Have You Ever Been Breadcrumbed?

Before someone can answer the question “Have you ever been breadcrumbed?” we have to determine what is breadcrumbing is, right? One might ask, “Is that anything like the ice water bucket challenge, but in this case, a person jumps into a large container of breadcrumbs and rolls around, getting breadcrumbed in the process?” That’s not a bad guess; however, breadcrumbing has a less literal meaning. Originally, back in the 90s, breadcrumbing was a metaphor applied to navigating webpages, showing the series of web pages that a user has visited to get a particular page. The origin of this metaphor is from the classic fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, first included in Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812) by the Brothers Grimm. You probably know the story: a brother and sister are abandoned by their father in a forest. Hansel first uses white pebbles and later bread crumbs to find his way back home. The father, who is clearly out to win “father of the year” award, becomes very angry and drags them them back to the forest, where the children get lost. Eventually, they are captured by a witch who lives in a house made of gingerbread, cakes, and candies. The witch, Satan’s version of Willy Wonka, uses all these sweet foods to fatten up the children before she eats them. (Health warning: such a sugar-rich diet increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease.) But one day, Gretel tricks the witch and shoves her into the oven, and the brother and sister escape home.

Today, breadcrumbing, in the context of the dating scene, means leading someone on by contacting them intermittently even though you aren’t really interested in them, and don’t want to pursue a long-term relationship. Breadcrumbing is made all the easier in the digital age when the perpetrator (the “breadcrumber”) can text the victim (the “breadcrumbed”) or use social media (posting likes or comments) to make him or her think that the breadcrumber is interested in them. “That sounds really mean,” you say repugnantly. There’s no sugarcoating this: you are absolutely right — it is really mean because breadcrumbing, done with the sense of detachment and partial anonymity that digital communication creates, toys with another individual’s self-esteem and emotions. In teen speak, “It’s a total dick move.”

Breadcrumbing is not isolated to the world of dating. It can also applied to friendships. You probably have encountered this scenario at grocery store: you see an acquaintance or old friend, that you now find completely annoying. Despite steering your cart in the opposite direction, careening around meticulously arranged end-caps, and flying down an aisle to pick up some random item and quickly pretending that you are closely reading the ingredients of, say, a package of chicken ramen. But eventually the person, who has been stalking you, catches up to you and foils your ramen inspection. Cornered, you have no alternative other than to catch up briefly — all the while the mindless banter reinforces your prejudices. Soon, the conversation wraps up and the other person tosses our that old chestnut: “We need to get together!” If you can fake an orgasm, you can certainly muster all the acting skills to produce a fake smile and respond, “Oh yes. Let’s get together for coffee or lunch soon!” Welcome to the club — you just breadcrumbed your quasi-friend.

It didn’t take long for breadcrumbing to jump from the realm of personal relationships to the corporate world. In the corporate world, an employer breadcrumbs a job applicant when a company representative strings along a job applicant, giving him or her the impression that a job offer is forthcoming, even though the company is not going to hire that applicant. A company can breadcrumb a job applicant any number of ways: not acknowledging when a job application has been received, no response to follow-up questions regarding an interview, occasional updates without any real specific timeline for a decision or hiring action, or coming up with additional interviews or tasks that the job applicant has to complete before getting the job. You are right! — it’s totally a dick move because now the employer is toying with an individual’s self confidence and financial situation. If the applicant doesn’t get that job, guess what he or she will be eating day after day? Chicken ramen!

Several other neologisms have popped up in the English lexicon to describe variations of breadcrumbing. Here are three examples:

benching: when a person who maintains contact with a person (as in “the substitute on the bench”) while actively looking for a better partner.

cushioning: when a person in a relationship keeps in touch with other romantic partners to serve as a “cushion” if the relationship goes south.

ghosting: when a person ends a relationship by disappearing (ie., breaking all contact with his or her partner).

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President of Alexander Atkins Design, a leader in philanthropic graphic design for nonprofits & schools; author of Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf.