Why ghosting — and ghosts — simply suck
As I look back on this year of business, I’m reminded about all the sweat and tears that have gone into running a full time freelance writing business.
It’s been worthwhile — this has been my best year in business yet. But equally, it’s been exhausting.
The Secret Sauce Behind My Best Year Freelancing Yet
(You Should Run Financials More Often Than Annually )
The surprising truth of the matter is that the writing part has probably been the easiest aspect of running this shop.
It’s what I signed up for and it’s what I’ve been doing for a while.
Rather, it’s the business development and sales work that goes into this that is much more challenging and often just as time consuming.
Along with the occasional disappointment that comes with realizing that a hard-won account simply isn’t a good fit and is destined for the “old accounts” folder.
It makes sense that I’m feeling that this year more than others. I’ve been worried about the pandemic’s potentially negative effect on business since it started. I think my concern is justified. So I’ve doubled down on my sales and marketing trying to cover both inbound and outbound channels.
This activity has won me business. But equally it’s made me very distasteful about a practice that I think has become far too commonplace: professional ghosting.
Ghosting Is (Almost) Never Okay
The impetus for this post was this nice piece from Elizabeth M. Jones:
Why Ghosting Haunts Freelancers and What You Can Do About It
Ghosting is a lamentable reality of dating, job hunting, and yes, even (especially) freelancing.
Unlike most pieces about the ills of ghosting, Jones discusses the mental aspect of ghosting upon ghostees, citing this quote from freelance PR consultant Michelle Garrett (which I couldn’t agree with more!):
“[Ghosting] is sort of devastating mentally and emotionally. You feel like you’ve built a rapport — then they just vanish. Not only is it rude, it’s hurtful. I still feel hurt when I think about these situations. It also makes it difficult to trust moving forward. I think I’ve learned not to get my heart set on anything until you’re actually working on the project.”
The problem — to my mind, at least — is that ghosting is no longer a marginal communications policy pursued by those lacking good manners. And if my experience is anything to go by, it’s — shockingly — at risk of becoming the professional norm.
As Michelle’s quote articulates, ghosting doesn’t have a neutral effect on recipients. Communicating nothing, in fact, communicates rather a lot: That the recipient wasn’t worthy of being contacted. Ghosting is causing a lot of hurt to go around. Which is why I think it’s important that we collectively do our part to try change the culture.
Is Being Cynical A Trait Worth Cultivating?
Besides this initial dejection that ghosting causes (more so for first-time ghostees), the collateral damage of ghosting can be significant. Those who are repeatedly on the receiving end of ghosting can have difficulty forming trust in future relationships (this, of course, applies beyond the business context).
Additionally, as a repeat ghostee, it becomes harder to convey enthusiasm when you know there’s a high probability that that mental energy you’re thinking about expending on a project will be in vain. Yet not conveying your enthusiasm is a surefire way to lose a bid. This creates a difficult and energy-sapping Catch 22.
Like Michelle, the only time I really get excited about a project these days is when the ink has dried on a contract. I’ve learned this by experience after rushing to tell my friends and family about this “cool new potential client” that had just dropped me an email (only to never be heard from again).
This may be a sensible adaptation for me and others to make, but I think we should question whether we’re okay that this has become an essential survival trait in the professional environment we have created.
All ghosting is not created equal and I think it’s also important to recognize that some forms of it are more likely to hurt more than others. It’s these forms that I think we need to put our effort into combating.
The hurt and disappointment that ghosting causes rises in direct proportion to the mental energy that the eventual ghostee expends on investing in the relationship.
On several occasions, I have spent a couple of hours on phone calls with excited-sounding potential clients — inbound leads, no less — before putting together proposals for them, often at short notice.
On all these occasions, I had alternative uses for my time. On several of them, I expended significant effort to turn these projects around in time for a deadline. Sometimes, this involved skipping lunch. When the client couldn’t even muster a “no thanks,” the feeling of betrayal was palpable.
This is precisely the type of ghosting that really makes me despair a little about the state of the current professional world we’re all navigating.
Not acknowledging a carefully crafted pitch might, to some, seem rude. But it doesn’t cause the same level of grief as the former example. It’s these instances that, I think, need to be called out.
Ghosts Can Do Better
Like many freelancers, my conversion rate for landing new clients is, I estimate, somewhere in the region of 20%.
This means that for every four opportunities I speak with, one will go on to become a customer. The other four? More often than not the only way I know the projects aren’t going ahead is through silence and follow-up emails going ignored. Inevitably, there has been a slew of phone and email correspondence in the interim. When this grinds to a screeching halt I know that I can safely put the prospect into the ghosts folder.
If there’s one solace I can take from my experiences with ghosting, it’s that while ghosting may be endemic, it’s thankfully not yet universal. We’re not doomed yet!
Just as there are plenty of ghosts in this world, there remain a few old-timers that are punctilious about responding to all freelancers, job applicants, and queries — even if all they have to say is ‘thanks for your time, but no’. And that simple communication is often all that I — or other potential ghostees — are looking for to get closure on a process.
This is also why I think that we need to stop making excuses for ghosting.
“People ghost because they’re busy,” really doesn’t cut the mustard.
If people are too busy to be able to manage a relationship, they shouldn’t initiate one in the first place.
Blaming ghostees for ghosting, or telling them to “get over it,” (a famous response of salespeople) is a form of gaslighting that we would do well to recognize.
Ghostees should not be scolded for not “following up” more aggressively or assailed for not trying harder to get the ghosters to deign to acknowledge their existence (I take particular issue with recommendations to do the latter).
On the other hand, ghostees should get over ghosting for the sake of their productivity and their mental health. Dwelling on the rubishness of it all won’t help. They may have to try harder if they’re being held to a sales quota. (Although personally, I feel that many people should just knock ghosters off their agenda entirely).
Neither of these recommendations validates the practice of ghosting, however.
In more cases than not, ghosting is simply unprofessional and rude. No amount of mental backgammon can rewrite that fact.
Despite all the above, most people, I reckon, have probably unintentionally ghosted somebody else. I know that I have, although compared to some of the ghosting I’ve experienced, I think that my infractions to date have been on the mild side. We all get busy from time to time and sometimes we get insanely so. It’s inevitable.
But there’s a long stretch between occasional instances of accidental ghosting and the professional culture that is fast developing in which ghosting is entrenching itself as a valid and tacitly accepted surrogate to a simple ‘no’.
This culture, through its prevalence, positively validates ghosting. This simply isn’t okay.
Ghosting isn’t a kind way of letting people down gently, as is sometimes argued. In fact, avoiding hard conversations because they’re unpalatable to you is precisely the opposite of that.
This coming calendar year, let’s all try to do better.
Let’s stop making excuses for ghosting where none should exist.
And, more importantly, let’s stop ghosting one another.
If we do this, a kinder and more healthy professional culture can develop.