Ghosts of relationships past often rise from the dead during the holiday season. This is a known phenomenon. But by the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, I had assumed I was out of the woods in terms of ex hauntings. So naturally, when I checked my texts sometime after midnight, I saw three from a man I haven’t spoken to since the summer. Ex feels like too significant a label for him, but nonetheless, we had Words—a conversation approximating a break-up, one that left me with lingering queasiness about eventually running into him in a bar.
His surprise greeting appeared engineered in a lab to kneecap the festive vibe: Saw you on the street yesterday (eek!), just wanted to say hi and hope your end-times are off to a swell start (??) and have a happy new year (???). “No need to reply to this obv.” As in obviously.
But this sentiment was not obvious to me. Even when I am texting someone nonsense ostensibly for no reason, there is actually a reason: Maybe I am bored, and therefore want entertainment, commiseration, distraction, or attention. For example, “HELLO I MUST TELL YOU ABOUT THIS POSSUM HOLDING A TOOTHBRUSH,” or “DAVE COULIER IS TRAPPED INSIDE THIS DOG and should we let him out?” Or perhaps I am following up on or hoping to make plans (you know, logistical stuff). In any case, I am thinking of you and making contact precisely because I hope you will reply. I cannot fathom why you would send a text, particularly to a semi-stranger with whom you enjoy a nice, warranted radio silence, if you yourself realize your message is not worth a response. Because you want to get back in touch? Because you want to make sure you never fade from their brain, you monster? Because you love chaos? “Just checking in,” sent allegedly without expectation of an update, is a complete contradiction. It does not compute.
Considering this particular instance occurred late on NYE, I'm willing to chalk it up to a substance-induced misjudgment. That doesn’t help make sense of the others, though. I don’t receive the “no response necessary” text all that often—I’m not that prolific a dater—but can count three or four occasions at least, always with the same key ingredients:
- Comes after desire not to see one another has been clearly established.
- From a person whom I dated only briefly, without any preexisting friendship or association to salvage. (It’s worth noting that more legitimate exes certainly send these messages too, but re-establishing contact is a little more understandable when there’s significant, complicated history with someone.)
- Who, I felt, tended to humor the things I communicated about my wants and needs, even as they ignored the bits that did not align with their agenda for us.
Take, for example, this 2017 Tinder match: We went on enough dates for me to know that I simply didn’t feel the chemistry (one). I told him so, with apologies. Totally fair, he (correctly) acknowledged...before firing off a few screens’ worth of “but I really think I could change your mind if you would just go out with me again” sentiment. Roughly eight minutes later, when he realized he had effectively pulled a, “What if by ‘no’ you actually mean ‘yes,’” did he tell me “disregard.”
It seems to me this particular addendum gets tacked onto messages the sender knows they shouldn’t send; it functions as either a premeditated shield against, or a retroactive antidote to, embarrassment. And yet it’s reasonable to think about former sex partners, to want to talk to them, to want them back. So framing your feeler text as a fleeting impulse feels dishonest at best, and at worst, like a trap. It’s purportedly just someone being friendly for friendliness’s sake, so why wouldn’t you respond? The ensuing guilt trip is the evil, (and, I’ll concede, possibly also inadvertent) genius of this text. It creates the illusion of choice where there is none. Whether or not you reply, this person has already barged back into your text queue. They are now squatting in a dusty corner of your mind, despite your clear and pointed attempts to evict them.
If you truly want to channel positive thoughts toward someone you used to know and have perhaps agreed not to communicate with, it is probably best to do it quietly inside your own head. But if you have something pressing you absolutely must acknowledge or you will spontaneously combust, say what you mean. Slap a thesis on that feeler message. Does that obliterate the goal of looking all breezy and motive-less, gauging interest without sticking your neck out? Kinda, but that’s the point. No need to pen an “in this essay, I will…” statement of purpose. In fact, please don’t do that. Just roll the dice on clarity. People tend to respond well to honesty—or at the very least, they tend to respond.
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Originally Appeared on GQ