Ghosting is just wrong. Here’s exactly what to say when you don’t know what else to say


This has happened to you.

It happened after a business meeting—perhaps several—that culminated in an agreement to move forward. It happened after a job interview, or a series of interviews, followed by a promise to follow up.

And then . . . crickets. You’ve been ghosted. (Of course, you would never ghost someone else. Right?)

It’s infuriating, isn’t it? How could anyone be so inconsiderate, selfish, demeaning, and cruel? There must be a reasonable explanation. Maybe their service provider crashed. Maybe their account was hacked. Maybe their mother died. Maybe their boss sent them on an emergency trip to the Australian outback.

But the longer the silence, the harder it is to escape the inevitable conclusion: They don’t want to follow up and they lack the courage, courtesy, or sensitivity to simply tell you so. You end up wasting a disproportionate amount of time on follow-up messages as you fulminate over the death of good manners.

Damage collateralizes when ghosting happens in the workplace. The resulting atmosphere of depersonalization leaves employees musing over why they should commit themselves to such an organization and whether they wouldn’t be more appreciated somewhere else.

How do otherwise responsible and socially adept individuals justify ghosting in their own minds? The answer can be found in this week’s addition to the Ethical Lexicon:

Benign neglect

Well-intentioned noninterference in hope that a situation or problem will resolve itself

Oddly enough, benign neglect once had a more positive connotation; indeed, there are times when inaction really is the better course.

FOOLS RUSH IN

In 2011, the AP reported incidents of exploding watermelons in eastern China. Eager to exploit high demand for a cash crop, farmers in Jiangsu province used chemical growth accelerators to amplify their harvest. Soon thereafter, melons literally began bursting open in the fields like land mines. As much as 115 acres of produce was lost.

Some things cannot be hurried. Fruit needs to ripen at its own pace.  Quality wine takes years to age. Responsible parents recognize that only by holding back from intervening in their children’s clashes and conflicts will they provide their offspring room to grow into confident and capable adults.

More often, however, we default to inaction because we don’t feel comfortable or confident taking action ourselves. The business meeting appeared promising at the start, which makes it harder to explain why we don’t want to pursue the proposal. Dinner and drinks were pleasant, but we didn’t feel any romantic spark and don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings by rejecting a second or third date.

So, we avoid the discussion, employing the dubious pontification of Charles Schultz’s celebrated Peanuts character, Linus van Pelt, that, “No problem is so big or so complicated that it can’t be run away from!”

It’s a reasonable philosophy for a six-year-old with a security blanket. But we are adults and, despite our rationalizations, benign neglect frequently inflicts unnecessary pain by adding insult to injury. The inconvenient truth is that we’re far more worried about causing ourselves discomfort than we are about hurting someone else.

CULTURE IS WHAT WE MAKE IT

In business, ghosting is poisonous. Neglect is rarely benign, and it erodes the spirit of trust that is essential to a collaborative and collegial work culture. Ethical leaders stem toxicity by demonstrating the kind of consideration that promotes a civil community. Here are a few simple ways to communicate professionalism and respect:

  • Always respond to emails and calls within 24 hours. Within two hours is even better.
  • Set up an automated reply to your email account: “Thank you for your email. Please know that I have read your message and will respond as soon as possible. If the matter is urgent, please call. . . . ”
  • If your mailbox is perpetually overfilled, you can add: “Although I make every effort to reply in a timely manner, sometimes messages slip through the cracks. If I don’t get back to you in a couple of days, please follow up.”

When you find yourself the victim of ghosting, remain polite and professional, but be direct. “I understand sometimes plans don’t pan out. If you’ve decided to go in a different direction, please let me know so I can pursue other options.”

If that elicits no response, try light humor. I’ve used a meme of a skeleton holding a cell phone with the caption, “Still waiting for your reply.”

After a couple of tries, cut your losses with a final email: “Since I haven’t heard back, I take it that you prefer not to follow up. If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow, I’ll assume that our business is concluded.” Avoid nastiness, since there may actually be a legitimate excuse, and you don’t want to burn bridges.

WE HAVE SEEN THE ENEMY

Above all, don’t become part of the problem. When you need to deliver bad news, pretend you work for Nike: “Just do it!”

  • “Thanks for your proposal. It looked like it might be a promising course of action, but I won’t be able to pursue it. I wish you much success.”
  • “I enjoyed our time together, but I don’t see this developing to our mutual benefit, and I don’t want to waste your time. Wishing you all the best!”
  • “I appreciate your reaching out, but I’m over-scheduled and can’t take on any more commitments.”
  • “I thought it was a worthwhile idea, but I couldn’t sell it to my boss.”
  • “There was a lot of interest in the position, and we had to pass over many qualified candidates. Thanks for taking the time to get in touch.”

Simple, clear communication doesn’t take much time or effort. It earns goodwill by showing respect and consideration, which may pay off down the line. Most of all, you preserve your own humanity by treating others the way you would like to be treated yourself.

FAST COMPANY