Ghosting is well known in online dating: after exchanging messages, and perhaps even meeting in person, one person disappears forever, sinking into the online abyss. But this doesn’t happen in just the world of romance. It can also happen in science.
Having been ghosted professionally, I know how emotionally wrecking this experience can be. The lack of information can be stressful.
If a person tells you clearly that they don’t wish to or cannot work with you any longer, you can deal with the rejection and move on. But the ambiguity of ghosting can haunt you.
I have recently been ghosted twice, in quick succession. In the first instance, I had reached out to an expert in a flourishing methodological area that was complementary to my own field, business and health-care ethics and leadership. I asked whether we could collaborate, and we discussed three projects we would start work on immediately. In the initial Zoom meeting, my future ghoster was enthusiastic and energetic.
I sent a follow-up e-mail a couple of weeks later, and heard nothing. I followed up after another week, and then a week after that, and still received no response. My ghoster was active on LinkedIn: each day they made several posts and liked other posts. I sent them a few messages on LinkedIn, too, which they read but did not reply to. None of my e-mails or messages were desperate or hurried — they were clear and professional inquiries about whether and when we could begin the projects that we had discussed.
How failure benefits science
I don’t intend to send any more messages to this individual. Our collaboration is dead. Non-message received. But would it have been too hard to say, “Thanks, but I can no longer work with you,” and perhaps briefly explain the reasons?
The other experience was with someone I met in person during a conference, and then followed up with online. We’d discussed writing an opinion piece together and agreed that I’d send the first draft — which I did, and then heard nothing. I sent another e-mail a fortnight later, just in case my earlier one was buried in their inbox, and received no reply. I sent a final e-mail several months ago asking for their thoughts on the first draft. Until now, there has been no response.
Exorcizing the ghost
I have now accepted that my collaborations with these two ghosters are unlikely to happen. The hurt feelings aren’t going to completely disappear, but I do have some tips on how to reduce the haunting feeling.
The first step is to not blame yourself. None of us knows what another person is going through — perhaps the ghoster is dealing with a truckload of stress. Maybe they thought they would respond later to your messages, but then the right moment never came, or your e-mail got buried in their inbox under an avalanche of other messages. Or perhaps they no longer wish to work with you and are trying to spare your feelings by not saying no directly. It’s impossible to know, so there is no point in blaming yourself. They made the decision to ghost you — but your reaction is entirely up to you.
If someone isn’t replying to your messages, follow the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule — don’t e-mail them more than three times. And it is important not to pick apart your messages, trying to work out why they didn’t reply — their silence is their response, and there is no need to play Sherlock when you will never get any actual information.
To avoid feeling hurt and abandoned, reframe the situation mentally. Instead of thinking, “What did I do wrong here?”, start thinking, “I don’t really know what that person is going through. It might not be anything I did.” Stop blaming yourself and move on. There are plenty of other potential collaborators to reach out to.
I strive never to ghost anyone — if I have an existing or potential working relationship with another person, and I don’t want to work with them any longer, I tell them kindly yet clearly. Being silent and unresponsive is neither clear nor kind, and it is incredibly disrespectful, too. If and when you get ghosted, exorcize the ghost by reframing your thinking and not attributing unnecessary blame to yourself.
This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.