A User's (and Receiver's) Guide to Ghosting
Ghosting, my definition being:
“The act of ending a personal relationship with someone, removing them from your life, by suddenly and without proper explanation shutting down, ignoring, or not engaging with communication from that person “
It’s never been easier to connect with other people, and a bizarre side effect of this development is that it has never been easier to disconnect as well. This can happen in a variety of ways, creating a variety of ghosts.
Some are far spookier than others. Maybe you’ve met some, maybe you’ve made some. Here is your guide to some of the ones I know about:
The Justice Ghost
Justice ghost is a special breed. While some ghosts are at least mildly spooky, Justice Ghost has a tiny spook level. That’s because it’s completely OK to cut off contact abruptly with someone who is toxic to you. You don’t owe them an explanation. Shutting down a source of unpleasantness and harassment in your life is self-affirming. It’s most likely a positive thing.
Many ghosts come from a form of social cowardice. Justice Ghost, on the other hand, requires bravery to summon.
So go you. And go Justice Ghost.
If you’re on the receiving end of a Justice Ghost, you’ll probably know.
The Polite Lie Ghost
This is a very common ghost type. It comes usually comes from a good place - we don’t want to be rude or abrasive, so we shut down conversation with polite lies such as “I’ve just been extremely busy lately” or “I’m not that good at replying to messages”. In some cases, of course, these statements might be true. But often they’re used by the sorts of people that are on their phones constantly.
Besides, who in this world isn’t good at replying to messages? There are surely some - however these people also also tend to be the types who don’t spend a lot of time on social media at all. Rather, they spend their time being genuinely busy with other aspects of life ; work, family, friends etc.
So often we present polite lies, instead of the truth; that you don’t want to continue the conversation, or that you just don’t have the emotional/mental energy to spare dealing with this person right now.
Often these polite lies can stack up. Someone wants to meet up, and we constantly flake on them - not having the courage to say that it’s just not something we want to do. We go along with arrangements being made and cancel last minute, leave them hanging for days on end asking when we’ll next be free.
Over a series of weeks, they’ll eventually get the message, but it’s more painful than it needs to be. The Polite Ghost gradually phases people out from our lives by pretending that we have neither the means nor the time - ignoring the brutal fact that busyness is for most people a choice. We choose how to spend our time every day, and we’re afraid to say that we just don’t want to choose to spend time on this person.
Being kind and honest aren’t mutually exclusive. There are ways to convey the truth constructively, and sometimes that’s simply you being comfortable with the fact that you can’t please everyone - and that you do have a finite amount of energy and emotional capacity. And that’s OK.
The ghosts that these messages produce are a little spooky. The person receiving them might not be sure whether the lie is true or not. They might, while waiting for a reply, inevitably see you post on various social media accounts, and start to wonder if they’ve been duped. If you ghost someone this way, they’ll probably realise sooner rather than later. Who, exactly, are you kidding? Have the decency to just be honest. They’ll respect you more for it.
And if you are on the receiving end of a polite lie - someone telling you that they’re barely keeping their head above water, while seeing them update their profile picture and post incessantly to Instagram - don’t fret. It’s reflective of them, and not you. They probably had good intent and just don’t want to be overtly rude. They’ll learn, or maybe they won’t. Regardless, don’t worry about it.
The Overwhelm Ghost
This is something we've all done. We don't intend to do it, but life is a busy thing. Overwhelm Ghost is summoned despite our best intentions. They come from messages we read and forget about, emails we tell ourselves we'll get back to, but never do. With our lives saturated in social media, entertainment, and copious amounts of memes, people can be dropped. Sometimes these messages we don’t reply to have a high emotional barrier - someone has written something long and considered, and it just always seems like it would cost a bit too much mental effort than we can spare to deal with it right now.
The right moment rarely comes, and we forget about it.
Sometimes when we discover our Overwhelm Ghosts months down the line, we're unsure of what to do, as we feel guilt that we've made one.
These ghosts, unlike the Polite Lie Ghost, are genuine. We are simply too busy or caught up in things to reply. That’s OK - everyone gets super busy sometimes. But be careful not to lie to yourself - there’s a big difference between forgetting to reply to someone, and telling yourself that you keep forgetting.
The best way to deal with these Overwhelm Ghosts is to simply acknowledge them - open the cupboard/message box that they’ve been haunting, however spooky it may be. Say hi, reply, and recognise it was a spooky situation. Then just be honest. Was the reason you deferred replying to this because it was important, or because it really wasn’t important? Be kind, and constructive, and go from there.
It can be hard to tell if you’re receiving an overwhelm ghost. After all, if looks like you just weren’t replied to, with no further context. If it’s important, nudge them again - just be considerate of what’s going on in their life as well.
The Stealth Ghost
This ghost appears when the other person’s back is turned. It comes from the purge of Facebook friends months or years away from any direct contact you’ve had with the person. It’s the silent removal of any possibility of any further continuation of the relationship you might have with them.
These ghosts can range from not spooky at all to really spooky. Sometimes the person may not ever notice you removed them - there was really no relationship there to begin with. Perhaps you met at a party or through a mutual friend and that’s it.
But sometimes, it can be a very spooky thing. Maybe it’s a person you were close to in high school, who years down the line you’ve cut off abruptly. The person in question may not notice for some time, but eventually they will. And they’ll wonder why there’s now a Stealth Ghost in place of the memory of their friend.
If you’ve ever gone back to see how an old friend is doing, only to be cut off, it can be a strange thing indeed. It can make you question your past quite a bit - weren’t your memories overall pleasant ones? Why did this person decide to erase you? It can be made all the spookier comparing notes with other friends, seeing who they did or did not cut off in this way. For it to be a Stealth Ghost, this person can’t be relevant to your life right now. But they are relevant to your past, so this can leave you with a lot of reminiscing and considering to do. All I’d say is try not to overthink it - you don’t know what’s going on with this person’s life right now. It might be a reflection on you, or it might be a reflection on them.
The Quiet Rage Ghost
The Quiet Rage Ghost happens when silence speaks louder than words. It’s the ghost that’s put in place instead of an explanation when someone has done you wrong.
Often being invoked after an argument or incident, the Quiet Rage ghost can convey a whole host of messages. The person receiving it will likely desperately be trying to find out what you’re thinking - taking shots at apologising for certain aspects of what happened, or asking questions in the hopes of engaging for further constructive conversation. The one thing they will know is that the person ghosting them, is mad.
Sometimes people don’t deserve explanations (see Justice Ghost above). At the same time, if we give up on providing them with one, we remove the prospect of them understanding what happened, and for the relationship with this person to continue in a constructive way. Communication is a two way street. Your rage may be justified, but your decision to deploy Quiet Rage Ghost can destroy the prospect of the person redeeming themselves.
The effects of Quiet Rage Ghosts, even if they are vanquished by conversation resuming after a few hours or days, can stick around and spook people for a long time. The person who is ghosted in this way will forever know that they’re one wrong move away from contact being cut off. Again, this may be justified, but make sure you’re aware of what you’re doing. Quiet Rage Ghost is small and simple, but they can be haunting.
The Lazy Silent Ghost
These ghosts can appear to be very similar to Overwhelm Ghosts - except the difference here is that they’re made by people who ostensibly do have the time, energy and resources to spare to engage in conversation. They just choose not to.
We asked the ghost to supply an illustration, they’ve yet to get back to us.
The Mutual Ghost
Sometimes a ghosting is mutual - two people decide, somewhat simultaneously, that they don’t want to be in each others’ lives. There’s no formal recognition of this, just an awareness. Perhaps it happened after one last catch up coffee, where you realised you no longer had anything in common. Or perhaps it happened after you both grew apart, and just decided that the person you used to know wasn’t someone you needed to be associated with anymore.
It’s an odd thing, the mutual ghost, as you never really know whether or not it’s mutual. In that, you might bizarrely have one last thing in common - that you both recognise you’re done with the other person.
The Cruel Lie Ghost
We end with the Cruel Lie Ghost. The Cruel Lie Ghost is potentially the spookiest of all the ghosts.
These lies sometimes come from good intentions - the person doing the ghosting doesn’t want the other person to feel devalued, or bad in any way. So they invent a fantasy that paints a picture that avoids this person being discredited - a more elaborate version of the it’s not you, it’s me excuse.
In all these cases, it’d be far easier to just be blunt and honest. Cruel Lie Ghosts are ones which cause the other person to worry more about, and become more invested in, this relationship you’re too afraid to end directly.
You might even believe yourself not to be lying - after all, the reasons you cite might all be true, in some sense. You do have problems (who doesn’t) which might seem to be good legitimate reasons for why you can’t make certain events, or put any effort into connecting with this person. Of course, if you have no trouble doing this with other people, then you might be creating a Cruel Lie Ghost. Taking advantage of peoples’ better and more caring natures, just so you don’t have to feel like a bad guy, is not a good thing to do.
Besides, again, there’s nothing wrong with being forthright in ending contact with someone - you don’t need a special reason. Most of the times, you just need the courage to be honest. If the person you’re speaking to is decent in any way, they’ll understand, and respect you for being direct.
If you’re on the receiving end of a Cruel Lie Ghost, it can take a long time before you realise. In its worst form, it can be a form of gas-lighting. Your reality may be warped, making you constantly question whether to trust that this person is being honest with you, or to look at evidence to the contrary. Sometimes these people just can’t tolerate the idea that they would ever be in the wrong. More often than not, this person has done you a favour. It might take a while to recognise that fully, and feel that way, but you will. A Cruel Lie Ghost is better to have around, than a cruel person.
Ultimately, a lot of ghosts (apart from the special breed of Justice Ghost) come from cowardice. It comes from a fear of being honest and vulnerable, to say it how it is. Sometimes this might be for the better, but often it’s not. And, deep down, we know it. Ultimately, almost all forms of ghosting are a way of avoiding being forthrightly honest, both with the other person and with ourselves. It comes from this idea of “what they don’t know won’t hurt them”. This is, in almost all cases, bullshit. Most people are wise enough to know when you’re not giving them the truth.
I met someone a few months ago, who I had been seeing quite casually since. In the last few weeks we hadn’t seen each other, both just being ridiculously busy with city life. A few days ago, they abruptly told me that they had decided they didn’t want to date right now. They were extremely warm about the whole thing.
This was courageous, and just so good to know.
Because the term Ghosting is accurate - when you stop contact with someone, especially someone you’re close to, without a proper explanation, you make them a ghost of a kind. They will inevitably see through the windows of social media, prompted or otherwise, finding out what happened to you. Except, in your life, they don’t exist anymore. Life goes on without them, and they might not really know why that was the case.
They might carry those questions for a long time. Those questions can be heavy. Late at night, once in a blue moon, the ghosts you made may come to haunt the person, causing them to lie awake wondering why.
Maybe with time the ghosts will permanently go away, but perhaps they won’t.
Obviously there are lots of grey areas here. Sometimes you just need to just take a break from people for a while for personal reasons. Nobody has done anything wrong, however what happens can look like ghosting, even if it isn’t. Not every silence is a ghostly one, and not every separation or pause in conversation is cause for alarm.
Furthermore, clearly it’s simplistic to think that every situation can be boiled down to the few types above; every relationship is unique, with different circumstances and nuances.
My point with all of the above isn’t to cast holier-than-thou judgement on anyone (I’ve certainly created many ghosts in the above categories).
Rather, I’m asking you to cast some introspective judgement on yourself.
Only you will know if you ghosted someone because it was justified, or out of some mix of laziness, rage, or cowardice. Only you can know if you’re OK with that.
Ghosting is strange because it seems to me that there’s a weird acceptability around the whole thing. When you ghost someone that’s usually the end of the story. There’s no secondary meeting where it gets discussed, or where there’s some accountability. As a result, it rarely gets examined. The only person who can reflect on it is you.
Reflecting on all this has led me to the decision that I’m not going to ghost anymore, however seemingly trivial it may be (except in the obvious, justified case). I’ve definitely produced a few Overwhelm Ghosts, Quiet Rage Ghosts and Polite Ghosts in my time, and that’s not OK. I’ve also been on the receiving end of some ghosts too, some of which very much continue to spook me late into the night.
The sub-context of this piece is a broader topic of honesty. I wonder if many of our problems with those we love, and those we don’t, might just come from a fear of saying it like it is. This doesn’t mean I’m advocating using honesty as a weapon to bash people with - as said previously, honesty and kindness aren’t mutually exclusive. There are certainly times where being forthright with your honesty isn’t the best thing to do.
But I wonder if it is the best thing to do, in more times than we realise.
While we are more connected than before, modern living breeds a certain insidious form of isolation. Many of my friends, whether they’re studying, doing PhD’s, or working in the city, feel this loneliness creeping in. You’re surrounded by people, and constantly in contact, but you never really connect. Your apps might tell you that you messaged 15 people today, which can give you the illusion that all of that contact wasn’t entirely superficial. Despite all this noise, no connection has been made, and no real meaning exchanged.
You never know if someone’s reaching out because they miss you, they’re bored, or because they’re cripplingly lonely. This nuance often gets lost when we type out our messages, compressing out all emotional context. So I’ve decided to make a conscious effort to always reply in some form - even if just to say I’m genuinely overwhelmed, and it’ll take me a week to reply properly. The world is scary enough as it is, we don’t need any more ghosts if we can help it.