Friday 13 December 2019

Into thin air: How 'ghosting' became the new normal

Social media makes it all too easy to vanish from someone's life, whether they're a partner, a friend or even a colleague. Larissa Nolan explores this very modern phenomenon

Is it me? The phenomenon can leave the ghosted blaming themselves – but psychologists say the ghoster is the one with the questions to answer. Stock photo: Getty
Is it me? The phenomenon can leave the ghosted blaming themselves – but psychologists say the ghoster is the one with the questions to answer. Stock photo: Getty

Larissa Nolan

It's the flirty date who suddenly went silent. It's the close friend who decided to cut you off after a minor disagreement. It's the one-time work contact who now inexplicably acts like you don't exist.

Welcome to ghostworld: a place where the brutal response to any unwanted situation is to delete and block.

We've all heard about ghosting: the spineless trend of severing a relationship by disappearing from contact. No calls, no texts, no emails - and no warning, explanation or chance to discuss. It's a particular kind of narcissism, a form of emotional cruelty, according to psychology. It's a mixture of cowardice, immaturity and modern technology.

It started this decade, along with the rise in social media which meant we could all hide behind our phones. The term 'ghosting' came into popular usage in 2015 when it was reported that actress Charlize Theron finished a relationship with Sean Penn by cutting off all communications with him.

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It took off in the online dating world where lovers would find themselves frozen out - not just getting the silent treatment, but blocked, with the implicit message they were an obsessive stalker that necessitated a personal barring order.

It has since bled into friendships and professional relationships, with more and more people choosing convenience and coldness over care and communication, across all areas of interaction. The journalist Piers Morgan told how Meghan Markle ghosted him after a friendship she had pursued, describing it as "weird and rude".

It's a sign of our dehumanising times when ghosting has become the new normal. But according to experts, those who engage in this passive aggressive punishment tactic ultimately only punish themselves.

Psychotherapist Stella O'Malley says it is a pernicious behaviour that is regressive. She says it's more in line with the culture of honour era, where even minor grievances were dealt with a swift and savage "off with their head" policy.

According to O'Malley: "It's a real sign of: 'I cannot handle conflict, so I just disengage. It's not a psychologically appropriate response to anything. If you've a problem and you are adults, on some level you will agree to disagree and move on.

"Ghosting isn't civilised. It's a reflection of tech life. Delete and block. That's it - gone. Cut. It's taking away the very real possibility that both of you are a little bit wrong. It's full righteous. It's very arrogant to presume that the other person doesn't have anything that could enlighten you on how things have gone wrong. Some have decided it's easier to ghost than be direct.

"It's a very shallow response from someone who is rejecting civilised human discourse."

O'Malley says "response creep" has moved ghosting into the professional arena. "This takes the form of softer ghosting - not answering. We're all overwhelmed and perhaps that's a valid response one day when you're so busy you can't breathe and you have 72 messages. But for professionalism, you should always even send a brief reply a few days later."

How do you deal with it? Rise above it, she says. "There's nothing you can do about it, other than work on your own not caring. You can't batter their door down. I don't think we have any other option."

She advises knowing you have seen the dark side of someone, rather than thinking you have done something so unconscionable that someone can't speak to you. The ghoster will suffer most in the long run.

"This policy leads to shallow relationships that only exist in an echo chamber. You don't meet anyone complicated and challenging but interesting and good for you. They will end up in a vacuous space. It's black and white thinking: you're in, you're out, you're good, you're bad, which is missing the entire complexity of humans."

Therapist Tom Evans, who runs SelfCare counselling and psychotherapy in Cork, says it is a modern phenomenon. "It says more about the person who is doing the blocking or the blanking than it does about the person who is being blanked. It's an unwillingness to confront and have difficult conversations. I think this is at the core of ghosting: avoidance of confrontation.

"It's very painful for those on the receiving end, particularly when it is unexplained."

Evans cites the anthropological theory of Robin Dunbar. "Dunbar's number" states that 150 is the number of people we can keep track of and consider part of our ongoing social network. They include a small number of close friends and widen out into different layers that ends in a tribe. All fall into the category of the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining for a drink if you bumped into them in a bar.

"It seems the further out we are in that hierarchy, the more likelihood there is for ghosting.

Work demands and a constant stream of messages mean we can understandably get flooded. "We've become less thoughtful, more rude. We used to attend to that civil piece, that mannerly piece; ensure a connection was honoured appropriately.

"It's compartmentalisation, a coping strategy and defence mechanism."

The loneliness of the digital age is feeding into this. We are a social species and when we feel we are on the social perimeter - as so many do, now - we go into self-preservation mode. The lonely brain has less activity in the temporoparietal junction, which is responsible for empathy.

PR guru Terry Prone, founder of the Communications Clinic, says her observation is that professional ghosting - where an employee leaves work without explanation, or an interviewee vanishes - is a measure of how the economy is going.

"When unemployment is rife, the people who get ghosted are the unfortunates looking for a job. Demoralising the already demoralised. But when the pendulum shifts and jobs are easy to get, the ghosters are the potential employees."

How does it feel to be ghosted? What can you do if it happens to you?

Writer Stefanie Preissner believes ghosting is inexcusable. "I've been what I call 'Caspered' a few times. This is 'friendly ghosting' where someone won't respond to texts or emails, but when you see them, they act like nothing's wrong."

It's "bizarre behaviour" according to the author of Can I say No?. "It's a mix of arrogance and insecurity. If you never want to speak to someone again, why not be very clear and forthright about confronting them? The digital era makes it so easy to disregard the lives of the people behind the email addresses. Just because you can click delete or block, doesn't mean you should."

Entrepreneur Ali Ryan says ghosting is something you have to expect and accept in modern dating.

"It's the coward's way out. It can be detrimental to your mental health when the person you have been seeing ghosts you. It's easy to start over-analysing everything, blaming yourself and searching for answers."

Ryan, the CEO of Goss Media, believes the worst form of ghosting is being blocked. "It's very common now for people to block on social media, so you can't contact them in any way. It's so immature and purposely hurtful, we should all be adult enough to face each other."

Irish Independent

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