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Why do we ghost?

Kaitlyn and I went to Texas, ate breakfast tacos, gained five pounds each of happy weight, and more or less became certified brands. We had a good time together. We also successfully pulled off our first live episode of Why’d You Push That Button, which you can relive in video form above and audio form below. We also have a transcription below of our conversation with our expert guests: Jordan Guggenheim, engineering manager of iOS at OkCupid, and Dr. Jess Carbino, the in-house sociologist at Bumble.

We tried to figure out why people ghost and ended up learning that humans are lazy and need a manager-type hanging over their heads to keep them accountable at all times. Still, I’d like to think this is just a rough patch in our collective dating experience, so hopefully ghosting will clear itself up after we’re all sufficiently hurt enough to want to stop the cycle.

As usual, you can find find us anywhere else you find podcasts, including on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, and our RSS feed. And get caught up on season 1 if you missed out.

Ashley: Is this a problem that technology created?

Jordan Guggenheim: Since there’s been love, there’s always been unbalanced relationships and rejection. And yes, technology is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you’ve got more choice. On the other hand, you’ve got instant communication. On the other end, you have deeper connection. People [who use] online dating can share more about themselves and can communicate about things that matter. They can get to those things before the first date. When you meet in a bar, you don’t exactly have that.

Jess Carbino: I think this is a really nuanced issue, and I don’t think either of you have a clear answer from what you are talking about. Ghosting is inherently complicated. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve never ghosted somebody and I’ve never been ghosted. I’m probably too annoying and too much of a nag that they would have to just respond to me. But at the same time, fundamentally, I think we need to understand where ghosting begins, and there are no hard and fast rules. People have always been rejecting other people, but prior to the emergence of online dating, people met through social institutions that were well established within their communities. People met at synagogue [or] church. They met through educational institutions. They met in their neighborhoods. There was a degree of social accountability and as Kaitlyn said, they recognized that they were real people, and that your aunt Susan or your cousin or your friend would ultimately call you out for not responding in a manner that was kind. And at Bumble we really preach kindness as one of our core values.

So it’s very interesting to hear about ghosting as this new phenomena. I think it’s really something we could talk about for hours, but it’s really that people have a hard time communicating that they do not want to be with somebody. It’s not a comfortable thing to say, “I am not interested in you.” After a first date, it’s an interesting thing. Is there an understanding between both parties that there’s interest or disinterest? In theory, when you meet somebody and they say hello to you, you say hello back. It would be rude for you to ghost them in-person and not say hello. You know, that’s odd. but at the same time, after somebody says after a first date, “I had a nice time, I’d like to get to know you more,” it’s rude to not say hello back, in so far as to say, “I’m not interested but it was really nice to meet you, best of luck.”

A: How can technology make people seem like real humans? Like can software make people seem like real people and not just a picture on the internet?

Jordan: Absolutely. I think it really boils down to how dating apps approach humanizing, whether that is having them be more than just a single photo. At OkCupid, we have over 30 different prompts that you can write and really get into what makes you you. You can answer really interesting questions. We are always keeping up with the times, so we have a Trump filter. We have a question, literally: Trump? Hell no. No. Yes. Hell yes. So basically those questions not only go into our algorithm, but those are the questions that bring people together. The better we can do that, the better we can focus on substance, the more people are going to find meaningful relationships and not ghost because they know what they’re getting themselves into.

Kaitlyn: So you’re telling me that the algorithm can make people find other people who are unlikely to ghost on them? Is that what you’re saying?

Jordan: I’m saying that the reasons people ghost are not that they’re inherently bad people, it’s that they have not a lot in common. So the better you can put people in touch who have things in common, the more you can proactively prevent ghosting.

K: I feel like a lot of the ghosting on dating apps is people getting distracted.

Jordan: You know, that’s a really tough thing because let’s suppose at OkCupid we would remind you to message someone. What we could do is inadvertently cause more ghosting. What I mean by that is it’s more painful ghosting. If you’re already not responding, something deep down is telling you maybe it’s not the right connection. Maybe you are just too busy at work. Maybe it isn’t the right time for you. But if we take too heavy-handed of an approach then we may actually cause more problems. So it’s always about striking the balance between helping people connect and be human. At OkCupid, we make you sign a messaging pledge because there’s a lot of psychology… we worked with a sociologist to say here’s what you say, I tend to be a good person and thoughtful person on the site and people are consistent with their behavior when they say they’ve agreed to something. There are things that we can do, but ultimately, there’s only so much you can do to prevent ghosting.

A: I’m wondering how you feel about these quick reply suggestions.

K: Hinge has a feature called “your turn,” so it’ll say, “it’s your turn to send a message.”

A: Yeah, so how do you feel about that kind of software implementation?

Jordan: I don’t think that’s the right angle. So at OkCupid, what we’ve done is we’ve actually changed how our messaging system works. We’ve slowed down the way people communciate, so at OkCupid you’ve always been able to message whoever you want. It’s definitely one of the cornerstones of our brand and what we’re about because the written word is very important to us. That first message says, “I’ve read your profile. I think you’re interesting because of these reasons, not just because I swiped right on your photo.”

When it comes to the quick replies, the way we changed our messaging system is when you send that first message now, it no longer goes directly to the inbox. Before, if you were the sender, it went to the inbox where it was sent to rot and you would, just like checking your phone for the blue bubble or the grey text bubble, you would just look at, were they online? Why haven’t they responded? And that’s a negatively reinforcing behavior. It’s a waste of energy and so now, when you send that first message, that profile disappears until they match back with you. So on the receiving end, and particularly for women, in the old system they used to be inundated with way too many messages, so they be ghosting or not replying not because they don’t like you but because they had so many messages they couldn’t even get through to your, maybe well-crafted message. So in the new system, only the messages of people that you’ve matched with go in the inbox, and what we’re finding is that promotes better connections because instead of being inundated with those 8 million options in New York City or wherever, you’re able to focus on the conversation in front of you and really form that meaningful relationship.

A: Jess, Jordan brought up that people ghost because they don’t have enough in common. Do you agree with that?

Jess: I don’t think people ghost because they don’t have enough in common. I think people ghost because, inherently, it is uncomfortable to reject people. I think people do not want to be in a position where they’re feeling vulnerable to say something that is potentially hurtful to other people. But I think it’s hurtful to not provide people with a response. And I think people think that the response in verbal or written form of, “I am not interested,” — however you may choose to word that — is less painful than actually ignoring someone because we have these systems in place in institutions that we’re normally interacting with that rejection is given to us. If we’re not doing well at work, we’re told by our boss. If our parents are not pleased with us, they make that known, or at least my parents do. So we have these systems already built in place at other institutions and these norms that we rely upon. Now that technology exists that allows us to not reply upon these existing norms, it’s actually more hurtful.

K: Is being rejected more or less hurtful than being ghosted and why would you say ghosting hurts?

Jess: I think that ghosting leaves ambiguity and a lack of understanding. I think people fundamentally seek answers and clarity and choose to move forward in their lives based upon answers. Whether they’re final or somewhat final, people need an answer of some type to try to psychologically move on.

So I’m trying to really understand when I’m talking to people and they’re talking to me about ghosting, they’re really talking about having this ambiguity and a lack of understanding because clearly if they are texting you, there’s an indicator of interest on their side and they have a lack of understanding why there is no interest on the other side.

A: Could you give me and Kaitlyn some advice on what you should say if you want to get rid of someone?

Jess: Yes. I have done this with so many people. I have a really good friend, former co-worker who is a young man and a great guy. I love him dearly, and he was around 24, 25 and he had started dating again for the first time. He had been in a long-term relationship for quite some time and he never dated. He’s like, “Jess, what do I do? You’re a doctor, help me.” And I said, “Okay, we’ll sit down, and we’ll do this.” And he was telling me that he kept getting messaged by this one woman who he had gone on multiple dates with, and I said, “You have to respond to her. There is something wrong that you feel that you can not respond to this woman who is asking you to meet up again.” I said, “If you’re not interested, just say to her, ‘Hey, I don’t have this feeling in my chest. I don’t feel a spark between us. I wish you the best of luck, it was really nice getting to know you.’”

That way you explain to them that you’re not interested in them and that you don’t have a feeling about them. Because no body wants to fundamentally be with somebody who doesn’t have a mutually shared feeling. That’s something that’s inherently understandable. We all know when we have a mutually shared feeling, and we all want to have the mutually shared feeling and presumably that person has been on a date before and not had that feeling and can digest that and understand that information and then say, “thank you,” and that’s it. Or they can choose to not respond, that’s okay too. It’s understandable that they might feel rejected and not want to, but most of the people that he has subsequently messaged have said thank you because they appreciated that he had enough courage and self-esteem to respond.

A: Is a good phrase, “I’m not interested?”

Jess: I think I’m not interested can be a bit blunt, which is why I often tell people to say something along the lines of, “I don’t have that feeling in my chest,” or “I don’t feel that type of connection or that spark.”

K: Ashley just says “I’m not feeling the vibe.” I think I’m guilty of lying and say I realized I don’t have the energy for dating. I realized I need to to go bed at 6PM every night.

Jess: That’s the thing about online dating. It’s that people can appear on paper to be great and exactly what you’re looking for, but ultimately we have to meet in-person. That’s the goal of online dating — to take it offline. Once you meet from online to offline, you can assess whether or not you want to move forward.

A: Jordan, with OkCupid, we’ve interviewed one of your colleagues — Nick — before, and he mentioned that OkCupid knows when you’ve exchanged phone numbers with someone. So if you know that, then you assume they’re taking the relationship off the platform. And I’m wondering if dating apps take an interest in their clients’ relationships post-app because ghosting hurts more after three dates than if you just don’t respond to a message ever on OkCupid. So do you think this is an issue dating apps need to confront?

Jordan: I think it is absolutely an issue that we deal with. OkCupid has been around for 14 years, and we’ve been around because we do follow up with our users. We do ask, “What is going on? What are the trends in dating?” We do encourage our users to use our app as a messaging platform for being able to keep the communication going without feeling the need to give out a number, etcetera. But we track when people successfully disable their account. We ask, “Have you met someone? Where’d you meet them?” So there are things that we do and we look at, with those happy disables, what it is that brings them together. We have a match percent, and we look at the ways people’s compatibilities work. I think what Jess and I are saying are not mutually exclusive. People ghost because they don’t have things in common and because they want to avoid that confrontation. But with regard to us sending a message, like, “Hey, we saw you got a phone number, where’d that date go?” We don’t do that.

K: I’m curious if you hear from people that say it’s your fault that they were ghosted. Do you get complaints?

Jordan: I haven’t heard that. I have heard, “Hey, they’re not getting my message.” And someone from our team has to let them down. Dating is tough. Dating is emotional. But ultimately, we haven’t gotten a lot of feedback that ghosting is this epidemic or that people are saying it’s the problem of online dating.

K: Jess, does ghosting come with the online dating territory? Has tech made us callous to the point that we’re comfortable with ghosting?

Jess: I don’t think it’s callous. I thin it’s convenient. I think that people have historically ghosted people. We may not have used that term, but people historically have avoided providing people with answers or rejecting them outright. And I think that technology, because we have no mechanism by which to connect us to a larger institution or to each other, largely based upon the fact that you don’t have any social connections in common really enables this behavior. However, at the same time, I think people historically have avoided rejecting people.

A: Jess, Kaitlyn and I have tried to establish the norms of ghosting. Like one date is maybe okay. Two might be, too. But three seems unacceptable. When do people tend to get emotionally attached? And when do you think people owe a response?

Jess: I think that people always owe a response. People can be kind and compassionate and do and treat people the way that they would want to be treated. The golden rule is easily applicable in all situations. I think that it becomes very inexplicable after several dates, such as three dates. It becomes less understandable because, presumably, after going on multiple dates you believe there is a repertoire developing between you. So it becomes very difficult for you to assimilate information saying this guy suddenly just disappeared, especially with this gentleman who you talked about who was just about to move to Denver. This guy has some issues psychologically, truly, that he needs to resolve through professional help because it’s very odd that somebody would agree to go across the country, meet somebody, spend time with them, and also ask them to move across the country to be with them, yet suddenly drop off the face of the Earth. That’s something that’s not normal and is definitely an extreme example of ghosting. But I think that the rule of thumb is to always respond in a manner that is kind and would be consistent with how you want to be treated. But I think over time it just becomes more difficult to understand why people are doing it because we’ve developed these senses of attachment.

In terms of when people develop attachments, it varies across people. But obviously there’s a strict correlation between time spent with somebody and emotional attachment.

K: Jess, you said you’ve never ghosted or been ghosted?

Jess: Correct.

K: All your interactions have gone as planned?

Jess: I’ve had my heart broken like everyone else here of course, but I think that I have always tried to treat people the way that I’ve wanted to be treated, and men have asked me out before and I’ve just said, “I’m not interested,” or “I don’t feel that connection,” because it’s honest. It’s true, and I would hope they want to feel that connection with somebody else. I’ve been lucky that normally I’ve made it clear on dates that I’m not interested either through my body language or the brevity of the date or what have you. But I’ve had my heart broken in the context of a relationship, not getting into it as much. But I think people fundamentally have experience whereby they’re trying to understand why people are rejecting them. I’ve had rejection where they just don’t call after the first date, and that’s a form of rejection. I don’t think that’s a form of ghosting. It’s just that both people have decided that there isn’t this mutual interest. And frankly, with Bumble making the first move, if I was really interested in a guy after the first date, I would just call him.

K: That’s fair. I do that all the time. I do the follow-up text. Ashley is very old-fashioned and lectures me.

Jess: My best friend says to me that, “Men in war have found a way to communicate with women,” and in theory that’s true. But with Bumble we found that women historically when they make the first move this has translated into other areas of their lives, so I think it’s really important to make that first move.

K: Jordan what about you? Have you been ghosted?

Jordan: It’s happened, and it hurts. But it’s a part of dating, and you also do see the good in humanity. You have the people who let you down and they say, “Hey I had a great time, but I don’t think I have that deeper connection.” Dan Savage has a really good mantra, which is the the campsite mentality. With the campsite, you’re supposed to clean up and leave it better than you found it and so with relationships, I think it’s the same thing. Try to leave a relationship better than how you found it. I think these conversations and being able to show people the way, showing them how do you let someone down in a way that preserves their self-confidence, preserves their self-worth, it’s important. I think as people date, and they see these things happen to themselves that creates empathy. It creates this understanding of like, “Wow that hurt.” And yes, there are definitely some people who maybe need more help to get that message, but ultimately I think that as people date more and more online, you’re going to see more success of people not ghosting.

K: So you’re saying you’ve never ghosted because you always leave the campsite bette than you found t?

Jordan: No, I’m saying that’s what you should do. We’ve been there, we’re human. I used to work in finance, and I used to work till midnight, and I wouldn’t respond and I would be in this moment and I would feel like, “Oh too much time passed,” then it would happen to you, and then absolutely I developed this empathy, and I don’t ghost anymore.


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