About a year ago, a close friend of mine disappeared. I’d known them for 10 years, and one day they were gone, without a word. My messages and calls went unanswered. Had I done something wrong? Were they hurt? Dead, maybe? I thought about it for weeks—months! Of all the possible reasons for this bizarre and perplexing situation, the truth was rather simple: they had ghosted me. They’d decided I was no longer a worthy friend, not even worthy of a good-bye. Coming from someone close, that bothered me, and still does.

A picture of a man in a suit with an invisible head, wearing glasses.
Photo by Zane Lee

What is ghosting?

For those unacquainted with the term, ghosting is the practice of ceasing all communications with an individual, on purpose, and without an explanation. I had heard of the phenomenon before, but I didn’t quite know how widespread it was. There are various reasons why people do this, such as:

  1. They are afraid of confrontation
  2. They are afraid of you/feel unsafe
  3. They are not feeling well and are taking time off from social interactions (This could be a sign of depression. If that is the case, be a dear and lend them an ear.)
  4. They forgot to respond to you but it’s been a month and so it’ll be awkward if they do now, now being five months later and oh that was three years ago perhaps now is the right moment?
  5. Online dating (Who’s got time to tell their stranger-on-the-app that they’re not interested in a second date?)
  6. They are dead

This isn’t a modern-day phenomenon, as some might think. We humans have been ghosting each other for a long time. It’s just that in the past, without social media or mobile phones, it was easier to cut someone off. They couldn’t reach out to you by email or browse your Instagram account to see if you’ve still got a pulse. Today, vanishing from someone’s life involves a lot more than just not showing up at their house for that thing they invited you to 3 months ago.

I ghosted an acquaintance once. I regret it, and I don’t know why I did it. I like to think that those days are now behind me. No one enjoys being ghosted. I certainly don’t. After all, how difficult is it to tell someone you’re no longer interested in keeping the relationship going? I admit it’s not easy, but if it’s someone you’ve had a long history with, don’t you owe them at least that much? Yes, yes you do.

Professional Ghosting

What bothers me more than personal ghosting, however, is professional ghosting. That’s what prompted me to write this post, although it is evident that it took me a while to arrive at the point. Over the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with a few professionals and business owners, in the ever-beautiful process of job hunting. In one case, I went through three interview stages, a salary negotiation, and a criminal background check. I was told that it was almost a done deal, and that I should expect a final decision within a day.

One day passes, and I don’t hear back. A week passes; complete silence, so I decide to call. “We’ll let you know within one hour”, and indeed I did hear back in an hour—I was told that they needed more time, that my patience is appreciated, and that a final decision will be made in three weeks. That was the last I heard from them. They did not respond to any calls or emails I sent from then on, whereas at one point they were calling me up to three times a day.

This is an all too common occurrence for job seekers. Why do professionals do this? There is no personal bond of any kind in the relationship, so what’s holding them back from being upfront and telling an individual that they’re no longer interested? Why set expectations by making statements such as “I’ll call you tomorrow” or “We’ll get in touch on Monday for next steps” when a non-committal utterance such as “Thank you for coming” will do?

It’s demoralizing for someone on a job search, and says a lot about the organization involved. To me, such behavior is outright rude, and shows a lack of respect.

One might argue that recruiters are too busy to inform their shortlisted candidates that they’re no longer under consideration, or that they failed the final interview. That does not make much sense, however. If you had time to reach out to someone for an interview and walk them through a lengthy hiring process, you certainly have 5 minutes to email them your decision, or give them a quick call.

Perhaps I’m too naive, and this is just the way business is done. I don’t know. Lest you think this is purely a rant, here’s some interesting information I came across while investigating this topic. Put your science hats on! 👩‍🔬

Relationship Dissolution

Human beings, it seems, have a multitude of “relationship dissolution” (a.k.a. breakup) strategies at their disposal, according to a research paper titled “Strategies for Ending Relationships” by a Dr Leslie Baxter (1982)1. This list of strategies was updated in 2012 by Tara Collins and Omri Gillath to account for technological change2. The final list consists of 43 strategies divided into 7 main categories. These are specific to romantic alliances, but as you’ll see, they apply to all kinds of human relationships, with ease:

  1. Avoidance/withdrawal
    • Semi-ghosting. Slowly pulling yourself away.
  2. Positive tone/self-blame
    • The immortal “it’s not you, it’s me”.
    • Trying not to blame the other person and showing concern for their feelings.
  3. Open confrontation
    • Honest expression of the desire to breakup.
  4. Cost escalation
    • Making the relationship so unpleasant that the other person will want to breakup.
  5. Manipulation
    • Telling someone else about the desire to breakup, hoping that they’ll spread the word to your partner.
  6. Distant/mediated communication
    • Specific to social media and instant messaging apps.
    • Breaking up via text, email, changing your relationship status online without informing your partner, or simply blocking the individual.
  7. De-escalation
    • Ending the relationship in a slow and steady manner.
    • Waiting things out, taking a break, finding other reasons for the breakup (“I got a job offer at NASA and my office is on the Moon!”)

You might’ve noticed that none of these breakup strategies equal ghosting. Well, that’s because back in 1982, people had manners. I’m kidding. According to a thesis on ghosting (yes, a Master’s thesis!), the above strategies are considered “breakup tactics”, leading to either a direct breakup (a conversation), or an indirect breakup (ghosting). It was written by Rebecca Koessler, who I know is a genius, because her chosen title was “When Your Boo Becomes a Ghost”.3

Out of 332 participants in Koessler’s research, 72% reported being ghosted in the past, and 64.5% said they’ve previously ghosted a partner. These are disturbingly large numbers. For the ghosters, there were a few main motivations to their actions:

  1. Losing interest (23%)
  2. Their partner had negative qualities—rude, annoying, etc. (22%)
  3. The relationship wasn’t going anywhere (20%)
  4. Their partner had severe negative qualities—aggressive, controlling, etc. (16%)
  5. They wanted to avoid the drama of breaking up (12%)
  6. They believed no explanation was necessary or deserved (8%)

The ghostees, understandably, did not take this well. About 45% of them reported having negative perceptions of their ghosters afterwards, with 20% having severe negative perceptions. One of the participants said “They’re a piece of human garbage and I hope they rot in hell”.

Broken paper heart hanging on a wire.
Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia

Koessler’s thesis goes into more detail, investigating differences in the processes and outcomes of breaking up as a function of breakup strategy and role. I won’t get into that, however, because it’s a little beyond my understanding.

The majority of research out there on this subject—whether it’s on ghosting in particular or “relationship dissolution” in general—seems to be focused on romantic relationships. What about professional relationships? Although the strategies employed appear to be similar, can the same be assumed for the motivations behind them? I wouldn’t be surprised if that was found to be the case. It’s worth investigating.

Now what?

I wasn’t quite sure where I was headed with this, or how to end it. What I’ve learned from my brief peek into ghosting culture is that ending a relationship directly (as Dr Rebecca Koessler puts it) takes effort; something we mammals don’t particularly enjoy.

Here’s another thing I learned: ghosting sucks. If you’ve ever been ghosted, it’s okay to grieve. A breakup is a breakup, no matter the method or the nature of the relationship. While it can be infuriating to be treated in such a manner, there is no way to prevent it from happening, and no way out of the feelings that come as a result.

Now, for you, friendly ghosters:

Assuming the other person did nothing wrong, please consider not vanishing. Talk to them. Give them a call. Send an email. A text. Keep some templates ready if it helps. Any form of communication will do. It doesn’t take long, and would mean a lot to the thinking, feeling human being on the other end of the line.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite poems. Incidentally, it is about a ghost:

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…

by Hughes Mearns

  1. Baxter, L. A. (1982). Strategies for ending relationships: Two studies. Western Journal of Communication (includes Communication Reports), 46(3), 223-241. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10570318209374082 ↩︎

  2. Collins, Tara & Gillath, Omri. (2012). Attachment, breakup strategies, and associated outcomes: The effects of security enhancement on the selection of breakup strategies. Journal of Research in Personality, 46, 210–222. (Available for free) ↩︎

  3. Koessler, R. B., Kohut, T., & Campbell, L. (2019). When Your Boo Becomes a Ghost: The Association Between Breakup Strategy and Breakup Role in Experiences of Relationship Dissolution. Collabra: Psychology, 5(1), 29. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/collabra.230 ↩︎