'Ghosting' may now be common in employment and dating relationships, but it still hurts
Several years after losing her husband in middle age, Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell decided to try online dating. She met someone on a dating service who seemed compatible, and they agreed to meet after chatting online for some time.
"Then he not only ghosted me, but he blocked me on the day before the meeting," says 59-year-old Campbell, a Next Avenue contributor who lives in Arkansas. "It angers me — people are so rude these days. I was on the apps for a long time and I did take it personally at first. But then I read on my widow's (online bulletin) boards how often it happens."
The term ghosting probably had its not-so-humble beginnings in the online dating world, but it has become common behavior in the working world, too.
What Is Ghosting?
Ghosting means one person in a relationship abruptly and inexplicably stops communicating with the other person. Suddenly, and for no known reason, texts are not returned, telephone calls go unanswered, email is not acknowledged. If the person being ghosted tries in any way to reach out for an explanation or to restart any communication, that person is met with silence.
Although the term was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2017, ghosting in many forms has existed for much longer.
"I have racked my brain . . . trying to understand why someone would do this."
"I think ghosting has always been around," says Dr. Gary Small, chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. "People are uncomfortable with confrontation and they will avoid it. If you don't have a very strong relationship or any social repercussions to ghosting, you are more inclined to engage in it."
Many older adults are reentering the workforce after retiring from a decades-long career, or they are dating again after a divorce or death of a partner. The rules of workplace communication and dating have changed, and they may have trouble navigating a situation where ghosting is the norm.
"There are different rules and work environments," says Angela Corbo, chair of communication studies at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. "When I talk to my parents or my in-laws, there is a sense of pride around work. My father in-law worked for Sears for the majority of his career. He was an excellent communicator, great at handling conflict. He would talk to people, and people really respected him. But the work environment he was a part of does not exist today."
Why Do People Ghost?
Sunny (not her real name) is a mental health therapist in Arizona who has seen how ghosting has affected many of her clients. She recently experienced the phenomenon when a personal relationship ended abruptly with no explanation.
"[Ghosting] has all the hallmarks of a sudden and unexpected death," says Sunny, 66. "I have racked my brain trying to find my own explanation since they didn't provide one, trying to understand why someone would do this.
"This is also the first time in many years I have allowed myself to be vulnerable because of my own fear of being hurt," she says. "People have no idea how ghosting harms people emotionally. I have all the tools and experiential knowledge as to how to work my way through this — most of my clients don't, and they are devastated."
"People have no idea how ghosting harms people emotionally."
There are several reasons that potential romantic matches or hiring managers ghost others instead of offering closure.
- They may gain a feeling of control. "When you think about ghosting, or gaslighting (the prolonged psychological manipulation of another person), there is a power imbalance," says Corbo. "If you are coming into it feeling vulnerable, people that you assign a higher status have a little more power in the relationship."
- They may not have time for conversation or closure. If ghosting occurs during a hiring process, it may just be a matter of deadlines and scheduling. Businesses often have hundreds of applications for a single job opening. Even after several tiers of the hiring process are completed, hiring managers may simply stop communicating after the right person is found for the job.
"Some people are just suffering from communication overload," says Small. "It has become a frenetic world for employers, employees and for daters. It becomes unmanageable."
They don't want the confrontation, or they don't know what to say. The ghosting person may have low self-esteem or may not have an emotional maturity to manage a response.
"Other times, it is the sense that, 'I just don't want to confront that person. I feel bad turning them down, and I would just rather ignore it and move on.' It's not just the insincerity of the person. It is a sign of social immaturity and a sign of our times, too," says Small.
- They have a personal or work issue that they don’t want to share. “If someone is going through something that is very difficult, they may want to be private about it,” says Corbo. “They don’t want to say, ‘I’m going through a divorce right now,’ or ‘I am dealing with an illness’ or ‘something just happened and I need some time.'"
How to Respond to Ghosting
A recent survey for Greenhouse, an HR software company, found that 75% of survey participants said they had been ghosted by potential employers after going through the interview process. Whether you are looking for a new work opportunity or are diving into the dating pool, it is likely that you will be ghosted.
Corbo notes that you can only control your own behavior, and how you interact with others. "People are not avoiding you as a result of what you have done for the most part," she says.
"As a society we don't have the same interpersonal communication skills as we did a few decades ago. The use of social media and technology has changed our expectations for communication."
While it is natural to feel inadequate or have low self-worth if ghosting happens, no matter the situation, Small recommends putting the rejection in perspective.
"Try giving the other person the benefit of the doubt," he says. "Maybe there was a family emergency, maybe someone is sick. Try different modes of communication and see if you can get there. Maybe there is a problem with a particular office, so try a different office. We certainly saw this during the COVID pandemic where people were quite disorganized."
Ask When You'll Hear Back
Corbo says outlining an expected response may help in certain situations. "Going into a relationship, especially if it is one for employment, you might say, 'When should I expect to hear back from you?' We all have a different scale of expectation in terms of when someone should communicate with us," she says.
"It is important to identify what the timeframe for communication will be," she adds. "I think a follow-up is always appropriate. Sometimes a second follow-up could be appropriate in certain situations."
"Sometimes things get dropped for reasons beyond the other person's control and you might be able to make the job opportunity come alive again."
The most important thing is not to dwell on anything, or take it personally, Corbo says. "Don't say, 'Oh, if I was kinder, if I complimented them more or if I didn't tell that joke. . . .' When you start going down that list, it erodes your self-esteem and that is when it becomes harmful."
Know When to Quit
Small advises knowing when to quit. "Trying different ways to communicate is [fair]," he says. "Sometimes things get dropped for reasons beyond the other person's control and you might be able to make the job opportunity come alive again."
"On the social realm, the same kinds of things hold true," Small adds. "But it is important to get the message eventually, come to terms with it and realize that ghosting is now a common approach."
Campbell says she now requires a video chat before agreeing to meet potential dates in person, and does online searches before meeting in public places. "I've grown stronger as an individual, and more confident," she says. "I don't let these things bother me at all."
If You Are the Ghoster
If you are a busy employer and you just can't get back to all the applicants, Small suggests working out an automatic reply system to notify and offer closure to applicants who would not be moving ahead with the hiring process.
"You have to realize that what you do has an effect on people," he says. "It will affect your reputation, although you may perceive that you will never hear from this person again. The other side of it is, you know when you do the right thing you feel better about yourself."
Corbo suggests that transparency is key, even if it displays some vulnerability. "We don't have to put all the details out there — I think some people think they do. Just say, 'I was going through a difficult time and I want to apologize for my delay in communication. I value our relationship and I am reaching out now.' Then they can take it from there."