Why can’t we all just say what we mean?
Of all the new cultural things my old brain is being forced to comprehend by Millennials and these strange new Generation Z creatures, the one I find most distasteful is “ghosting.” It basically just means disappearing: not returning calls or texts, leaving someone “on read” (another newfangled term that means clicking into a message that shows it was read, but not replying), and ending communication without any sort of explanation.
I’m here to tell you: it’s awful, and if you do this you are an asshole.
What’s ironic is that when I’ve talked to people about ghosting, the ones who will admit to doing it say that they just want to avoid the awkwardness and potential confrontation that comes with having “the talk,” whatever that talk may entail. They are done with whatever relationship it is, whether romantic and platonic, and so they just back away without a word. Many of them worried that talking about it would make them seem like “the bad guy.”*
Well, guess what? Not talking about it is what makes you “the bad guy.”
Relationships, anything deeper than a casual acquaintance, require vulnerability. You are opening yourself up to someone, showing them all of the bits that wrinkle and sag, the bits that you aren’t as proud of as your most shining achievements, the pieces of you that are chipped and cracked and worn at the seams. It’s uncomfortable, but sharing those pieces of yourself, and letting someone else share theirs with you, is how we go beyond the surface. It allows you to see that someone can look at you – not the you that you put on in public, but the actual you – and not say all of those nightmare things you imagined in your mind. You start to realize that maybe you are someone who is worthy of love, worthy of care and compassion.
Do you see where I’m going here?
Some relationships are meant to last for lifetimes, but some aren’t. That’s ok. And the sad but necessary truth is that sometimes one person in that relationship will come to the end of the road before the other one is ready. Things can get messy. There might be yelling; there might be tears. But being honest isn’t what makes you “the bad guy.” It’s just another moment of the vulnerability that made that relationship the wonderful entity that it was all along. It is a chance to be honest, and talk about hard things. The other person may be angry with you, and they may feel hurt by you, and that’s also ok. Someone being mad at you isn’t what makes you “the bad guy.” Someone feeling hurt by you isn’t what makes you “the bad guy.” Avoiding that chance for honesty is what makes you “the bad guy.”
You are responsible for your actions, not other people’s responses to them. If you are honest with someone and do it in a compassionate way, then their reaction to that honesty is their stuff. That’s their ability (or lack thereof) to manage and deal with their emotions, face difficult things, etc. You did what you could by sharing your true feelings, and as long as you do so in a way that is respectful and compassionate to the other person and the relationship you had with them, then you’re good to go. But avoiding that conversation really has nothing to do with that person; you’re doing that for your own comfort and convenience, and that’s what makes you “the bad guy.”
“But wait!” I can hear you protesting, “Shouldn’t I want to save that person anger and hurt? How isn’t that the kinder thing to do than having a confrontation?”
Anyone who would use this argument is doing a pretty good job of proving that they are, in fact, the asshole in this situation, but for those that haven’t been ghosted before, let me help break it down. By not having that conversation, you aren’t saving them any anger or hurt. People who get ghosted still feel anger, and they still feel hurt. It’s just that you aren’t there to see it. So ghosting them doesn’t actually save them any sort of emotional reaction, and in fact can make the overall emotional damage worse. You are more comfortable because you didn’t have to have an awkward and uncomfortable conversation, and that’s your stuff. You can give whatever excuses and justifications you like, but the only thing that ghosting accomplishes is saving you from having to be just as vulnerable in ending the relationship as you were during it. Some may be kind and say there could be some self-preservation in play, but I’m not kind and I just call it selfish. If you can’t have a dignified end to your relationships, then maybe you’re not ready to have relationships. Yep, I said it and I meant it.
You may sense that I have some feelings on this topic. Good sleuthing, Nancy Drew! If you’ve been listening to my podcast, Miss Jaye: The Renovation, you may have already heard this story, but last fall I matched with a guy on Tinder that I thought was cute. He was flirty but not overly graphic, and we talked about podcasting. He seemed like a really nice guy, and I was looking forward to meeting him. Unfortunately, we started talking right before I was heading to Arizona on a 6-week work trip. We kept chatting through the app and talked about meeting when I got back in January. About a week before Christmas, I stopped hearing from him. I sent him a Merry Christmas message, and nothing. A week later, I gave what I hoped was a casual and not-appearing-desperate Happy New Year, and still nothing. I sighed, and filed him away with the guys who just up and disappeared.
Sorry to keep banging the shameless self-promotion drum, but if you listened to the podcast episode where I told this story, you know that it has an unexpected twist: the guy died. Now clearly I’m not saying that he’s an asshole for ghosting me – I’ll never know the whole situation, but obviously he had some things going on in his life that were more important than regular check-ins on his Tinder conversations. Totally understandable. I’m telling the story not so much to focus on what he was up to, but rather what I was up to.
Yeah, remember me? I’m the ghostee, and I represent that other person that you’re so concerned about having a grownup conversation with because you want to “spare them” all of that hurt and anger, or whatever. When I noticed that I wasn’t hearing back from him, my first reaction was confusion. We hadn’t been talking that long, but we’d had some good banter and it seemed generally positive. There wasn’t any indication that he wasn’t interested, or that I’d said something to piss him off. That’s why they call it ghosting: he just disappeared.
When it became pretty clear that I probably wasn’t going to hear back from him, here are some of the thoughts that I had:
He’s an asshole.
But…he didn’t seem like an asshole.
He actually seemed really nice.
Why would a nice guy just stop talking to me?
Did I say something?
*reread every single message back and forth…twice*
Was I too pushy when I told him I’d help him start a podcast?
Did he think I was being too forward?
Did he think I was trying to jump into something?
Was I not forward enough?
Does he think I’m not interested in him?
Does he think I’ve friend-zoned him?
Maybe he was offended?
Maybe he thought I meant that he couldn’t do it himself?
Maybe he just said he was interested in it to be polite?
Maybe he doesn’t even care about podcasts?
Maybe he does, but maybe he listened to my podcast and hated it!
What if he hates my podcast?
Is my podcast terrible?
Have I been wasting my time making a terrible podcast?
Am I so self-involved that I can’t realize that what I make is terrible?
What if everything I make is terrible?
What if I’m a garbage human who is self-involved and everything I do is terrible?!
I mean…maybe he’s an asshole?
But what if I’m the asshole?
Clearly, there’s a lot here for me and my eventual therapist to unpack. This emotional shame spiral is dramatic and over-the-top and cringey AF. But that’s the thing about ghosting: the ghostee has no information about why communication has suddenly stopped. We’d all like to believe that we’re strong, independent people who can shrug off rejection and go on with our unbothered lives like Beyoncé in the “Hold Up” video. The rejection is still there, but with ghosting you have the added dimension that the person who ghosted you didn’t feel like you even deserved to know that it was happening. That’s the kind of thing that can trigger the worst of those little voices in our minds that tell us we’re not good enough, not pretty enough, not worthy enough, not only of love and compassion but even of being told when someone in our lives doesn’t want to be there anymore. You may come around to the idea that the person is just an asshole, but you’re probably going to take the scenic route to get there.
Are you starting to see how ghosting really does make you “the bad guy?”
Now, I definitely want to work on myself and I want to get to a place where I don’t internalize rejection so easily or so fully. That way, when someone ghosts me because they are, like, literally a ghost, I don’t immediately spin up into all of those self-destructive thoughts I keep hidden away in the back of my mind, and I can just move forward without having a breakdown in the restaurant of the Atlanta Sheraton and end up ugly crying in front of the star of one of my favorite 80s horror movies (seriously, though, you should listen to that episode – the whole experience was bananas). But the ugly truth is that we can’t all be strong all the time. And usually, if you’re being ghosted it’s not because the person is no longer on this mortal coil…unless you pushed them in front of a bus or something, which I do not recommend. You will go to jail, and you will definitely be “the bad guy.”
Most of the time, ghosting happens because you let someone into your life who, regardless of your shared history, made the decision to value their own comfort over respecting your relationship and just being honest with you. It isn’t your fault, but that doesn’t change how much it can feel like your fault. And while the person may have a valid reason for ending the relationship, not talking about it isn’t a valid way of dealing with it. It causes unnecessary hurt. It’s cruel.
And it really does make you “the bad guy.”
*Throughout this piece is use the phrase “the bad guy.” I understand that this is gendered language; don’t take this to mean that I’m trying to say that only men are guilty of ghosting. Anyone can be an asshole, whether they are male, female, cisgender, transgender, non-binary, or any other gendered or non-gendered identity. Assholism is, unfortunately, universal. But “the bad guy” is a piece of recognizable cultural slang, it accomplishes what I want it to accomplish in this piece, and if you are more interested in critiquing my use of this one phrase rather than engaging with the ideas of the article as a whole, maybe you’re the asshole. How’s that for a disclaimer?
Also, I feel like maybe I should say that the title of this post is not directed at a specific person. I have several Brandons in my life, and they are all delightful. I was just trying out different names that I thought would be funny and flow well (including Susan, Steve, Deborah, Jason, and Jack) and Brandon is the one that tickled me. So if your name is Brandon, please don’t feel attacked…unless you ghost people, and then you can fuck off because you deserve it. This whole disclaimer thing…am I doing it right?