I was recently talking to a human resource manager about the phenomenon called “ghosting.” Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold has said that this trend in the workplace is when employees “just leave for a new job without telling anyone at the old job. They just don’t come back.” He says it is “caused by a strong economy and weak social skills.” This term was derived from the way people just seem to vanish. Workplace ghosting can occur at any point during the hiring or job process. It includes applicants who never show up after accepting a job offer and those who disappear after only working a day or so. Last December, the federal government gave credence to the term when economists at the Federal Reserve Bank included it in their periodic assessment of economic trends.

Ghosting can be viewed as sign of societal decline, in terms of deteriorating civility. On the other hand, it may also represent legitimate payback to employers who never follow-up with applicants. According to Barron’s Magazine, on the average, employers offer employment to only 0.4 percent of their applicants and many companies routinely ignore unsuccessful candidates. Such companies basically ghost these applicants, who never learned what became of their applications.

The notion of ghosting originated from the millennial dating scene and was popularized in the mainstream media around 2015. It describes a situation when one member of a dating couple suddenly ends all forms of contact with the other, without notice or explanation. This usually occurs after the couple has exchanged messages through social media and sometimes after a few dates.

How widespread is ghosting? In 2018, a study of 1,300 young people was published in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. In the study about 25 percent of participants said they had been ghosted by a romantic partner, while 20 percent indicated that they had ghosted a partner themselves. More than one-third of them also said that they had ghosted a friend or had been ghosted by one. A similar survey that same year reported even higher frequencies of ghosting, with 72 percent of respondents reporting that a partner had ghosted them.

According to psychologist Tara Collins from Winthrop University, ignoring or avoiding other people is nothing new. She says, “It’s just a lot more obvious now because of social media and technology. When it’s so easy to contact each other, it becomes very clear when somebody is ignoring you intentionally.”

Back in 2012, Collins and a colleague described various break-up strategies that couples typically employ. These include (1) the “cost escalation” strategy, in which one partner strives to make the relationship so awful that the other partner decides to leave, (2) the “open confrontation” method in which the couple just has it out, verbally, (3) the “self-blame strategy” in which one partner take sole responsibility for the break-up — “it’s not you, it’s me.” (4) the “mediated communication” strategy in which a third party is used to communicate the break-up. This can also be accomplished through a breakup email or a variation on the pre-digital Dear John letter, or (5) the “avoidance” strategy, in which communication and contact just ceases. Collins suggest that ghosting represents a modern combination of the avoidance and mediated communication strategies.

Ghosting typically tells more about the person initiating the ghosting than about the victim.

Individuals most like to become ghosts are those with a pronounced avoidant attachment style. These are folks who avoid emotional closeness in relationships and are usually conflict-aversive. According to psychologist Gili Freedman from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, ghosts are also more likely to be people who believe in soul-mates and that relationships are either destined to be successful or not. They are less likely to believe that people can grow into a relationship over time.

While there is little information available on how people are effected by ghosting, there is considerable research on the effects of ostracism, social rejection, and the use of the so-called “silent treatment” as a passive-aggressive act. Being shunned or ostracized has negative emotional and even physical consequences for the rejected person. Being ignored can take many different forms besides ghosting. Having your opinions and beliefs not taken seriously, not given the dignity of a reply, answer, or explanation, and being shunned or excluded from some group are all examples of common types of social rejection.

Recent research indicates that such rejection triggers the same neural pathways as actual physical distress. Analgesics such as Tylenol have even been found to be helpful in dulling the pain of such hurt feelings. This may be why ghosting may be one of the most painful ways to end a relationship. Most people would prefer direct confrontation.

Psychologist Jennice Vilhauer, from Emory University, says “Social cues allow us to regulate our own behavior accordingly, but ghosting deprives you of these usual cues and can create a sense of emotional dysregulation where you feel out of control.” Vilhauer believes that the ambiguity that the silent treatment creates is the “real dagger.” She views ghosting a virulent form of emotional cruelty. Emotional (and physical) pain of rejection is greatly intensified by the frustration and lack of closure that results when there is no communication. People can find themselves in “a mind-boggling limbo where they don’t know how to act and respond.”

Despite the difficulty in dealing with being ghosted, there are still some things that people can do to try to manage the situation: (1.) Don’t blame yourself. (2.) Give yourself plenty of time to deal with the experience, (3.) Let go of the ghost and find closure. Realize that by their behavior they have demonstrated an inability to handle conflict in a healthy or mature manner. and (4.) Finally learn from the experience.

British playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “The worst sin to our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that is the essence of inhumanity”

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be contacted at tstawar@gmail,.com if he hasn’t vanished.

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