Social ostracism has been a common punishment for millennia. But freezing someone out harms both the victim and the perpetrator.
Daryl Austin | The Atlantic
Kipling Williams has studied the effects of the silent treatment for more than 36 years, meeting hundreds of victims and perpetrators in the process:
A grown woman whose father refused to speak with her for six months at a time as punishment throughout her life. “Her father died during one of those dreaded periods,” Williams told me. “When she visited him at the hospital shortly before his death, he turned away from her and wouldn’t break his silence even to say goodbye.”
A father who stopped talking to his teenage son and couldn’t start again, despite the harm he knew he was causing. “The isolation made my son change from a happy, vibrant boy to a spineless jellyfish, and I knew I was the cause,” the father said to Williams..
A wife whose husband severed communication with her early in their marriage. “She endured four decades of silence that started with a minor disagreement and only ended when her husband died,” Williams said. Forty years of eating meals by herself, watching television by herself—40 years of being invisible. “When I asked her why she stayed with him for all that time,” Williams said, “she answered simply, ‘Because at least he kept a roof over my head.’”
A teacher. A sibling. A grandparent. A friend. Each story that Williams, a psychology professor at Purdue University, told me was more heartbreaking than the one before. As I listened, the question that lingered most was How could these people do this to those closest to them?
The silent treatment goes by many names: shunning, social isolation, stonewalling, ghosting. Although psychologists have nuanced definitions for each term, they are all essentially forms of ostracism. And the tactic is nothing new. Ancient Greeks expelled for 10 years citizens who were thought to be a threat to democracy, and early American settlers banished people accused of practicing witchcraft. Religions have frozen out individuals for centuries: Catholics call it excommunication, herem is the highest form of punishment in Judaism, and the Amish practice Meidung. The Church of Scientology recommends total “disconnection” from anyone deemed antagonistic toward the religion.
“My research suggests that two in three individuals have used the silent treatment against someone else; even more have had it done to them,” Williams said. Experts told me that although they need more data to know for certain, instances of the silent treatment have likely increased over the years as new forms of communication have been invented. “Every new method of connection can be used as a form of disconnection,” Williams said.
Ostracism can also manifest in lesser ways: someone walking out of the room in the middle of a conversation, a friend at school looking the other way when you wave at them, or a person addressing comments from everyone in a message thread except you. “Partial ostracism,” Williams told me, might mean monosyllabic replies—a terse period at the end of a one-word text message. But in serious cases, ostracism can take a heavy toll whereby victims become anxious, withdrawn, depressed, or even suicidal.
“Because we humans require social contact for our mental health, the ramifications of isolation can be severe,” Joel Cooper, a psychology professor at Princeton, told me. “In the short term, the silent treatment causes stress. In the long term, the stress can be considered abuse.”
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