Silence, but Deadly

I was recently ghosted (*). I had never been ghosted before, nor had I ever ghosted anyone else. It was a relationship which had not yet reached the point of romance. The ghosting itself may have resulted from two different agendas in that regard. Evidently I’ll never know. But, regardless, ghosting is hardly limited to romantic relationships. It can occur in any sort of relationship: romantic, platonic, familial, business.

It stung, not because I had a huge emotional investment in this particular relationship, but because it was such a cold, calculated, and abject denial of my dignity. I’m not too big to admit that it really hurt, deeply. It was demeaning. So the next time you see me, I encourage you to refer to me as “Casper.” I could use a good laugh.

The phenomenon of ghosting — indeed, the very fact that we have a term which designates it — is indicative of a larger problem in our society, which is the ubiquity of silence. This is not to say that silence is necessarily a bad thing. If anything, we undervalue appropriate silence. As a society, we suffer from anacoustiphobia, the fear of silence. We are desperate to fill every moment of every day with some sort of sound. And it really would be healthier for us to enjoy certain types of silences: those between two people of like mind; those which frame our moments of deepest reflection; those, like right now for me, when we wish to compose and order our thoughts.

It is the inappropriate silences to which I refer. When you send someone an e-mail with a direct question and it languishes, not only unanswered, but unacknowledged. The voice mail which is never returned. The phone call which ends with, “Can I call you right back?” but is never resumed. Or the request which is acknowledged but never acted on: “Could you get those figures to me?” Or, “Let me know what date will work for you.” Or, “Call me when you’re free to talk.” These silences are just as demoralizing, just as degrading, as being ghosted.

When someone asks you a direct question or makes a clear request, and you refuse to acknowledge or answer it, you are dehumanizing that person. You’re also forcing them to fill in the blanks, so to speak. And in our culture, the blanks left by silence are normally filled with negatives. This is our cultural norm. We all know that. So silence has become our strategy for avoiding the expression of negatives. As such, it is cowardly.

The problem, of course, is that to the person on the receiving end, silence feels an awful lot like gaslighting. “How long,” the recipient wonders, “before I can safely conclude that the answer is silence? Should I repeat my request? After all, maybe they forgot or did not receive it? Or, by repeating my request, will I only render myself that much more despicable and repulsive to the giver of silence? Am I a bad person? Do I have value? Do I deserve to be ignored?”

It should be clear that what I’m saying is that silence can have very deep and serious psychological consequences, especially for anyone whose self-esteem may already be challenged. I myself am upset and shaken by silence, and I always find it a bitter pill to swallow. But I am not so weak that I will allow someone else’s emotional recklessness determine my state of mind in a definitive manner. I may be down, but I’m not out. But what of those who are already in a dark place? What about those who have already been marginalized? And can we always be so sure who those people are?

Have I ever answered a direct request with silence? Yes. But only in instances in which I had tried, repeatedly, to respond directly, and failed to get through. Sometimes the person on the other end does not, or cannot, hear you. But there is enormous value in telling someone: “No.” Or: “I won’t.” Or: “I’m not interested in the kind of relationship you’re seeking.” It delivers the bad news while still validating the individual and, more importantly, granting them the basic dignity which all human beings deserve. Because when we deny someone else their dignity, we invariably lose our own in the bargain.

So, to the person who ghosted me, in the event that she ends up reading this: You’re encouraged to redeem your dignity any time you please. It’s sitting on the shelf, safe and sound, right next to mine.