Sick to death of a life-long friend? Happy to never see them again and can’t be fussed saying so? No problem. Just stop taking their calls, and don’t bother explaining why you’ve dropped them when the text messages start asking: “WTF?’”
What was once known as sleazy behaviour – the province of certain men who promised to call and never did – is now a popular, and some say acceptable, social survival strategy called ghosting.
When ghosting an old mate, you allow yourself to fade from their lives. They’ll still feel you there, a perplexed haunting, as if you’d walked under a bus, leaving so many questions to fill the void: Why did this happen? Is he/she really gone?
Dr Jennice Vilhauer, director of Emory University’s Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program, wrote a piece for Psychology Today titled, “This Is Why Ghosting Hurts So Much”.
Citing peer-reviewed research, Dr Vilhauer said the hurt of being ghosted activated the same pathways in the brain as physical pain. She suggested that headache painkillers can help.
How widespread is ghosting? The figures are flabby. Dr Vilhauer cites an article in Elle magazine that claimed 50 per cent of people had been ghosted, while 50 per cent had done the ghosting. Fortune magazine published a survey that found 80 per cent of millennials had been ghosted.
Whatever, it’s a thing. US sociologist and life coach Martha Beck in a piece for Oprah.com gave advice on how and when to ghost a friend – “giving you permission to fade out of casual relationships without being haunted by guilt”. After all, the point of just fading way is to avoid the pain of confrontation.
Melbourne historian Dale Blair said he was ghosted by a mate, Greg, he’d known since the third grade. One day, at a wedding, Greg just walked out. Dr Blair said all efforts to contact Greg went unanswered. “He was still active on Facebook, but ignored my messages.’’
Dr Nicholas Hookway is a cultural sociologist at the University of Tasmania. His research explores contemporary morality and ethics. He confessed with regret to being both a ghosting perpetrator and victim.
“It’s such bad manners,’’ he said. “But ghosting figures as part of a wider sociological story where relationships have lost the solidity and reliability they once had. Like the end of ‘jobs for life’ or ‘death till we part’, friendships are now more short-term and episodic – contained to specific periods and times in our lives.’’
To an extent, we’ve become spoilt for choice, with contemporary life taking on multiple careers, multiple relationships and greater geographic mobility – and more opportunity to create friendships.
“Our increasing choice means we keep friendship bonds more loosely tied so we’re not encumbered or constrained by long-term commitment,’’ said Dr Hookway.
He also suggested that because of social media, friends who would have once naturally disappeared with the transitions of life – leaving school, moving jobs, moving countries – now hang around in our Facebook feeds.
“Perhaps ghosting is actually being shaped here by a cold but truthful algorithm that knows you just don’t have that much in common anymore,’’ he said.