The Culture of Not Replying
Are we (really) a generation of ghosters?
A friend of mine — a really good old friend — recently moved nearby. We’re living within minutes of each other for the first time since we were 18. It’s great — it really is.
Well, okay. We’ve seen each other once since he moved here. And it’s been around a year. Actually, you know what — I’m yet to reply to a message he sent me. Something about going to the pub next week. I had read it around midnight, some night, recently. Let’s see when… eight days ago.
All’s well. It’s the next day now and my friend and I are in a pub together, having a long overdue catchup. Midway through pint number two, we are talking about his trials and tribulations on Tinder.
My friend has gone through a string of relationships over the last year. And, recently, a girl ghosted him.
“She just stopped speaking to me. We’d met up quite a few times. We got along well.”
His reaction to being ghosted, he explains, was pinning the blame on himself. “I just thought I’m not attractive or interesting enough,” he had told him himself.
But then, some weeks after the silence started, my friend found out that the girl he was seeing had suffered burn out. She had dipped well beneath her threshold of mental wellbeing. She hadn’t really been speaking to friends or family, either.
One takeaway from the whole experience, for my friend, was that it left him thinking about his habits of social media and online communication. In particular, how having such easy (and so many different) ways of making contact directly at our fingertips prime us all to take things, like late responses or even ghosting, personally.
For instance, for my friend, it had been hard not to think her ghosting was some sort of proportionate response to his appereance, his personality, something he’d said. He hadn’t imagined that the problem could be her mental state. In a swipe-left/swipe-right culture, it’s easy to mistake silence for rejection.
At the pub, our conversation trailed off down the path of what happened with the girl from Tinder ( — it ended). But after getting into bed that night, the echo of the evening buzz fading in my ears, I kept thinking about my friend’s story.
The situation had left my friend thinking about how we can all take a lack of communication personally when really there’s more to it. But it had left me thinking, also, about the state of personal communication today — especially the ghosting part. After all, it had taken me eight days to reply to my friend. Could I not have been guilty of creating the same ‘ghosting’ feeling?
The way humans communicate has never been as complicated as it is today.
Taking myself by example: I have a Twitter account, a Facebook account and an Instagram account. Add to that four email addresses, a mobile phone with WhatsApp and text messenger. Then LinkedIn. Slack. If you really wanted to reach me, you could ring me on my mobile, ring my work phone, or post me a letter. Off the top of my head, I’ve just listed fourteen ways you can contact me.
Long gone are the days when the two main ways to reach people or be reached were landline telephones or sending letters.
But, in the age of digital communications, it can feel like you have be ready, feet tapping, racket spinning, on the baseline across the court from a row of tennis ball machines.
Equally, the media we use to communicate have never been so user-friendly. In theory, regardless of whether it’s email, social media or text, it’s easy see a message and blast off a reply.
In reality, day-to-day life doesn’t involve an ongoing bombardment of messages. For most of us, messages trickle in one-by-one. But the one thing you can be sure of is the constance and inevitability of the trickle.
I have several ongoing Facebook Messenger and Instagram conversations with friends I don’t remember the last time I saw. Everyone I’ve ever met is instantly contactable all the time — and my freedom to contact them, or reply to them, pretty much guarantees that I’ll rarely actively contact anyone. I live in a continuous state of possibility. More and more, I find myself responding to messages from friends when I have the time to do so properly. Does this make me antisocial? Or does everyone have a different social threshold?
The thing is, the media we use to communicate can very well blur our sense of social clarity. I can feel a little bit anxious when I know I’ve seen an email or a message and haven’t replied. On top of the social (and economic) requirement to be accessible through a range of different online accounts, some of the communication platforms don’t really offer much help in keeping social matters simple.
Take Facebook Messenger’s ‘Seen’ feature. Don’t you feel kind of guilty not replying when you know the person you’re yet to reply to knows you’ve seen their message? It can feel like not responding to people promptly, but responding in our own time, is rude.
This social ambiguity is certainly exploited by the so-called Attention Economy. Eyes on screens is what makes these platforms attractive to advertisers. User engagement is any media’s chief KPI. The guiltier users feel about not replying to messages, the more often they’ll reply to messages and the longer they’ll spend on any given platform.
Today’s tools can make communication easy. But we need to do more to make sure we don’t get digital fatigue.
I don’t think we’re a generation of ghosters. It’s no reflection on the relationship between me and my friend that I didn’t respond to my friend for that amount of time.
What we really need is to recalibrate our expectations according to today’s apparatus of communication. This means taking more time to reflect and understand ourselves, rather than always try to keep up. This is in turn will help us understand others and recognise that they might sometimes struggle with keeping up, too.
Because, in serious circumstances, giving people the benefit of the doubt is important. While my friend’s relationship with the girl from Tinder ended, it didn’t end as a direct result of ghosting. And she had in effect ghosted her friends and family, too. And ultimately she needed a support network to understand her, give her the benefit of the doubt and not take silence personally.
So, no. We are not a generation of ghosters — but, if we make a habit of mistaking silence for rejection, we’ll all be haunted as though we are.