Direct Communication Rules, Ghosting Sucks, Let’s All Say What We Mean

“I love that you always say what you mean,” a date recently told me, and I’m being sincere when I say that is one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. It speaks to one of my most strongly held beliefs, and something I strive to do in all aspects of my life, including but not limited to dating: communicate directly.

It sounds simple, but it’s surprisingly rare. It even used to be a challenge for me! But thanks to my old therapist, goddess bless her, and some truly upsetting and in retrospect entirely avoidable fights with people I love or have loved a lot, I’ve finally got the hang of it. And let me tell you, saying what you mean and meaning what you say? Truly life changing!

In honor of impending autumn and back to school season, I come to you today with a new homework assignment. In January I implored y’all to assume everyone thinks you’re hot, and that seems to be going well for us. Now it’s September and it’s time to get back to work. Your new homework assignment is to communicate directly. Sound scary? It’s not! I know you can do it. Let’s get started together.

First of all, why does direct communication rule?

Direct communication is the best because when you clearly voice the truth about what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling, you maximize the likelihood of being understood. I am of the belief that all any of us really want on this hell planet is to be understood, and I am also of the belief that being honest about what’s going on inside your brain can accelerate that process. You also create an opportunity for someone else to communicate directly back to you, maximizing the possibility that you will understand them!

You know all those memes about dykes hanging out together and having a crush on each other and not saying anything? I hate them! It does not have to be like that; this is not a reality that Our People have to accept. In an alternate universe – the one I enjoy living in – one or both of those humans could communicate directly about their crushes! Will this guarantee true love and dating and great sex? Absolutely not. One person may be feeling the crush and the other is like, no thank you! But you could either wait for the rest of your life for your crush to make a move and die wondering how they felt, or you could tell them how you feel and then allow them to respond. If they’re not into you, you’ll be able to move on and will soon have a new crush. If they are into you, you can go on a date and possibly make out. There is no bad outcome here!

Direct communication: the stuff dreams are made of!

Do I really have to communicate directly about EVERYTHING?

In short… yes! Well okay, in slightly longer: almost always yes.

Like most things in this life, direct communication is a habit. The more you do it, the easier it will be. And if you practice on the small stuff, it will make approaching larger and potentially more intimidating topics way less scary.

So if you’re thinking to yourself right now: Well, okay, I guess I could try to communicate directly with my crush… but I sure won’t be telling my mom that her casual dismissive comments about gender really hurt me, and I definitely will not be speaking up when my friend asks me what’s wrong and I feel sad! I would like to gently ask: Why not?

The most common fears I hear when people tell me why they couldn’t imagine ever communicating directly are (1) that it would upset the person receiving the information or (2) it would make the person delivering the information feel way too vulnerable. And I always say two things in response: first of all, you’re not a mind reader and you have no idea how the person receiving the information will respond; they’re a grown human being (or they’re a child – still a human being!) and they deserve the right to have their feelings about true things that are happening without you trying to micromanage how they might respond. Second of all, yes being vulnerable is scary but do you know what is even scarier? Dying one day without ever giving yourself the option to be understood! If the only thing I do on this earth before we all go up in flames is convince my fellow queers that vulnerability is great and not scary, I will consider my life a success. (Well, I’d also really like to convince y’all to stop making your Venmo interactions public. But that’s a conversation for another day.)

Won’t this be perceived as rude?

Not if you’re not rude! I think sometimes direct communication is conflated with bluntness, lack of tact, aggressive approaches, or, well, rudeness. It’s true that you can be rude when you communicate directly, but that’s not because the communication style is inherently rude.

There are a few steps you can take to make sure your direct communication is as polite and kind as possible.

First of all, make sure you approach the person in the right medium. It’s 2019 and we have a lot of options as far as how we communicate – DM, text, call, FaceTime, in person… different scenarios call for different mediums of communication. Next, pick the right time and place. If you know your brother is having a really hard time at work, 5pm on a weekday is probably not the right time for a sensitive phone call; if your partner hates having serious conversations when she’s drunk, don’t wait until boozy brunch on a Sunday! Sometimes privacy is called for when communicating; sometimes it can actually be useful to be out and about in public. The last couple’s therapist I saw used to talk a lot about setting oneself up for success before having a difficult conversation, and I think about that often. What steps can you take to set both you and the person (or people) receiving your direct communication up for a successful outcome?

Once you’ve decided when, where, and how to approach the conversation, think about what you’ll be saying. Stick to “I” statements so that you don’t accidentally start telling the other person how you perceive they think or feel. Remember, direct communication is supposed to make things more clear, and we can only achieve clarity when we take responsibility for our own thoughts and actions and then listen openly to others.

Finally, keep an open mind but do try to think what a “successful outcome” would be for you. Why are you bringing these wants or needs to the table? Do you want your date to know you no longer want to date them? Do you want your mom to stop misgendering your best friend? Are you unsure what you’d like to happen next, but you know you’re not comfortable with things as they’ve been going? Are you aware that you’re very scattered and emotionally unavailable and you want to set clear expectations and boundaries? Those are all very reasonable “outcomes” to desire, and while you certainly cannot control how anyone receives your communication (and in fact, there will be people who view direct communication, no matter how kind and generous and objectively polite, as rude and offensive, and unfortunately there’s nothing you can do about that and frankly I think you’re dodging a bullet if you lose out on having a relationship with someone like that, sorry!!), it’s good to have a general idea of what your most ideal end goal would be.

I know it’s scary to be honest and vulnerable, but I promise communicating this way is not rude. You know what is rude? Being passive aggressive, being unkind, completely shutting down, and ghosting!

So you’re saying I can’t ghost?

Correct.

Listen, let’s be honest. Am I writing this article as an elaborate means to tell you all about my own personal feelings on the act of ghosting? Maybe! Does it come from a place of being ghosted? Also maybe!!! Am I absolutely 100% correct when I say you should not ghost someone? YES!!!

When I brought this up on Twitter there seemed to be some confusion, so let me say this before we dive in: leaving an abuser is not ghosting. Getting away from someone who makes you feel unsafe is not ghosting. I do not believe anyone owes an abuser anything. On a much lighter note, I also do not think that ending communication with someone you’ve never even met in person and have only been casually DMing or texting with is ghosting. The act of ghosting, in my opinion, is defined by connecting with someone, delivering the impression you would like to connect with them again in some way, and then disappearing. Bonus points if the other person is actively trying to get in touch with you or engage in direct communication, and you ignore them!

Y’all, this sucks! It makes the person being ghosted feel lousy, and duped, and dumb, and confused, and genuinely crazy! And for what? Because you weren’t brave enough to just be honest and direct? We can all do better!!!

Let me tell you another story. I was dating someone who I liked a lot. Things seemed to be going really well, and I thought we were on the same page. But it turned out she was actually still in love with her ex, still mostly monogamous, and she couldn’t be as present as either of us needed her to be to keep the connection going. It took her a minute to tell me – she was nervous about hurting my feelings and a little reluctant to break off our otherwise great connection – but she finally got brave and told me over the phone before we had an upcoming date. And you know what? It did not feel good! It hurt and I felt really sad and disappointed and let down and jealous and just all around bad. But you know what would have been ten thousand times worse? If she just slowly faded into the distance, never letting me know what was going on. If she’d lied. If she’d shut down and been a jerk until I finally lost my patience and ended things. I think of this phone call often because it was actually a generous act of kindness for both of us – she did it on the phone before we were hanging out together so I could decide if I still wanted to see her the next day (I did not, I wanted some space), she was clear and concise and honest without giving me gory details, she was available for a few questions but had good boundaries about what was and was not appropriate for me to follow up about, and she was clear that her ideal would be friendship for us but she understood I may or may not want that and said the decision was ultimately up to me. The feeling I had when I hung up the phone with that girl (who is still my friend to this day!) wasn’t like, joy – you’re not going to magically make all difficult communication easy by being direct. But it felt so different from being ghosted. It felt honest and considerate. I was grateful.

Not wanting to continue a connection with someone is fine. Changing your mind is fine. Telling someone you’re excited to take them out on a date and then full on disappearing for six weeks after they text you a cute compliment in response? Less fine. The reason I decided to write about direct communication is because someone asked if I would write about ghosting, and I didn’t know how to do that without writing about its counterpoint. Because yes I think ghosting is for cowards and honestly one of the most unkind things you can do a date, but it’s deeper than that. I don’t want a bunch of people in our community wandering around this earth thinking it’s easier to dip out the back than to say their feelings, especially if those feelings feel hard to say. Remember how we do not try to manage others’ emotions? Remember how everyone is an adult and can handle their shit, as long as you give them the honest shit to work with? Remember how the world is burning so the least we can all do is get vulnerable and honest together?

Stop ghosting your dates.

You’re just a Capricorn and I hate this but okay… sigh… do you have some tips about how I can start this practice?

Wow, so glad you asked. I am a Capricorn and I do have some tips!

  1. Get clear with yourself about what you want. Direct communication is all about getting what you feel in your brain and your heart out of your bod and into the universe openly and honestly. But you can’t do that if you, yourself, have no idea what’s going on in your brain and your heart. I think the first step to healthy direct communication is to think for yourself and really consider what you need and what you’re asking for. It helps me to write it down but you don’t have to.
  2. Start small. Oftentimes in therapy I used to say, “Ugh and then I was like, XYZ!” And my sweet therapist would say, “Did you really say XYZ?” And I’d look at her like that was the most ridiculous thing in the world and say, “NO!” And then she’d look at me like that was the most ridiculous thing in the world and say, “…why NOT?” Checkmate, Jane. I was always saying the things I wished I’d said to my therapist, and not actually in the real world. Even small things, like, “I’d really rather have salmon for dinner tonight than burgers please,” and, “It actually hurts my feelings when you don’t invite me to the bar on Thursdays even though you know I have class and can’t go, could you please just ask me so I feel included?” In the grand scheme of things, those are not big asks. If you start trying to communicate directly with small things that won’t have a great impact if they’re received badly, the big stuff will feel way less intimidating.
  3. Be clear and concise. As anyone who has read my work knows, I am not great with brevity. But when communicating something that feels scary to say out loud, I work very hard to be brief and to the point. You’re going to all the trouble to communicate directly and honestly – may as well make it easy to understand so you don’t have to say it twice! If for example you’re trying to break things off with someone, it’s perfectly reasonable to say, “I like you and I thought I felt a romantic spark with you, but I’d actually rather we were just friends.” It’s also reasonable to say, “I’m not really feeling this connection; I don’t want to go out again.” Another reasonable thing to say: “My partner and I need to close our relationship for a little and focus on our bond right now; I’ll let you know if that changes and I’m sorry for presenting unclear information when we spoke.” Lots of things that feel scary to say out loud but are in reality much kinder than just disappearing.
  4. Make sure your actions mirror your words. This part is key, and should go smoothly if you’re certain you know what you actually want. If you initiate boundaries with someone verbally but then do not follow through with keeping those boundaries, that’s confusing and not really in line with my values around direct communication. Acting on our words is the best integrity most of us have.
  5. If you must, rely on your phone. We live in an age where you can literally record yourself masturbating and text it to a date who lives miles and miles away from you and she’ll receive it within seconds. The future is now. If you can’t handle the idea of communicating directly to someone’s human fleshy face in person, use email or texts. It’s fine. Trust me, an honest text ending a relationship is way better than ghosting, any day.

What do you think, folks? Do you agree entirely and want to communicate directly with me about it? Did I leave something out that you’re worrying about? Are you shy and you hate this article and will not be changing your communication style, thank you very much (to which I say – shy people can communicate directly, too!)? Are you a licensed therapist who is mad that I didn’t consult you for the clinical definition of “direct communication” when writing an article about why I love it? Are you gonna keep ghosting and want me to know about it out of pettiness? I invite you to take to the comments to tell me how you really feel… directly. 😉

Vanessa is a queer feminist writer and photographer currently based in New York. She really misses Portland. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 293 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. This is beautifully written and super on point. I’m 40 and I pride myself on being direct about some things (double Sagittarius can’t help it), yet I totally don’t do it with other things and there is much room for improvement (Virgo moon is excited for a new project). Thank you for this firm but loving callout and the helpful tools you’ve outlined!!!

  2. I’m going to directly communicate that this piece is AMAZING and I would love a follow-up piece about how to deal with someone who is ghosting you because I struggle with those feelings of helplessness. The one person I connected with this summer said they had never ghosted anyone and I was like YEP I LIKE YOU. We are directly communicating until this day! Including direct communication from them that they weren’t in the mental space to pursue a relationship with me. It hurt and I cried but now we have an awesome friendship.

    That being said I DONT WANNA TALK TO MY CRUSH ABOUT MY CRUSH I WANT IT TO HAPPEN ORGANICALLY AND THAT IS A DECISION I AM STICKING WITH BYEEEE ~~Libra OUT~~

  3. As a midwesterer who grew up thinking that being passive aggressive was polite I feel attacked!! 😀

    One time, like six years ago, someone I met at volunteering confused me with a different person and called me the wrong name and I didn’t correct her for like two weeks before a mutual friend heard and was like wtf??

  4. Oh wowwwww I needed this! I am not great with direct communication, but I sure would love to become a person is 🙂 I especially appreciate the tips for beginners, it’s going to be so helpful.

  5. Neurodiverse individual here, and direct communication is my specialty! But so is being too blunt in the wrong moment and inadvertently offending people. :/ But one of my biggest frustrations is a general unwillingness by Milliennials and Gen Z’rs to just…say what they mean. (A social media post broadcasted to the general public doesn’t count!) I’m in my early 30s, but I’ve always gotten along better with Gen Xers and Baby Boomers because they tend to communicate more directly.

  6. This is one of my personal life goals! I was raised to believe that women didn’t have opinions or boundaries of our own, just the obligation to make other people feel good. So even though I have TONS of opinions and LOTS of boundaries, I find it incredibly difficult to articulate them when I think the other person might be even slightly upset in any way.

    I’ve found that setting up rules ahead of time helps me a lot. So, for instance, when my wife and I started dating and I realized that I was really into her but I didn’t want to commit to too much too quickly, I asked if we could have a quarterly check-in. We set up dates ahead of time, three months out, where the sole purpose of the date was to talk about how we were feeling about the relationship and if we still wanted to keep dating and what changes we’d like to see going forward. That was eight years ago and I still find it really useful to schedule check-ins, although we do it more like once a year now. I guess I just want to communicate directly about wanting to communicate directly, you know?

  7. This is honestly incredibly well-written & so helpful to me! I’m someone who is very direct about a lot of things but tend to struggle where it gets the most emotional and intimate (and admittedly, where it can matter most!) so the format of this is especially helpful to me…. Using a “script” to deliver things directly and delicately is honestly something I should try in the future!

    I’d love to read more from you on this sort of thing. thank you for writing!

  8. AHHHH what great timing. I am notoriously shit at communicating (it’s one of the things that killed my last relationship) but I’ve been trying really hard to be more open and honest and me. I’m getting better at saying what I need and want but it’s still really hard and scary. Tonight I plan to break off a relationship and I’m scared shitless but this just gave me the extra nudge to go and be a good human and do it right.

  9. Love this article. Direct communication is hard, but it’s just so anxiety-reducing after some practice. When you say what you mean (kindly!), people tend to give that same level of honesty back to you and it’s just so fucking nice not to have to worry that people are making some kind of secret list of your faults without telling you.

  10. It’s all very well saying being vulnerable is ”good”, but almost everyone in my entire life has chosen to shit all over my ( exceptionally clear!) boundaries. They’re all out of my life, and I still ( try to) communicate clearly and directly, but where are all the other humans who don’t just think that applies to ”their” boundaries?..

  11. I just had a conversation about this with an online friend. She was telling me the key to any relationship, friendship or romantic, needs to be communication. The only communication I’ve been doing lately has been online. I suck at talking to people IRL, I have anxiety and I get so nervous and I feel they are judging me. I’ll be honest I’ve been guilty of ghosting but I’m working on not doing that. I just feel like sometimes when I’m talking to someone, online because I don’t have any friends IRL, I vent or I share too much too soon and it bothers others. However I’ve joined this other queer community and there’s a woman I’ve been talking to (and we have so much in common) and she doesn’t care that I vent and she vents to me to her and we send messagaes via that site, pretty much daily. I’m hoping and going to try really hard to communicate with her and hopefully she’ll want to continue to be my friend. Lord knows I could use one. I’ve also gotten in-touch with a cousin of mine and a few times a week we text, she lives 5 hours from me so we don’t see each other too often. But I really have to work hard on this, my dad (of all people) who I unfortunately work with tells me I need to communicate with my Republican, anti-gay co-workers more.*sigh* But I suppose if I speak even a little to them, I’m trying. Also, I failed the homework given back in January so I really need to step up my game with this assignment.

  12. Yikes. I was born communicating like this (autistic) and it’s done nothing but cause me problems. It’s really bizarre to read someone so ardently advocating for what caused me to be socially ostracized from a young age and continues to cause issues in my life. Society is built on polite pleasantries, convenient lies, and careful withholdings of information. Living like this is truly awful.

    • “Society is built on polite pleasantries, convenient lies, and careful withholdings of information.”

      I relate to this statement very strongly, and I struggle with this a lot. In my experience of it, so much of it is about understanding and knowing culturally sanctioned lies and cultural “norms” that don’t require explicit communication, if you’re part of the in-group.

  13. This is a really great article and I definitely need to work on my communication skills. However communication is a two way street so what do you do if the other person isn’t communicating back or is avoiding you or perhaps communicates differently (maybe one person prefers talking but the other prefers writing)?

  14. “Are you shy and you hate this article and will not be changing your communication style, thank you very much (to which I say – shy people can communicate directly, too!)? ”

    Well I feel called out. I hate it but I need it!

    Direct communication is something I’m trying to work through this year. I’m slightly failing, but I’ll keep trying.

  15. I am working on direct communication. I am definitely getting better at it. I recently told my crush how I feel about them and we are taking it slow and seeing where it goes. It’s a great feeling. It was not easy for me to just say how I felt. I also broke off a relationship that was not good for me using direct communication. I feel like it’s my area of growth at present. Love the article!

  16. I love this! And you are right! And I am so, so bad at this.

    There are a few people pointing out that it’s not great to be TOO direct/blunt, and yes! Of course. I think the line here is like…

    Ok, a few years ago I went on a couple of dates with a really really nice person who was cute and pretty and interesting and nice and happened to kiss in a way that just absolutely did not work for me at all. At ALL! We were not going to be compatible.

    What I did: Stopped responding to her texts

    What I should have done: Told her, when she texted, that she was very nice but I didn’t want to go on any more dates

    What would be too blunt: Telling her that she was a bad kisser

    I STILL to this day wish that I had been able to be more honest with her about the fact that I did not want to keep dating her, BUT i hope that i can try to be better in the future!

  17. but it’s haaaard!
    (this from a capricorn sun, virgo rising, libra moon)

    I really try to do my best. I think the actually “knowing what you feel and want” is a tricky part. But sometimes even when I am working to be kind and clear and prepared, the person I’m talking to gets upset/defensive and there’s no good outcome. And then I wonder why I bothered!

    I’ve also run into people who claim to like direct communication but actually don’t, at all, or only like it on their terms. They might like communicating directly when they have a criticism but not hearing things. So I don’t know what to do with that either. I know I’m not responsible for other people’s feelings, but it stresses me out when people are upset with me!

  18. Pretty much everything I know about communication I learned from Autostraddle. <3

    One communication question I've been pondering for a while is this: sometimes I'll have feelings about a thing and want to talk about it so I'm not holding it in, but I know the other person can't do anything about it even though it involves them, except maybe take it into account and know to be gentle with me about it. It feels good to be honest, but is it really fair to tell someone you feel a way about a part of your relationship knowing they can't change it? Anybody got thoughts on this?

    • I’d say it depends on whether you’re dating a problem-solver/rescuer type of person or not. A rescuer (hi hello !) might wear themselves out trying to fix the situation, or try to MacGyver it so you’re more comfortable.
      If the situation is 100% not fixable, you’ll need to clearly state that you don’t want rescuing, you’re just talking about it.

    • My partner and I discuss this regularly because it has caused us conflict in the past. She is a very straightforward communicator about problems she experiences, say at work for example. But because I can’t directly assist with those, my problem solving default communication was very inefficient and frustrating for us both.

  19. I’m a Summa Cum Laude* graduate of the Carol Aird School of Conversing with Your Eyes Only.

    But I do talk. Sometimes my inner Ice Queen gets there first with her awful bluntness. It’s either that or hours of explaining all my layered thoughts and impressions. If I like you, you’ll get the full-on Aquarian Story of Creation. If I don’t care for you, you’ll get freezer burn.

    *I’m well aware of the fantastic amount of puns that can be made of this, by all means, go ahead snatch this opportunity !

  20. Thanks for this — Just chiming in to say that I’d love to read an article about how to use direct communication in the workplace!

    Growing up in the Midwest, direct communication was considered confrontational and rude (as a commenter above observed). So it’s a challenge for me, but I’ve been working on it — along with establishing healthy boundaries and letting go of the idea that I always need to be “likeable.”

    But I’m in a somewhat toxic work environment right now where there is lots of subterfuge and hidden alliances amongst employees, and direct communication feels really challenging. It would be great to hear more about implementing this communication style in the work environment (both in healthy and unhealthy work environments)!

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