clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ghosting, the easiest way to dump someone, explained

Tom Feist via Shutterstock
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Full disclosure: This article was written by a ghost.

Charlize Theron and Sean Penn are starring in a terrifying ghost story, one that speaks to this day and age. It didn't take place on a dark and stormy night, nor did it involve poltergeists and cameras. From the outside looking in, Theron and Penn were a loving couple, until one day, out of the blue, Theron simply stopped talking to Penn.

"Charlize wasn’t responding to his calls and texts," someone told Us Weekly. "She just cut it off."

Penn, despite all the different ways in which you can reach a person today, could not get in touch with her. It was like she never existed, but he knows she did. Theron was "ghosting" him.

What makes Theron and Penn's story so scary is that "ghosting" is actually happening all across this wondrous country. It's relatable. Every mid-morning, some poor sap sends a flurry of text messages to last night's date, slowly filling his message thread with a one-sided series of text bubbles that, despite their cheery appearance ("Happy Hump DAY!"), scream with desperation. And every weekend, someone wonders if the great guy she recently went out with lost his phone.

We live in a world where potential suitors vanish, where future sweethearts up and disappear, leaving us with nothing more than the digital evidence that they were, in fact, not always ghosts.

And these tales aren't just one-off personal experiences — everyone has a ghost story. Ghosting points to a bigger way culture has shaped us, and to how our dating lives have changed.

What is ghosting?

Ghosting is the act of cutting off all communication with a person whom you do not have any romantic feelings for — or whom you no longer have feelings for. What makes ghosting different than, say, just not talking to said person after dumping them is that ghosting isn't something you announce. The cutoff just happens, and the person being ghosted is often left wondering, haunted by uncertainty and sending text messages into the ether in hopes of getting a response.

The act of ghosting isn't something new. It's been around since people have had telephones, but it's only recently become more common, thanks to the advent of text messaging, Gchat, Twitter DMs, and more. It's easier than ever to get in touch with someone, and in that same vein, it's easier than ever to ghost someone.

How do you know you're being ghosted?

It's really easy.

Think of someone you have a crush on and are currently texting with. If you suddenly stop hearing from that person, you are being ghosted. Your text messages may look like this:

Note the time of the read receipt relative to the current time. This is one blatant ghost.

I orchestrated this example with my colleague Sarah Kliff to illustrate that what you're looking for is the time when the texts were sent, the time the texts were read (if possible), and the time that's elapsed between active messaging and silence.

But here's the thing: In contemporary society, there's no reason that someone who likes you as much as you like them can't return a text. There are outliers, of course; death comes to mind, or maybe you're dating a surgeon. But most people should be able to get back to you within a reasonably short amount of time. If you find yourself rationalizing silence ("Maybe she lost her phone?"), you are probably being ghosted or, at the very least, an unwilling participant in a macabre game of hard-to-get.

There are no hard and fast rules of ghosting, but if it's fair to assume that a person has been awake for 12 hours and you haven't received a response, you are experiencing paranormal activity.

The Supreme Court recently legalized same-sex marriage. Is same-sex ghosting legal too?


Why would you ever ghost someone?

It's pretty simple: The reason you ghost someone is that you're not interested in pursing any sort of a relationship with them. Maybe he likes the movie Diner? Or she puts ginger on her sushi? Perhaps he raves about the bullshit that is red velvet cake? Here are a few justifications for engaging in the practice:

  • They do not brush their teeth.
  • They prefer Star Wars over Star Trek.
  • They do not know how to pronounce "gnocchi."
  • They like black licorice.
  • They create racist children's coloring books.
  • They microwave asparagus.
  • They have long toe hairs.
  • They reach over the sneeze guard at Chipotle.
  • They describe everything as "amazing."

We live in an America where you can ghost people over the most minor complaints. It's a wonderful freedom. The right to ghost freely is essentially what this country was founded on.

Are there rules one must follow when ghosting?

Usually, ghosting is something that occurs before you enter a committed relationship. The lower the number of dates you've been on with someone, the more likely it is that ghosting will happen:

The likelihood of ghosting relative to the number of dates that have transpired between two people.

The likelihood of ghosting relative to the number of dates that have transpired between two people.

Of course, this isn't always the case. The New York Times recently published an article about ghosting that invited readers to share their own ghost stories, which the newspaper then published. Some readers were confused, and misinterpreted the experience of being stood up as ghosting. But I found myself taken in by one account in which a Times reader described being ghosted by someone they'd been seeing for 18 months:

It happened to me a while back, in a relationship of 18 months that had grown quite serious. After three weeks of silence, I decided someone ought to issue an acknowledgement, and wrote him a note (by hand, sent via the post office) saying I was hurt and confused by his behavior, but had enjoyed good times with him and wished him well.

That is not the behavior of a ghost. That is the behavior of a full-blown poltergeist. That is the behavior of someone whom you should not be dating.

Is ghosting rude?

Many people subscribe to an overarching belief, one that was probably instilled by earnest, well-meaning parents, that we should never just disappear on someone without explaining ourselves. Back in the day, our parents and our parents' parents probably made phone calls or scheduled face-to-face conversations to inform their suitors that they weren't interested.

But we live in a different era.

And in this era we have what's known as thirst, a word that's meant to define the sweet spot where "desperate" and "eager" converge. Thirst has existed since humans first walked the earth, when cavemen spent their days drawing paintings, making fire, gathering berries, and visiting the cavewomen (or fellow cavemen, we can't be too sure) they were interested in. As time progressed, thirst became realer and more tangible as our modes of communication evolved. What started out as conversations in real-life, face-to-face settings eventually began to take place over the phone, and then via the internet, Gchat, text messages, and so on.

I firmly believe that thirst has a direct effect on ghosting. Someone who is thirsty and thus won't stop calling, texting, Gchatting, and Facebook messaging the object of their affection is more likely to inspire a ghosting response. Cutting off all communication becomes a natural reaction:

The relationship between thirst and ghosting.

The relationship between thirst and ghosting.

Another factor to consider is that our human interactions are now more impersonal than ever before. It's possible, if you desire, to go through an entire day without speaking to someone on the phone or talking with someone face to face. Consequently, many people have forgotten some of the basic tenets of face-to-face, or even phone-to-phone, etiquette.

The same is true of dating, where you can have myriad conversations online or on the phone without ever meeting someone in person.

"As people have gotten less and less comfortable talking face to face about hard things, it’s become easier to move on, let time pass and forget to tell the person you’re breaking up with them," Anna Sale, managing editor of the WNYC podcast Death, Sex & Money, told the New York Times.

I'm not entirely sure that "forget" is the right word, but Sale makes salient points. Ghosting is an active behavior, not a passive one; it's not a matter of forgetting to tell someone you're not interested, but rather an act of avoidance. It's easier to move on and let time pass, and it's also easier to not have to deal with typing words into a text message or telling someone you don't want to date them.

Are ghosts bad people?

No. I mean, I'm sure there are terrible people out there who ghost, but ghosting itself isn't what makes terrible people terrible.

A lot of the hurt that comes from ghosting is rooted in the pain of rejection. Granted, there are some masochists in our wake who believe that hearing the words "I would like to pass on the opportunity to try monogamy with you" is better than not hearing anything at all. But the same feeling of rejection remains.

"When it comes to modern digital relationships, the rhythm of the exchange tells us as much as its literal content, and it doesn’t take any specialized skill to read between the lines," Slate's Amanda Hess astutely explained.

Most people are smart enough to understand when they've been ghosted. But it's human nature to not want to accept this, and to instead hope for the best. Perhaps that's why ghosting can seem so confusing — when there's too much human feeling and rationalization in play, some people simply ignore the ghost in the machine.