As Creep Week comes to a close again and we all start to feel like it’s safe to get back into the dating pool, I want to talk about the fear of being labeled “creepy”.
There are a lot of people – mostly the socially inexperienced – who worry about being called “creepy” by women and having it destroy their entire lives. Because, as we all know, all women everywhere are connected to a powerful underground information sharing network, thus ensuring that anyone saddled with the “creeper” label shall never have sex again… not even with himself.
OK, I kid. But I understand the fear; most people don’t want to come across as creepy and worry about accidentally ruining an interaction with someone they’re attracted to. It can feel like you’re walking on a tightrope over a pit of flaming, judgmental sharks who are dying to rip your nipples off. Also, you’re doing so without a net. And the tightrope has been greased with all of your unused sperm and is also on fire.
But, like many of the emotional pitfalls and fuck-ups that come with dating, this is a matter that is entirely within your own control. Avoiding being a creeper is equal parts practical measures and self-awareness. Over the years, I’ve noticed some issues that correspond with people being unintentionally creepy, and working on those issues will help you avoid being a creeper.
Obligatory disclaimer: this is baseline behavior. You don’t get – nor should you expect – brownie points for not being a creeper. So with that in mind, let’s talk about some of the ways to avoid being creepy.
Calm The Hell Down
First and foremost: you need to calm down and relax. One of the most common issues with people who are socially inexperienced or socially awkward is that they get incredibly nervous and anxious when they’re talking to somebody they’re attracted to. Of course, the more nervous you get, the more aware you are about the possibility of saying or doing something unfortunate, which makes you even more nervous… turning the whole thing into one giant self-perpetuating feedback loop that culminates with your making an awkward joke about her boobs.
There’s nothing wrong with being nervous – in fact, there’s a pretty strong correlation between nervousness and physical arousal – but letting your nerves get out of control can make the people around you uncomfortable, too. A quirk of our brain’s development means that physical sensations are contagious. Ever wince in sympathy when you see someone stub their toe? Or watch a room full of guys flinch simultaneously when they see someone get hit in the nuts? This is a result of mirror-neurons in our brains triggering an empathetic response in us. As I’ve mentioned many times before, our body controls our brains, often leaving our moods dependent on our physical state. When we’re nervous, we make other people nervous – they’re starting to unconsciously mirror our physical state. It also doesn’t help that you’re unconsciously putting a lot of pressure on the other person to direct and control the interaction – and that makes them uncomfortable. As a result: they’re feeling awkward, uneasy, even a little nervous themselves – and thanks to misattribution of arousal, they’re associating their nervousness with you.
Add in the short, twitchy movements that people tend to make when they’re nervous and you look like you’re possibly prepping to launch yourself at the person you’re talking to. You are just trying to think about not saying something about butts, she thinks you’re mentally measuring how many lampshades you can make out of her skin and now she’s getting ready “nope” the hell out of there all the way to FuckThatShitVille.
So what do you do? You control your nerves by controlling your body. The quickest and easiest way to calm yourself down is to control your breathing. Breathe in slowly, hold it for the count of three, then breathe out for a count of 5. Repeat this several times – taking a deep breath, holding it, letting it out. This breathing exercise will help slow your heart rate down, making you feel less nervous.
Next, stand up straighter. Simply adjusting your posture, straightening your spine, opening your chest and letting the tension drain out of your body provides an immense and immediate boost to your sense of confidence and keeps you from sending the “I’m nervous” vibe via your body language. Finally, slow yourself down, physically and mentally. Let your gestures be longer and looser instead of tight and twitchy. Don’t be in a rush to respond; give yourself a moment or two to let your mouth catch up with your brain. You’ll appear more thoughtful, conveying that you’re paying attention to what she’s saying rather than just waiting for your turn to talk. In reality, you’re giving yourself more breathing room so you don’t accidentally blurt out something about how much you’ve been staring at her lips… but she doesn’t have to know that.
People will take their cues from you. The more you relax, the more they’ll be relaxed. And not only will you avoid seeming creepy, but you’ll feel more confident and at ease.
Recognize Creepy Behavior (And Signs That You’re Being Creepy)
If you want to avoid being creepy by accident, then you have to work on your social calibration. Behavior that may be welcome in the right context – touching, for example – can be incredibly creepy under different circumstances. Making a risqué or even potentially offensive joke can likewise be either something welcome or threatening depending on circumstance and context. The people who are able to, say, make jokes about having raunchy sex without being creepy are people who are socially well-calibrated and can read their intended audience. Same with touching or moving in from “social” space (approximately 4 to 8 feet) to personal or intimate space ( 1.5 feet and 1 foot, respectively): you have to understand when it is appropriate to do so, otherwise you risk looking aggressive or even predatory.
The thing is: you can’t expect other people to tell you when you’re being creepy. As I’ve said many a time before: women are socialized to be indirect and to avoid being too “forward” with men; part of that socialization means that they’re going to be hesitant to raise a fuss over somebody else’s behavior… even when yelling at the asshole is damned well deserved and appropriate. All too often, women have learned the hard way that making a scene can only make things worse; part of what many predators and creepers get off on is the person’s discomfort and will actually escalate if somebody protests. Making things more complicated, women often get blamed for inciting their own harassment while people are all-too-eager to make excuses for the creeper. It’s on you to look for the signs of discomfort and recognize when you’re standing too close or saying something that makes her skin crawl.
I’ve written extensively about creepy behavior and how to read the signs, as have many others. The resources for learning what is and isn’t creepy behavior are out there. Use them.
Part of the learning process is being willing to take ownership of your actions. Remember what I just said about learning social calibration? That’s on you to do. Other people aren’t obligated to tell you that you’re being creepy or to teach you how not to be a creeper. If someone offers to help, then great; take ’em up on it. But people, especially the women you’re attracted to, are not there to teach you how to not freak them out. If you’re having problems with finding boundaries or reading emotions, then it’s on you to learn how to correct the problem.
This is something I see come up over and over again on message boards and subreddits – demanding that women teach “awkward” guys how not to creep on them, similar to the people who insist on the Socially Awkward Exception. As with the SAE, the underlying message of this demand is that women’s desire to feel safe and their right to set their own boundaries – or to be approached in the manner they prefer – is not as important as the right for men to get what they want. This attitude is inherently creepy; it posits that women are there for your use.1
The other side of taking responsibility is understanding that you don’t get to decide other people’s comfort levels. There are almost always people who will complain that someone thought that they were unfairly labeled as “creepy” and they couldn’t possibly have been because reasons. And while I do sympathize with feeling that you’re being misunderstood, but just because you didn’t think you weren’t being creepy doesn’t mean that they didn’t feel creeped out by you. People get to set their own comfort to whatever arbitrary levels they decide are appropriate, and this isn’t up for discussion. Hard and fast rule: you can’t argue your way out of being creepy.
There is no appeals process, you don’t get to plead your case before a jury of her peers and, quite frankly, sticking around to argue the point makes you look like you’re an alien in a human suit trying to conduct breeding experiments with the locals.
Now, to forestall the obvious: yes, occasionally you will run into people who will call you “creepy” just because they like to insult people, not because you actually did anything wrong. These people are assholes. They have self-selected themselves into the “avoid” pile and you should be grateful because why the fuck would you want to talk to someone who treats people like that? But if you’re running into more assholes than Seymour Butts at Analpalooza, then sometimes you have to acknowledge that you’re the common denominator and address your behavior.
Straight talk time: fuck-ups happen. You can do everything right and still end up tripping over somebody’s emotional land-mine that you had no way of knowing existed. Even the most skilled seducers and socially calibrated diplomats will screw up. I’ve lost track at how many times I’ve ended up tripping over my metaphorical dick and misreading a situation or moving faster than I should have.
Want to know the easiest way to avoid being a creeper by accident? When you realize you’ve done something wrong, you take a (literal) step back and apologize. Seriously. The act of giving some space and delivering a simple and sincere apology can diffuse the tension and turn you from being a “creeper” back into “the good guy I was enjoying talking to.”
But you have to do it right. You make that apology short, simple and sincere. You don’t dwell on the mistake, you don’t put on a production begging her forgiveness, you don’t beat yourself up over it. You don’t freak out or try to bowl her over with how abjectly horrified you are. Despite the words, this is literally the opposite of apologizing; you’re not saying you’re sorry, you’re making it all about your discomfort and asking her to reassure you.
Similarly, you don’t try to deflect responsibility; the “sorry you misunderstood me” or “sorry you were offended (but you shouldn’t have been)” non-apologies just confirm that you’re being a dick.
Now here’s the critical part: after having apologized, don’t do it again. The whole point is to acknowledge that yes, you made a mistake but now you know better. Making the same mistake again – or other boundary-testing behavior for that matter – carries the message that you’re not sorry that you made a mistake, you’re sorry you got caught and you’re going to try again as soon as you think you’ve got an opening.
Finally: after your apology has been accepted, then drop it. Seriously. Just like making a production makes your apology all about you, refusing to let the subject go is just going to reinforce that it happened and make it impossible to forgive and forget. Handling a mistake with grace will leave people feeling comfortable in your presence. Getting stuck on it is just going to indicate that you have low emotional intelligence and leave them feeling uncomfortable.
So again, the process of handling a screw-up is: give some space, apologize, don’t do it again and then move on.
Women Are Not Your Adversaries
A lot of people who worry about being called creepy have a tendency to see women as opponents. Whether it’s because of low self-esteem or having bought into the commodity model of sex and see sex as something that has to be “negotiated” for, they come into interactions with women with a sense of antagonism. Take the idea of “creep-shaming”, for example: the idea that women use calling men “creepy” as a way of wielding power over them and gleefully ostracizing men because… well, nobody’s exactly explained why. Evidently because all women are basically Maleficent, throwing out curses and condemning men to a sexless existence because FUCK YOU, THAT’S WHY.
The “you’re only creepy if you’re ugly” crowd is another example. In both cases, this mix of frustrated entitlement and antagonism is going to creep into everything you do; it’s going to leak into your body language, and your “ha ha, just kidding” attempts at humor. Even if it’s not overt, the incongruity between the face you’re trying to present and the body language you’re actually presenting is going to leave women unsettled and uncomfortable.
At the other end of the extreme are the people who are deathly afraid of being creepy and worry that any little thing they do is going to be seen in the worst possible light. This ends up sabotaging their attempts to interact with women because they’re half-convinced that women are assuming they’re a creeper in advance and are just waiting for the excuse to reject them.
Straight talk time: women want you to be that cool guy they’ve always dreamed of meeting. They’re hoping you’re awesome. Yes, they have to worry about their safety; the world’s a shitty place and women are vulnerable in ways that men just aren’t. But acknowledging the reality doesn’t mean that they view all men as the enemy; it just means they have to be careful. And by paying attention to their concerns and being conscious of how you’re coming across, you can avoid being creepy by accident and show that you’re that amazing guy they’ve been looking for.
- Yes, I recognize that there will be people think saying “Well, duh” is a clever response. Congratulations sir, you just proved that the fail state of “clever” is “asshole”. [↩]