Merrimack-Webster just added the word “ghosting” to the dictionary this past month. As a former English teacher, I am always wary of the new slang that they add to the dictionary. Then again, some of the words that have come to dominate our lexicon were made up words from some authors’ vivid mind. Darn you, Lewis Carroll!! I knew you were mad but you didn’t have to go sniffing your own hats! So with that said, this new word has entered the popular imagination of the world, which has to be ironic as ghost is the root word here. And as it is popular enough to add to the dictionary, it’s no surprise that ghosting is all around.
What Is Ghosting?
So what exactly is ghosting? It’s certainly not murdering people and watching their spirits fly off into the ether, even if that is what we would like to do to those who ghost us. And it’s not coming back from the dead and haunting those who have done us wrong. That could be understood. Maybe we want to have a little garlic around, or go to our local Catholic Church and purchase some holy water, but we might understand that kind of ghosting. Or ghosting might be “the appearance of a ghost or secondary image on a television or other display screen.” (Oh wait! That is one of the definitions. Ah Poltergeist where art thou?)
Given that we now know what Ghosting is not, or simply the old definition of Ghosting, what IS Ghosting today? The new definition of Ghosting according to the dictionary is: “the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication.” Basically it is the sudden and unequivocal vanishing from another person’s life that you claimed to have some interest in at some point. How sweet, right? Hmmm……
So Why Do We Ghost Someone Else?
I would love to say that it’s all the fault of the internet. It’s such a convenient excuse for such bad behavior. We are all adults. We should be able to be honest with someone else. Right? Not so much!
To explain I think I need to go back to my high school. (That was just two years ago I swear. OK! Maybe it was five. Six? Not buying? I can’t sell you all the gold in Fort Knox? Too bad.) Back in high school, I attended one of those Christian schools. So one might have believed that these kids would at least pretend that they acted better than other people. If I had thought that when I started attending that school, they quickly disabused me of this notion.
One such time happened in my Bible class. I remember the Bible teacher posing a question to the girls in the group. “What would you tell a boy who asked you out on a date that you were not interested in?” They universally said, tell them we are sorry, we aren’t interested, but we appreciate that you like us and maybe you should date our friend Jill as they really like you and you’d make a cute couple. Wait no! They said that we really think you are an amazing person but we really think we aren’t compatible with you; and, Jill really is this great woman who needs a great guy like you. Hmmm… not that either. I’ll get this right eventually.
What all of these women said, in various different ways, is that they fully intended on lying to the guy. (Obviously, there was no Jill.). I admit that I was a bit shocked that they were all so brazen about it. Of course, they all had a great reason. They didn’t want to hurt the guy’s feelings. How sweet right? Not so much. Because as guys objected to that in the class, the real truth came out. Really, they didn’t want to feel bad about turning down a guy.
Now I’m not going to pretend that guys wouldn’t do the same thing. We would. We just have historically had the primary responsibility for asking out the people we were interested in. So we have to deal with rejection or the lies. Or both.
So if “moral” people had no problems lying to people back then (I know that makes me sound old. Ugh!), what would change now that the Internet is involved with the relationship equation? Nothing. And why should we expect any more today? We shouldn’t. I don’t.
What Makes Ghosting So Easy Now?
I think ghosting is just the natural extension of our penchant for not telling the truth in a relationship, whether it be to protect others or to avoid feeling guilty ourselves. But what makes avoidance of responsibility for our actions so easy? I think the way communication and relationships has changed has contributed to what is going on now. Technology may not have been the root cause of the action, but it did enable us to ghost in a way that was not available to us before.
Relationships today are frequently begun over the Internet. Whether we are insane and have created a monster that chews up people and spits them out in a relationship mess is a blog for another day. We have what we have. As a result, how we get to know someone, what kinds of contacts we have with them, and how easy to leave them completely in the lurch are functions of this new world.
Our New World
How does this new world work? First, we get to know someone online. When we get to know them that way, how much do we really know of them? I mean, I hope that people reflect who they really are on the net. But with dating, it’s often some fantasy version of the person they would like to be. Even if the pictures people post are not altered, all of the stuff on the page is like some marketing tool to get you to want to buy.
The only thing is, we are so used to getting a “money back” guarantee that we don’t know what to do when we don’t want what we have purchased anymore. Or in this instance, what we have bought into. Somehow, it gets into our brains that dealing with this is easy. We didn’t know them beforehand. We don’t really know them now. Who are they? *Poof* We disappear like a magic trick. Only this time there is no one to bring us back. And we want to keep it that way.
Second, in the past, we used to have real connections with the person which meant relationship “fallout” when things went wrong. It used to be that we knew this person, as did everyone else around us. If it didn’t work, you better work to make sure this person at least respected you at the end of the day. Because if you didn’t, there will be hell to pay. They would be a walking advertisement for how bad a person you were.
To avoid this today, we separate our dating partners from people we, or they, know. When we decide it’s over, we just make them vanish, first by ignoring them, and then by blocking them if they shouldn’t get the hint. The person could try to make us pay for wronging them, but we block every conceivable path for them to connect to anyone we may know and they vanish like dirt when you use Mr. Clean’s magic erase scrubbers. There is not even a sign that they were there.
Third, by using the net we frequently find people who live far enough away so it won’t matter when things don’t work. For those of you who use or have used dating sites to go on dates, how often do you date someone from your own hometown? I’m not saying that it means we then go 1000 miles to find someone else. But if the person is a good 25 to 50 miles from us, how often are we actually going to run into them in our daily lives? And even if we did, we can pretend they are like the ghosts they are, only haunting our existence and not directly impacting it.
If We Know That It’s Wrong, What Is Our Excuse For Doing It Now?
We don’t like to feel bad, and technology has made it so easy to do, but how do we rationalize disappearing without a trace? What story do we tell ourselves to make us feel like it’s not really a bad thing to do? I think we go with several different versions.
*** Before I get into a discussion of stalking, I feel like I need to take a time out here and be sure not to make light of those women who have had people stalking them. Stalking is a dangerous thing. And I would be idiotic and disingenuous if I didn’t admit the fact that the world is often a far more dangerous place for women as opposed to men. I do not think those who are being stalked should be subjected to face the person that is stalking them. That never works out well. It seems to only feed the stalker’s psychosis and puts the stalked person in a dangerous situation.
Complicating matters, it’s often hard to judge whether a person is doing things that are dangerous, or whether they have a completely different motive. Given the difficulty interpreting motives, I understand people advocating caution. Being a parent of a daughter, I can understand wanting to err on the side of caution. However, if we have never taken the time to tell the person what we are feeling, even just once, how can we expect them to act in a way that we find acceptable?
I know that we expect a lot from our potential partners, but if mind reading is among our expectations, I recommend cats. Lots and lots of cats! They may not be able to read our minds. They just don’t care if we are bothered by that.***
First, there is the stalker theory. I do believe that there are stalkers out there. And in some ways, because we are so visible, we are more easily stalked. All of our actions are so easily traced. A picture here. A Facebook post there. And I could trace almost anyone pretty quickly. We also overshare, so we put ourselves out there to people we don’t know.
Given these circumstances, it’s easy to believe that a person could stalk us. Once we decide that this person isn’t the right person, we act like them trying to contact us is tantamount to stalking. We know deep down that it isn’t. But we act like it is because that phone call and that comment must mean that they are following us. There must be rational explanations but we don’t care to hear them. It’s like hearing a loud bang outside and then calling 911 because we say were shot at. Deep down we know it’s the next door neighbor’s jalopy that he uses duck tape and twine to keep together and backfires all the time. But we ignore innocent explanations because it’s makes our actions excusable.
Second, society has stoked our fears so that we can’t rationally think through things any more. We always leap to the irrational conclusion about a matter because it makes us feel comfortable about ourselves. If we don’t want to be with someone, then it must be true that 50 percent of people out there are stalkers. I heard it on the web. So what if it’s fake news. It gives us cover.
Lastly, we “otherize” this person and so they must be intending to harm us. I get that we rationalize fearing the other. People do it all the time. We are just more comfortable around people like us. So our lack of knowledge about them must make them the “other”. They must intend hurting me, my kids, my dog Woofy, and the next door neighbors because they need to keep everyone quiet. (I swear that picture of their uncle looked like the Godfather. I don’t want to end up with a horse’s head in my bed. Do you?) Honestly, we don’t know the other person. We don’t know what they are doing, or why. And if we don’t ask, we never know. So we make up stories to make us feel better about our lack of knowledge. That way, we can escape responsibility for uncivil behavior. Ignorance is beautiful, no?
Where Do We Go From Here?
I think there are many things we could do to fix this uncivil behavior. But I fear that we do not want to. Relationships are confusing and messy enough as it is. Why bring other peoples emotions into it? Why not just allow us to escape so that it costs us nothing? And why not allow us our little bit of bad behavior if it doesn’t hurt anyone?
Truthfully, it does hurt many people. When we believe we escape situations by ignoring them altogether, we end up practicing this in other ways in our lives, damaging relationships and ultimately ourselves. We ignore the boss when she tells us to do something we don’t want to do. We don’t hear our spouse when they are practically screaming at us that they are hurting inside. Furthermore, we miss out on people honestly trying to give us help when we are in a bad spot. I know it’s not easy. So it has to change.
What do we do to change? We begin by admitting where we are. I’m therefore beginning with me. Whether it’s ghosting or the slow fade, I’m going to begin with the admission that I have often wanted to protect myself emotionally from other people’s emotions and responses. In so doing, I have ignored larger consequences to other people, and ultimately to myself. I’m not doing that anymore.
People have ghosted me more often than I would like to admit. To those who have, I want to say, I understand. When I wrote earlier that relationships are messy things, I truly meant that. As such, I vow to be honest that I don’t always know about my feelings. I want to find something true and genuine. And rushing my feelings, or accidentally rushing someone else’s doesn’t help anyone. When feeling rushed, I know people have showed up places where I was, or texted me to find out what was going on, so it was more comfortable pretending like I was being stalked. I know that this was wrong to think that.
I really didn’t know you. So instead of assuming things, I need to ask. Likewise, you don’t know what I’m thinking, so I need to tell. (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell never works. It’s stupid and relationship suicide.). If I haven’t been told enough that communication is important in a relationship, or even a friendship, I will remind myself just once more right now. (Communicate! Communicate! And once again, Communicate!)
Finally, when I have decided where things are going in a relationship or friendship, I promise to let that person know. It takes me a while sometimes. Maybe it’s me being a guy. Maybe it’s being human. But I always want more friends. If that’s not on your radar, it saddens me. But I wish you well.
All I can say is that we all have enough ghosts from our past that we don’t need to invite new ones to haunt us. Because truthfully, the person who is ghosted will not be having the panic attack when they run into the person who ghosted them. They might be angry. (The ghoster deserves that.) They might not even remember. They may have been a blip on their radar. (The ghoster deserves that even more.) The person who ghosted will be the panicked one. And I’m not in the mood for being haunted forever. Poltergeist is nice to watch on a TV screen. I’m not inviting them into my living room.
So this is my guide to ghosting. For better or for worse. I wish I could make every topic funny. Somehow “Top Ten Reasons for Ghosting a Person” didn’t feel honest. This did. I hope it encourages people to get out there and talk to people; or, at the very least, that some people consider the cost of doing such a thing. What are some of the stories you tell yourself to make you feel better about things? What’s your favorite ghost story? Mine is The Ghost Breakers, with Bob Hope. (Not exactly scary, I know.) I would love to hear what yours is.
Until next time, this is me signing off.
David Elliott, Single Dad’s Guide to Life