If there was ever a time I felt the passionate urge to snap “check your privilege” at someone, it was when my coworker asked, “What’s ghosting?” We were discussing Ghostbot, a new app that ghosts people for you. When I first read the headlines, I was exasperated: Is this the pinnacle of the worst things humanity has to offer?
Ghosting: symptom or scourge?
Ghosting—for all those privileged enough to not know—is the act of suddenly ceasing all communication with someone, especially in a romantic context. As someone familiar with being ghosted, I was steadfast in its condemnation. I suspect that most people who’ve been ghosted even once hate it, because it’s 2016 and we’re goddamn adults—is it that hard to tell someone that you’re not interested in seeing them again? Is it really that hard to say what we feel?
Admittedly, being angry with ghosting is slightly misguided. It’s a symptom, but the great scourge is our cultural shift towards cool apathy or indifference and away from communication and earnestness. But ghosting feels like the bigger crime in our everyday lives, especially since it can create new manifestations of pain. Ghosting hurts for a few reasons: First, it’s rude and second, it leaves ghostees in a state of ambiguity that is both anxiety-inducing and the opposite of what we—as dictated by human nature—seek. Jennice Vilhauer, Ph.D., wrote in Psychology Today: “People who ghost are primarily focused on avoiding their own emotional discomfort and they aren’t thinking about how it makes the other person feel.” She continued:
Ghosting gives you no cue for how to react. It creates the ultimate scenario of ambiguity. You don’t know how to react because you don’t really know what has happened … Social cues allow us to regulate our own behavior accordingly, but ghosting deprives you of these usual cues and can create a sense of emotional dysregulation where you feel out of control … One of the most insidious aspects of ghosting is that it doesn’t just cause you to question the validity of the relationship you had, it causes you to question yourself.
In this way, ghosters create situations that make ghostees feel nutty, and effectively gas-light them with silence. I spoke with Steven Umbrello, managing director and advisory board member at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, who explained that the troubling parts of ghosting might be easier to understand when imagining the interaction IRL:
When I engage in any conversation, virtual or otherwise, I am entering into a social construct. These social constructs have social mores that are associated with them, most implicit and unsaid. For example, how often does one meet a person, begin talking to them, and mid-conversation turn around and leave without any antecedent reason? Naturally, their interlocutor will most likely be confused at this awkward social circumstance. It is simply something that defies social convention.
To be fair, some social conventions are bullshit, and Umbrello acknowledged as much, adding, “This does not mean that we must adhere to all social conventions, some are arguably dumb, while others act like the cohesion of our society. One of the best pieces of advice I can offer ... is to be simply authentic, be the person that you would be if you are speaking to the person face to face.”
I think it’s disrespectful to meet real human beings with radio silence, but beyond that, I find ghosting to be an affront to the wonder of human relationships. Love, dating, fucking, chemistry—these are all many-splendored enigmas with multiple, dynamic parts. There is no precise recipe when it comes to feeling good with someone. As adults, we should know that we deserve good things; we should know that good things feel better when you treat those involved with respect; and we should know that when things aren’t good, it’s okay to say so because we deserve good things.
I thought these were common beliefs, which is why I was surprised—nay, appalled—when many of my coworkers defended ghosting. I asked why they’d ever find ghosting acceptable, especially since we communicate for a living, and learned that when it comes to low stakes dating, ghosting is a mutable and sometimes necessary tool. One coworker explained that she feels comfortable ghosting people online who she hasn’t met IRL yet: “I don’t owe them anything.” Another coworker got me feeling sympathetic when he told me that sometimes, “things just fizzle out on their own,” and neither participant feels enough momentum to respond: “It just happens.” And if it’s some mutation of these situations—like if you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling but want to keep the option of a booty call—then I love that for you.
I don’t owe them anything.
When it comes to what constitutes ghosting, does a mutual fade or a stranger cop-out compare to going on dates with (or hooking up with) someone, and then crushing the expectation of seeing each other again with silence? To most people, it’s obvious that these situations are complex and different; the way you exit a relationship should reflect the emotional investment you’ve both put forth. But it’s the outliers who don’t understand this that make ghosting necessary for some people. Especially for women, rejecting someone can mean risking your life.
I spoke to Greg Cohn, founder and CEO of Ghostbot’s parent company Burner, and lead product designer Lauren Golembiewski, who wrote and programmed Ghostbot’s script. Golembiewski said that this spectrum of reactions to rejection, especially an unmitigated escalation to harassment, is the inspiration behind Ghostbot, the app that started our entire office ghosting debate.
“We noticed that women get a disproportionate amount of aggressive or inappropriate texts,” she explained. “When we saw this behavior and the aggressive behavior we thought that it would make a lot of sense for a bot to kind of upload this emotional interaction where a woman could respond or not respond and it could still spiral out of control.” Golembiewski added that she took cues for Ghostbot’s script from popular Instagram and Twitter accounts of real dating horror stories; that’s when I realized that Ghostbot doesn’t enable the worst parts of humanity—it reflects them.
Maybe it just hurt me to see ghosting proliferate into a playful and profitable app because it made our human faults feel so transparent. But the fault doesn’t lie solely in our cultural devaluation of empathy and connection (though it doesn’t help)—it’s rooted in the fact that when we develop new ways to communicate, we develop new ways to hurt each other. Rather than enabling emotional laziness, Ghostbot (and ghosting) can act as a buffer between people and their potential harassers, forming a safer and more efficient emotional economy.
Give up the ghost, or nah?
“You know guys being assholes to women didn’t suddenly emerge after the invention of SMS, right?” Cohn quipped. He was right. The feelings that compel us to ghost—fear, insecurity, indifference, pain—ruled us long before the existence of texting etiquette. When I told one of my coworkers that I hated ghosting because I value good communication and won’t settle for less in my relationships, he responded, “But that’s just so...healthy.”
“I sort of ghosted out of the last relationship I had,” he told me. “It was a shitty thing to do but it felt like an easier signifier of how I wanted things to be and it helped me avoid the pain of confronting her face-to-face about my feelings changing.” He explained that they eventually talked it over, but at the time, he used ghosting as a tactic to “mime my feelings rather than say them.” When I considered this non-terrible coworker’s ghosting, I knew that it probably wasn’t objectively any worse than my last (in-person) break-up. In fact, it might even be better to suffer the humiliation of failure and rejection on my own than with even one witness.
You know guys being assholes to women didn’t suddenly emerge after the invention of SMS, right?
Umbrello told me, “The point of technology is to make our lives easier; as a tool for progressive change. However, using technology as an avenue through which you are able to engage in anti-social behavior without criticism is against our very nature.” Anti-social behavior may be against our nature, but it’s still real. (Don’t deny that you pull anti-social shit sometimes.) Even though the distance afforded by new tech might make the terrible process of breaking up seem easier, there is no hierarchy of break-up pain. Ghosting or not, ending things with someone is always non-linear, unchartable, and complicated AF.
Ghosting highlights the worst of our ugly sides: that we're all anti-social, insecure, and too afraid to talk about it. This reveal is sad yet comforting; maybe we’re not shirking communication as much as finding new ways to fumble through it. In a world of ghosts, we're still just humans making human mistakes. When I asked Umbrello how we should approach this contemporary moral dilemma, he answered, “A little bit of empathy goes a long way.”