, I can rest easy knowing that I showed up for someone else.
Here’s how I do it.
I reach out with an attitude of curiosity rather than judgement. Here’s an example.
“Hey, how are things going for you?”
If someone missed your prior message, getting notified of your new message may be all that’s needed for them to remember to message you back.
If you still don’t hear back, I’d try another message. The strategy on your second message should still have a curious, objective tone so that you’re not jumping to conclusions. The way to do this is by stating the facts. Here’s how:
“Hey, didn’t hear from you yesterday! Are you doing okay?”
Or simply talk about yourself. “I started the day with a jog and now I’m feeling energized! Hope your day is going well.”
As a bonus, you’ll become very skilled at talking to yourself, which is shown to have mental health benefits!
If after two or three unanswered messages, you still don’t hear back, let it go. If the ghost eventually contacts you out of the blue, you can either mention the ghosting or not.
Tired of dealing with ghosts?
In the early days before creating our app, the Supporti team studied what made accountability partnerships succeed or fail. We learned that many amazing partnerships succumbed to ghosting after some period of time. Often, one partner would lose steam and the relationship would fizzle.
That stinks! Imagine having an accountability system that was motivating you and working perfectly and then suddenly...it goes away. Then you’re at risk of reverting back to old habits and losing the good system you set up. How unmotivating!
To address the problem of ghosting and to provide the most motivating experience possible, Supporti is designed with ghosting-resistance in mind.
While we can’t eliminate ghosting entirely, we work really hard to create a community of supportive people. That’s why all accountability partners rate each other on supportiveness at the end of each session. We also limit a match to 7 days at a time so that if one person gets busy or needs a break, they can do so without leaving their buddy in the dust.
Our growing community of mutual support buddies allows us to provide you with another supportive person relatively quickly, without having to go through all the awkward small talk to find “the one.”
Finally, Supporti’s not just an app. We’re also a service, which means real people are available to help you out if you do encounter ghosting. By notifying our support team that your buddy’s unresponsive, we’ll first reach out to them via email to nudge them to contact you. Then, if they still don’t respond after we reach out, we’ll find you a new buddy so that you don’t go long without support.
If you’re tired of being ghosted and want someone who’s going to motivate you and cheer you on regularly, then check out how Supporti can help!
Tell us: What’s worked for you when you’ve been ghosted before? Leave a comment on social media to let us know.