I once had a friend who didn't text me back for three months. And this isn't a "ghost" story--one where she disappeared forever, without any explanation. She's actually still my friend.
Over the course of those three months, I invited her to join me for several outings -- with no reply. At first, I assumed her silence was innocent enough. But then one week of silence became two, then six, then twelve.
Around week eight, I concluded that I must have done something terribly offensive to deserve this shocking rejection. Nothing negative had happened the last time we'd hung out to cause a rift. We hadn't argued, or had a lackluster time together that proved our friendship had faded. We ate, we hugged, and we promised to hang again soon.
And yet, twelve weeks later there was still a booming silence. I was confused and upset, and tried to accept that our relationship was suddenly over--without explanation. I had been ghosted.
Then twelve weeks and two days into the great silence, which had filled me with worry about my actions as a friend -- she emailed me. Her email didn't mention any of the reasons my anxiety-fueled thoughts had credited to her silence. It detailed in length how she was sorry for being unavailable, explaining that a work project had eaten up all of her free time. She was dying to get together as soon as possible. Her email implied -- against all my emotional reasoning -- that nothing was wrong all along.
It was a relief to know my friend's absence had nothing to do with me. And it also wasn't. From that day on, I never stopped wondering: was I the one being rude or was she?
Are We Giving Ourselves Anxiety by Abandoning the Basics of Social Etiquette?
When I was growing up, I had been taught some simple social graces. They weren't unbendable rules of etiquette, but more like expectation guidelines. I adopted them as basic standards of how to treat people in social settings and relationships.
In our contemporary, text-dominated times, one of the social graces I learned as a child sticks in my memory. It was this: if a friend reached out two or three times, then it was my turn to initiate contact the next time if I wanted the friendship to continue.
As my mom put it, "You can't always expect her to do the inviting. Inviting is a risk. You have to take on some risk too."
Now that I'm an adult and a relationship coach, I've noticed that this particular guideline seems to have been erased from our collective consciousness. That's not to say that guidelines around what's "polite" and "rude" can't change (I will put my elbows all over this table, thank you). But when a rule around what's expected in relationships seems to disappear, doesn't its absence make relationships much harder to maintain?
Doesn't a lack of any standard social graces make relationships more stressful than they need to be?
For example, that interesting yet profoundly anxiety-producing time with my apparently-not-former friend. Was she being rude for ignoring me? Or, against my better judgment, had I been rude for messaging her insistently? Was I hounding her or was she ghosting me?
3 Ways to Reduce Relationship Anxiety Around Social Etiquette
Collectively, I think we're all confused about what we're "allowed" to expect of one another. And I see a connection between this lack of social norms and our growing sense of anxiety around relationships.
In my own life, I've found that the best way to counteract this anxiety is to consciously build some "expectation guidelines" back into my relationships. Below are three tips I've developed for communicating expectations in relationships and, by extension, reducing relationship anxiety.
Explore expectations on a smaller scale.
While most people no longer grow up with standard social expectation guidelines, that doesn't mean you can't discuss individual expectations on a smaller scale.
For example, when you make a new friend or embark on a new romance, ask them what they consider normal when it comes to digital communication. Does he find it weird if someone doesn't text him right back? Does she mostly ignore voicemails but always responds to texts?
These types of conversations will lead to greater understanding of your friends' particular expectations, and by extension, what you can expect of them in return.
Move the interaction off-line
Truth be told, much of the anxiety people experience around relationships these days is because we communicate primarily through digital devices. While phones are incredibly useful for keeping in contact, they remove many layers of communication, such as voice, tone, and body language, that help us understand the meaning behind the message.
That means texting breeds misunderstanding, and misunderstanding breeds anxiety
If you're feeling anxious about how or when someone is responding--or isn't responding--to your texts, your best bet is to take the conversation off-line. Often, ten minutes of in-person discussion will give you more clarity about what another person is thinking and feeling than 100 texts.
Accept vague endings
One of the most anxiety-provoking aspects of our etiquette-deficient culture is the ever-present possibility that our relationships can end for reasons we never fully understand.
Before smartphones became prevalent, it was considered extremely rude to end a relationship, even a friendship, without giving a reason and providing some closure. Today, many people are less inclined to have tough conversations, preferring to avoid them by ghosting instead.
While I was coming to terms with the disappearance of my not-former friend, I realized that if somebody is truly unwilling to engage with you, you'll get more peace from trying to accept the ending, however vague it may be--than from trying to re-engage them.
I liken this type of acceptance to forgiveness. By accepting the end of the relationship, you're not condoning how they ended it. You're not saying what they did was right. You're simply asserting that your own emotional well-being is your top priority, and, through acceptance, you choose to preserve it.
To learn how to cope with social anxiety or stressful social situations, try a free 7-day trial of Lantern. You'll be paired with a professional coach that can guide you through anxiety-reducing techniques, and listen and give you feedback on your specific relationship concerns.
This article first appeared on Lantern's blog, which shares expert advice and research on strengthening emotional well-being.