One of the first instances of ghosting I can recall took place in the early 2010s. A friend had gone on a few great dates with a boy she met on Tinder, after which they exchanged a steady stream of communication. Soon, her messages were met with long silences, “yep,” or “lol.” We speculated on the reason: a lost phone, shadowy personal problems, perhaps even a hospitalization. We didn’t use the term ghosting; back then it wasn’t obvious to us that this was an ending.
These days, we seem to have resigned ourselves to an epidemic of unsatisfactory conclusions and unexplained rejections. Friends and friends of friends have shared endless stories about carefully made plans canceled or beloved clothing items and books lost forever in the ghost’s home. Someone told me of determinedly chasing down a ghost so they would pay their share of an abortion. But most just stewed in silence.
The appeal of ghosting is obvious: We generally don’t share a social context with the people we meet on apps, so we incur no real penalties for treating them badly. Why text someone to explain that you don’t want to date them anymore when you can simply screen their calls, safe in the knowledge that you’ll never see them again?
This evasion has spread beyond the dating world. A steady stream of reporting suggested a growing tendency for people to ghost friendships during the pandemic, and one recent survey found that 70 percent of millennials had even ghosted an employer. Dr. Raja Halwani, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago known for his work on the philosophy of sex, has noticed students not turning up for class and never emailing to explain why. “There is definitely this sense of a sort of ‘whatever-ness’: ‘Whatever, he’ll understand,’” he told me. He wondered whether ghosting was part of “a broader phenomenon where people feel they don’t owe other people explanations and can just do what they want.”
Halwani takes the view that ghosting is pretty much always a bad thing to do. “The minimum we can say is ‘Hey, I’m sorry. I’m no longer interested,’” he said. A recent backlash against bad dating etiquette has gone even further. Earlier this year, a young man known as West Elm Caleb was publicly shamed by former dates after he’d ghosted them, and in July, a politician in the Philippines introduced a bill that would decree ghosting to be emotional abuse.
But how bad is it, really? Some consider it just another part of digital life. “We’ve gotten to the point where, if someone’s not replying or replying to your message without a question, they don’t want to continue the conversation,” Holly Friend, a 28-year-old trend forecaster, told me. “I find it mad that so many people want to be told there’s something unattractive about them or that this person didn’t have a good evening, whatever it is.”
Ghosting is often seen as louche and insouciant, but I found that, up close, it often appears more jittery and neurotic. One 31-year-old woman told me she had gotten into the habit of ghosting people she met through online dating. “Sometimes with online dates, they’re quite low-quality interactions,” she said. “It’s awkward, and I kind of just get incredibly drunk and tell them all the worst things about myself and then we have sex.” The idea of acknowledging the experience seems bleak, so their follow-up texts go unanswered. “I dread seeing them again.”
This neurosis seems to have something to do with the fact that communication has changed in the time of apps and digital feedback forms. Lots of minor, mundane conflict scenarios have been outsourced. You don’t complain to your taxi driver anymore; you leave a bad rating. We seem to be rusty at dealing with social friction because we mostly don’t have to anymore.
Still, the low-grade dread and guilt that accompanies the act of ghosting does suggest that there is something at least morally dubious about it. According to Dr. E. M. Hernandez, a postdoctoral philosophy fellow researching interpersonal ethics at UC Irvine, the act of ghosting treats the other person as someone without an equivalent capacity for emotion and thought, but instead as a tool. There is a philosophical term for this: taking the objective attitude. It’s “the idea of doing things to make sure that you can get out of the situation and manage their emotions,” Hernandez said. It is how we treat pets or young children, for example, training them through positive reinforcement.
But some people I spoke to thought of ghosting as a kinder form of rejection. Matthew Stephen, 29, once ghosted a woman after around eight dates; his reasons for ending things just felt too stupid to explain over text. “We went to see Midsommar, and she talked all the way through it, asking what was happening every few seconds. Not talking at the movies is my golden rule. It put doubts in my head,” he said. Ghosting, he said, is an inelegant solution to a problem that doesn’t have a good one. “By giving a proper explanation and making a big thing of it, you might be adding a layer of importance to what might only have been casual in the first place,” he said. Ghosting could be a way to signal disinterest “without necessarily being as harsh.” Still, it isn’t something he’s proud of.
It’s not always harmful to be ghosted; it may be easier than getting a message detailing how obnoxious you were at the movies. But being a serial ghoster can have a corrosive effect on the self. “If you’re constantly taking something like the objective attitude towards people whenever you don’t want to engage with them, you’re going to habituate that,” Hernandez said. “That’s just going to become a default way of engaging with people.”
I thought back to instances of ghosting from my past. I was in the habit of doing it for a while, generally after a few nice but unexciting dates with a guy who would be, as my friends and I predicted, “somebody else’s husband.” Halwani’s “Hello, I’m no longer interested in this” solution might have seemed blunt, but it would have been a cleaner, quicker end.
In 2016, men of the r/Tinder subReddit began to notice what appeared to be a secret code lurking in women’s profiles. What does it mean, user after user asked, if a prospective match includes a pineapple emoji in her Tinder bio? (“Her only other pic is in her lingerie,” one user noted.) The pineapple wasn’t limited to bios or emoji: In 2017, one befuddled Reddit poster spotted “an increasing [number] of girls posing with pineapples, often in their main pic. Maybe a pineapple on the T-shirt, or an actual pineapple she holds.” His friends were similarly confused. “There’s been a lot of discussion and googling,” he said. Some people offered theories as to what the fruit represented: It means she wants weed, or to fuck; others wondered whether including a pineapple in one’s Tinder bio has anything to do with the notion that the fruit helps make sexual secretions taste better.
The pineapple has long held significance in the dictionary of dating and mating — even before it got emojified in 2010. Since the ’90s, the fruit has served as a symbol for the ethical-non monogamy and swinger communities. Like pampas grass and black rings, pineapples help swingers of all genders identify one another and are deployed in the form of pins, T-shirts, or signs hung surreptitiously outside cruise-ship cabin doors (people are very horny on vacation).
In 2016, according to internet legend, a group of high-school girls in North Carolina started using fruit emoji on Snapchat to secretly signal their relationship status. Pineapples, with their spiky crowns, rough skin, and sweet flesh, became shorthand for “It’s complicated,” which, once adopted by adults on the internet, could mean anything from a murky situationship to dissatisfaction with a fiancé. The fruit coquetry caught on, eventually making the jump to Tinder.
Today, the way to interpret the pineapple may depend on its context. On an app like Feeld, which operates on a premise of sexual open-mindedness, everyone could be hip to the pineapple that punctuates a bio. But on Tinder, the meaning behind the pineapple may be harder to parse: It could mean “It’s complicated,” or it could signal that one is down to swing. Of course, there are those who insist a fruit is just a fruit. “I’m a guy, and I show myself drinking a glass of pineapple juice,” one Tinder user wrote. “Read into it what you will.”
(Reprinted from The Cut & authored by Rachel Connolly)