To ‘ghost' someone is to suddenly disappear without explanation – this can happen permanently or temporarily and it usually happens digitally.
Ghosting, a bit like ‘Netflix & chill’ and the idea of ‘catching feelings', is a symptom of a disconnected society that’s terrified of intimacy – or rather, longs for it but is told it can only receive it by first pretending it doesn’t want it.
The sole fact that we have a widespread term for it speaks volumes. It’s happened at least once to most people* and despite the unpleasantness felt when on the receiving end of it, most of us have ghosted someone else.
So why do we do it, and why does it happen to us?
To find out I decided to dive into the Motherland of Ghosting, also known as Tinder.
Being on Tinder again was weird. I hadn't been on it for over two years, after I wrote it off due to how impersonal it was, so swiping right to everyone I came across felt particularly strange.
One of my favourite encounters was with someone who answered 'I've never been ghosted, I'm the ghoster', answered one of my questions and then deleted me before I could see it. It was a great 'welcome back'.
Pretty much everyone I spoke to had been on the receiving end of ghosting, and most people agreed it sucks (except for the few who boldly declared not to care).
They spoke of the anger and confusion that creeps in when it happens, as well as the self-doubt and feelings of rejection it brought up for them.
“I guess I typically assume it's something about me or what I've done”
I was particularly interested in why people who'd experienced it themselves would, in turn, ghost others.
The main reasons were these:
They got bored of the conversation
They wanted to avoid the uncomfortable 'I'm not interested' conversation
Things got weird (ex. The other person started talking about moving in together after one date)
When asked whether they'd tried to tell the other person how they felt, most people agreed that ghosting seemed to be the easier option - 'easier' in the sense that they didn't have to have that awkward conversation and deal with the other person's reaction.
As one of the guys I interviewed put it:
The research really got me thinking. It seemed to me that the main reason for ghosting was people's unwillingness (or inability) to deal with uncomfortable conversations to safeguard their comfort. It struck me that, despite them having felt the pain of being ghosted, the majority of people still did it to others.
Upon reflection, I realised there were 4 main issues involved here.
1. Technology = empathetic disconnect
In an increasingly connected and yet lonely society, the gamification of dating through apps has added another layer to the interpersonal disconnect often experienced in cities. Their design presents people as commodities that can always be 'upgraded' if things become too much effort (or if our fear of intimacy starts creeping in).
We live in a consumerist society that has increasingly monetised everything and now people have become the latest must-have accessory; something to buy, consume and throw away when the 'latest model' comes out.
Simply put, the digital nature of our interactions makes our actions devoid of consequences – removing us from the forced empathy of seeing the pain in someone else's face if we had just ignored them 'irl'.
2. R E S P E C T
Empathetic disconnect means that dehumanising others is easier, which makes it easy to not adhere to the basic courtesy of respect.
Respecting our fellow human would mean taking into account that they're also complex beings with feelings, like us. It means treating them as we would like to be treated, because we try and put ourselves in their shoes.
In this context, respecting another would indeed mean having a few uncomfortable conversations so that they clearly know where they stand and aren't left writhing in self-doubt.
Sure, hearing the truth may hurt at first, but it will ultimately make moving on easier for that person and perhaps help them grow and learn from the experience as well.
3. Inability to communicate
But let's face it – being open and honest can be hard.
Most of our parents came from generations that never taught them to accept or express their feelings. They, in turn, couldn't adequately teach us how to communicate our needs and how to form healthy, intimate bonds because they didn't know how.
Luckily, our technological advances can actually help us break these patterns by educating ourselves on how to communicate. There are so many online and offline resources that can teach us these skills, like (yours truly's) Loving with the Lights On, 5LoveLanguages, Relate and The Center for Non-Violent Communication.
Apart from practical skills though, open communication is about being vulnerable, trusting and really listening to each other. Those are muscles that can be practised a little at a time every day, in different ways (but that's a whole other story).
4. Can you handle the truth?
Now it's time for a little introspection: if people did tell you what they thought instead of ghosting you, could you actually handle their comments?
For many, a big reason for ghosting was their fear of the other person's reaction. Some said they'd tried to be honest in the past but just received abuse in return – which obviously doesn't encourage that openness in the future.
It's important to look at how we react to criticism. Regardless of how it was explained or whether we agree with it or not, we can always learn something from other people's point of view - even if it's learning about our shadow side from the way we reacted.
Needless to say, this is a complex issue that is affected by more than what I stated above (because society is complex and all issues are interrelated) – but this is a blog post, not a dissertation.
I'll leave you with these thoughts:
Next time you get ghosted, sit with those feelings and try and identify their root. What are the feelings beyond this situation? When did you last feel like this? When did you first feel like this? (This Youtube video might help with this exploration)
Next time you're about to ghost someone, ask yourself: How would they feel if I just disappeared? Is this how I'd like to be treated in this situation? What if I just told them how I felt?
Uncomfortable feelings are an excellent platform for growth. Only by leaning into the discomfort will we learn and expand as people and as a society.
* The observations in this article come from a British, English-speaking millenial perspective and therefore can only accurately refer to people belonging to that specific dating culture.