On the third season of Insecure, Issa (Issa Rae) was ghosted in the most brutal of ways. Nathan, her dreamy lyft-rider-turned-LA-fling, seemed to be smitten with her. He even started helping her get a passion project off the ground and initiated a DTR (define the relationship) conversation. Then suddenly he couldn’t be reached. His mysterious exit takes a psychological toll on our main girl as she repeatedly wakes up in a frenzy from anxiety dreams and jumps to look at each text she receives, only to be disappointed time and time again. And on last Sunday’s episode she truly outdid herself by using Molly as an excuse to visit his house where she finessed her way up to his empty room and snooped for answers.
While the plotline is comedic gold, it also forces audiences to sit with the all too common disorienting experience of being ghosted, especially by someone who seemed to be sincerely interested in pursuing a relationship. You wind up doing mental backflips thinking of all the ways they could’ve gotten stranded in some receptionless forest.
As someone who has never ghosted a person, I find myself as confused about the Nathans of the world as Issa is. So I decided to reach out to people with plenty of experience ghosting to better understand what’s going on over there on the other side of these phone screens.
Of course people can get busy, and some revealed that fluctuations in their mental health often have a lot to do with their ghosting patterns. But in many cases, people seem to have ghosted so frequently with little consequence that they now use it to avoid very minor awkward situations. Others believe it’s a neutral, even polite, way to end a burgeoning relationship.
Let’s take the accidental ghosters, for example. These are folks who may have forgotten to respond to a few texts or aren’t interested in connecting at that moment, but they’re hoping to keep a door open for the near future. But then by the time they want to reach out again they fear it’s too late. Justin Vann, an accidental ghoster, says via Facebook comment, “I feel like since it's been (a few weeks) and I've ignored a few of their messages, it's more polite to just ghost them than say, ‘hey sorry I kinda ghosted you. I'll almost certainly do it again. Wanna get food or something?’”
Sure, if he sent that literal apology text it probably wouldn’t go over well, and ghosting twice is certainly worse than once. But let’s not get distracted from the fact that Vann frames permanently disappearing as more polite than apologizing for temporarily being awol. This type of rationalization came up time and time again—that ghosting is better for both parties rather than providing an explanation.
A number of people shared that they ignore others primarily because of something they’re too anxious to confront about themselves. But the examples many gave stemmed from personal embarrassment. In some cases, it’s arguably a silly reasoning, and hard to imagine it would matter less to the other person than being ghosted. For example, Stuart Hoskins says, “Most recently I was supposed to meet someone for breakfast but I slept in and haven’t talked to them for months.”
In other instances, the embarrassment felt more tied to self-worth. Elijah Fortson, another Facebook commenter, shared, “I've ghosted people because I told them something exciting or promising was happening in my life and I was too embarrassed to tell them it fell through.” Another mentioned ghosting following a panic attack triggered by fear that the other person wouldn’t like them.
Some reflected on how in retrospect their own decisions didn’t add up, that ghosting was more of an acrobatic way to preserve their self-concept. Em Gibson explains, “I’ve ghosted people before instead of cancelling because it’s made me feel better about myself because I’ve not actually admitted to cancelling.”
Interestingly, when it comes to feeling guilty over their serial ghosting, some felt justified primarily out of a self-care tactic to protect their energy. Vann says, “There are weeks that I don't want to talk to anybody, so I don't. Then people get ghosted. I should probably feel bad about it, but I don't.” On a similar note, Ali writes, “I feel like I am too approachable so I end up being friends with (people) I really don't like.”
Their responses highlighted the particular brand of self-care discourse which emphasizes not feeling bad about canceling plans, saying no to plans, or cutting (toxic) people out of your life. Understanding this, it could provide some basis for the popularity of ghosting. While much of that strain of self-care dialogue doesn’t explicitly encourage ignoring people that haven’t wronged you, I noticed ghosters tend to use a lot of the same language as they feverishly defend their right to “not owe anything” to various groups of people (men, online partners, casual hookups, etc.). The direction of the conversation caused one commenter, Madeline Esme, to interject, “I think this feeling about not owing anything to other people is true. But also even if it’s not something you’re morally accountable for doing, it’s still the nice thing to do a lot of the time?”
Even during these generally pro-ghosting threads, it was still hard for people to completely ignore the blatant rudeness of disappearing on someone. Bailey Garfield expressed a popular paradox, saying, “I rarely feel bad about the times I’ve ghosted, but I’ve certainly felt awkward when I run into the ghostee in public!” Shawn Vizgan dryly explains that it’s not always easy to justify but the phenomenon itself can always be a fallback: “No one has ever cared about it for me. So I try not to either.”
So, what ever shall we do? Many people have had such positive experiences ghosting as a means of escaping social anxiety that they no longer factor in the psychological toll it takes on the other person until they have to. It would be nice to be able to say something like “at least now we have more evidence not to take ghosting personally,” but that’s not the case. The cycle of ghosting will continue so long as ghosters have the positive reinforcement to continue to ghost. While I’m not suggesting to go all Issa on people and show up at their house, we could probably start by holding ourselves, our friends, or—when we see them—our ghosters responsible for taking this phenomenon to unnecessary heights. Turns out, if you ask people a few simple questions they pretty much know, or demonstrate, that their brand of self-care is also thinly veiled inconsiderateness.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Taylor Hosking on Twitter.