Long Reads

Ghosting people: have you been the victim of unintentional ghosting?

It’s easy to think ghosting only happens in our romantic relationships, with soft ghosting being one of last year’s biggest dating trends. But nearly half (48%) of those who have been ghosted say it was a friend who cut contact. So could you be an unintentional ghoster? And how is this affecting your friendships?

It’s 9am and as I reach the top of the Oxford Circus tube station escalator, I feel it – the buzz.

I fish my phone out of the depths of my bag and see that it’s regained signal and is dutifully reminding me that I’ve missed 30-minutes worth of conversation while in enforced blackout on the underground.

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There’s a WhatsApp message from a friend, lamenting the delays on the Central Line, and a slew of responses in a group chat called ‘Hen Squad 2.0’. I’m about to start typing that “no, I don’t think it matters if the bridesmaids wear matching nail varnish”, when I feel the familiar vibration again. I flick my eyes to the top of the screen and my breath jars as I read the message: “Hello?! Why are you ignoring me?”

what is ghosting friends
Ghosting people: could you be an unintentional ghoster...?

If you think I’m dodging the unwanted yet persistent efforts of a recent date, you would be wrong. This message is from a friend. I’m not trying to end our friendship – in fact, I value it immensely – yet her communication attempts have now gone unanswered for weeks, and not for the first time. So, what am I doing? 

When we think of the term ‘ghosting’ – the act of suddenly, and without explanation, withdrawing from all communication – we conjure up the image of a callous coward. Originally this modern day phenomenon only applied to dating, but recent Messenger by Facebook statistics show that 48% of those who have been ghosted say it was a friend who cut contact.

But what about if you’re not actually trying to end a friendship? What if, like me, you’re an unintentional ghoster? Someone who, despite retaining the ability to watch endless Instagram stories, can’t seem to muster the energy to reply to pending messages. We intend to come back to them in a few hours but the longer we leave it, the more dread we feel about replying. And no wonder, given that 42% of us expect a response from a friend ‘within the hour’

The digital age means we are living in a time where friendship entails copious, if not constant, communication. We leave drinks with a friend only to find they’ve tagged us in a meme online, or find ourselves invited into a WhatsApp group after a holiday so that “everyone can share photos”, and we never sign off. I don’t remember the last time I really said “goodbye” to anyone on the internet, do you?

If I wake up to lots of WhatsApp messages, I often have to turn my phone off. I don’t have social anxiety per se, but I do find a continual stream of contact difficult. And so, as the days pass, that once innocuous message from a friend starts to feel more and more like a ticking time bomb. Then they text again, and now I need to think of a really, really good reason for my radio silence. 

turn phone off in bed
Ghosting people: Why is it that so many of us feel incapable of replying to a message from someone we care about?

Not only can this upset the ghostee, it also triggers a feeling of stress in the unintentional ghoster themselves. The longer a message is left, the more energy we perceive it will take to reply. However, there are other things that demand our energy too – like an urgent email from our boss.

But why is it that so many of us feel incapable of replying to someone we care about, while also still finding the time for aimless ASOS scrolling?

Dr Rachel Allan, a chartered counselling psychologist, believes it’s all to do with a clash between our busy, modern day lives and our biology.

“Most of us use multiple digital platforms to be in contact and this can lead to high volumes of messages waiting for us every time we pick up our devices,” she explains.

“Feeling inundated with demand can perpetuate a sense of inadequacy, or of not being in control, and when this happens digital connection can start to feel like a source of threat. This triggers a natural stress response where our automatic fight-or-flight mechanism becomes activated.” 

The fight-or-flight mechanism is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived threat to survival. It is our system’s way of protecting us, but when it feels we can neither run from a threat, or stay to fight it, we enter a third state: freeze. Just like an animal might play dead when it senses a predator, humans can enter this state, too.

“In the case of digital overwhelm, this can mean shutting out calls and messages, and ‘disappearing’ from online platforms where people are trying to contact us,” Dr Allan continues. “As demand accumulates, we become more stressed, and feel more inclined to disengage.”

We take the act of ‘disengaging’ as a sign of our own failing, but it’s time we started questioning the system, rather than our response; the structure of today’s society is not one that supports our mental health, but rather chips away at it. This is especially true when we have to wear so many different hats online; we could simultaneously be messaging a colleague, a romantic partner and several friends, and the expectation is that we switch easily between these in the time it takes to exit one conversation and click on another. This can easily lead to burnout, or errand paralysis, in which replying to messages become our errands.

unintentional ghosting friends
Ghosting people: “Sometimes keeping in touch with people from ‘my other lives’ jars with living in my day-to-day one."

This is something that rings true for 27-year-old media analyst Catriona, who has struggled to stay in touch with people since she moved and began battling anxiety.

“I have unconnected groups of friends from separate places, and I’m a different person with each of them,” she says. “Sometimes keeping in touch with people from ‘my other lives’ jars with living in my day-to-day one. When I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed, or low, I just can’t handle being all the versions of myself at the same time.”

Lucy, a 33-year-old school teacher, says she has been both the ghoster and the ghostee, and finds being on both sides a struggle.

“I can’t look at my phone during the day and so I resent the idea that I ‘have’ to reply to lots of messages when I get home with books to mark,” she says. “I’ll reply to a friend who needs to know timings for a pre-planned arrangement, but I don’t have the energy for a chat. 

“However, I’m still quick to jump to conclusions when someone does it to me. When you’re on the receiving end it’s hard not to feel paranoid, or annoyed, because you don’t know why the other person isn’t responding.”

Ghosting friends: How can we improve our friendships? 

ghosting friends make friends
Ghosting people: it is possible to manage digital overwhelm without damaging our relationships or isolating ourselves.

So how do we manage digital overwhelm without damaging our relationships or isolating ourselves? Dr Allan suggests that there are three key ways in which we can reassert ourselves over our digital connections.

1. Don’t panic about burnout

Recognise that a level of anxiety and stress is normal when demands and expectations exceed what we can realistically manage.

2. Set boundaries with your technology

Set clear boundaries around time and digital engagement. This might include: choosing to switch devices off at certain times, actively saying goodbye or limiting time spent responding to messages. Telling friends about these boundaries will help prevent them taking your slower responses personally.

3. Prioritise and filter

Regularly audit your digital connections and platforms, and eliminate any sources of demand that are not benefiting you or do not reflect what really counts in your life. This might include muting or exiting certain conversations on WhatsApp, unsubscribing to unwanted emails, or removing apps that you find high in screen time and low in value.

ghosting friends
Ghosting people: our friendships are built on honesty, trust and loyalty.

Our phones will never stop buzzing, and there will always be an angry red notification clinging to the apps on your homepage. But ultimately, that is not what dictates our friendships. They are built on honesty, trust and loyalty, on the feeling that we are understood by those who have our best interests at heart.

So maybe the question is not ‘why are we unintentionally ghosting our friends?’ but rather, ‘how has our human need to recharge become so misunderstood?’

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This piece was originally published 8 October 2019

Images: Getty, Unsplash