One of the recurring topics here at Paging Dr. NerdLove is the subject of creepers and creepy behavior. It’s a perennial topic because just about every day gives yet another example of creepy behavior to talk about. Almost every woman out there has story after story about creepers in her life – a never-ending parade of guys who set their skin to trying to crawl clean off their body.
At the same time, one of the biggest fears that socially inexperienced guys have is that they’re going to be creepy by accident. And in fairness: creepy is often in the eye of the beholder; in fact, one of the most common complaints about creepy behavior is that being creepy just means “not being attractive”.
However, now we have some science to actually nail down just what makes somebody creepy and what makes someone else roguishly charming. By being a little more aware of why certain behaviors are creepy, you can avoid being yet another creeper.
What Makes Someone Creepy?
In what is – shockingly – a first, a study from Knox University published in the journal New Ideas in Psychology is the first empirical investigation into the nature of creepiness. Francis T. McAndrew and Sara S. Koehnke conducted an international survey of over 13oo individuals, asking them to consider and rate the creepiness of 44 different actions, careers and hobbies. Out of the results, certain trends stood out – men were universally more likely to be seen as being creepy than women, that creepiness coincided with a sense of anxiety or danger and that behaviors that were seen as being sexual or having a sexual edge to them were far more likely to be creepy than more innocuous ones.
Women, especially, noted that behaviors like unwanted sexual advances, constantly turning the conversation towards sex, requests for photos, dates and invading their personal space were signs that a person was creepy.
One of the keys to what made someone creepy was the potential for ambiguity. The study’s authors suggest that because one’s creep-radar is keyed towards finding potential threats, the ambiguousness of somebody’s behavior could make people uncomfortable. After all, if you’re continually wondering if this person actually poses a threat to you, you’re left in a state of anxious paralysis; you’re continually on edge trying to determine just what the appropriate reaction to the situation is. Guessing wrong can have consequences, after all; misjudge a potential threat and now you’ve made yourself vulnerable to someone who means you harm.
This is why creepy behavior prompts such a strong reaction, particularly in women. Acting in a certain way may have innocuous intent behind it, but the behavior itself suggests that there’s potential to do someone harm. Because men tend to prove a bigger threat in general, men and women are both more likely to rate men as being creepy. Similarly, because women are categorically more vulnerable to physical or sexual threats, women have an especially strong atavistic response to creepers, even when they are supposedly harmless. So even if you spend your days rescuing orphaned kittens and providing balloons for children in need, if your behavior or appearance gives off that ambiguous “does this person intend to hurt me?” vibe, then you’re going to find women are going out of their way to avoid you.
What sorts of behavior? Well, I’m glad you asked, convenient rhetorical device…
Ambiguity and Creepy Behavior
Let’s take a moment to look at some of the factors from the study that were rated as being the creepiest:
- Taking pictures of people at inappropriate times
- Invading personal space
- Talking too much about a topic, especially sex
- Laughing at inappropriate times
- Not letting someone out of conversation
- Displaying unwanted sexual interest
- Displaying too much or too little emotion
- Smiling peculiarly
- Having excessively pale skin
- Having greasy hair
- Having bags under their eyes
- Wearing dirty or weird clothes
- Licking lips
Going down the list, one of the things you’ll notice is that most of these factors could have completely benign explanations – someone who’s a little socially awkward, for example, may not recognize signs that somebody wants to leave or that they’ve started to invade their personal space. At the same time, however, each of these could just as easily be a sign that somebody is a potential threat. Invading personal space, backing somebody into a corner and doing things like the one-arm lean are all ways somebody can trap somebody and cut off potential avenues of escape.
Similarly, someone who won’t let you out of the conversation, who keeps flirting even when the other person isn’t interested or who keeps turning the topic towards sex might be clueless… or they might be dangerous. Many of these behaviors demonstrate either an ignorance of boundaries and social comfort or a willingness to ignore them. If somebody is willing to ignore a person’s discomfort by constantly trying to turn the conversation back to sex, then that is also a pretty strong sign that they’re willing to ignore other issues… like, say, consent. Similarly, not letting someone out of a conversation or demanding to take a photo are both signs that this is a person who puts their desires over the boundaries and comfort of the person they’re talking to. Is it a guarantee that they’re a predator? No, it isn’t… and thus the anxiety that comes from creepy behavior. Because these behaviors could go both ways, you’re stuck in an uncomfortable situation of analysis paralysis and having to constantly gauge the potential threat. You simply don’t know and the consequences of being wrong can be severe. Reacting badly to someone who’s creepy but well meaning means you’re running the risk of being rude. Not reacting to someone who is a threat, on the other hand, means you’re running the risk of being dead. And you have to make that decision right then, in that moment.
Of course, women especially get caught in a catch-22 because being rude or directly saying “no” also has its risks. For women, dealing with creepers can be a no-win situation and so they’d rather avoid them entirely if at all possible.
One of the things you’ll notice is how appearance comes into play. It’s not in the matter of being handsome or not, but rather the implications of these non-normative looks and behaviors. Many of these behaviors and issues of appearance frequently correspond with mental illness or extreme poverty, issues that we as a culture tend to be uncomfortable with. Part of what makes us uncomfortable is the feeling of unpredictability; if we suspect that someone is mentally unhealthy, we worry that we don’t know how they might behave. Intellectually we know that someone with mental illness tends to be the victim of violence, not the perpetrator… but in that moment, we’re left trying to make a judgement call with minimal evidence and that leaves us uneasy.
But instead of dealing with theoreticals, let’s look at some concrete examples of creepiness and just why they give women the screaming ab-dabs.
Creepers In Action
One of the most common ways guys are creepy is by ignoring issues of boundaries and demonstrating that they have more information about somebody than they should. Case in point: one of my readers recently shared this interaction with a rando who contacted her via Instagram after sharing photos of street scenes during her vacation:
Now as it turns out, this was a case of creepy by accident; the man in question didn’t think things through. However, even if the guy just wanted to find a commonality – hey, I’ve been there! How awesome was it? – the underlying message is still “I know what you look like and where to find you,” whether he intended it or not. Now the recipient is left trying to figure out whether or not this person is going to try to track her down and she’s left spending the rest of her trip constantly looking over her shoulder for someone who may or may not be stalking her.
Other times, guys go the extra mile. My friend Arden Leigh is a fellow dating coach, with a significant online presence. One of the consequences of that presence is that people tend to see it as permission to behave badly – and to think that their behavior is acceptable. Recently she received this message from a stranger via her Facebook profile:
Many people actually pushed back against Arden’s angry response – after all, Johnny Rando wasn’t rude or vulgar or sent along questions about her boobs. He even offered her an out if she was a little freaked out? What’s so bad about this?
Quite a lot, actually. Let’s break it down, real quick. To start with:
- He ignored her signs of disinterest – on Tinder, the only time you connect with someone is if you both swipe right, indicating that you’re interested in them. Because Arden’s profile was inactive, he would never get that matching right swipe. Following the basic premise of Tinder, he would never have been connected with her.
- He approached her in an inappropriate place – instead of confining himself to Tinder, where people have opted in to meeting strangers for dates and/or sex, he tracked down her Facebook profile instead. Facebook is not designed as a dating site, and signing up for a Facebook profile doesn’t signal your interest in being approached romantically or sexually by strangers or even people you know.
- He chose to approach her in a way that ensured that she couldn’t miss his message – using Facebook Messenger ensured that not only would he know she got his message, he’d know the moment she read it.
- His reason for skipping Tinder is because he believed he shouldn’t have to miss out on her attention – this right here is classic entitlement. Her lack of a response is the response, but he should be allowed to override it because he’s just that special. If he’s willing to ignore her lack of interest in talking, what other boundaries is he willing to ignore, because he feels he deserves it?
Now, I can already hear people protesting about his politeness and the line “If this freaks you out, just delete me,” as an example of his good intentions. However polite it may be, however, it’s still a sign of his belief, however unconscious, that he deserves an interaction on his terms. He’s oh-so-generously giving her permission to ignore him instead of waiting until she’s shown interest and approaching her then.
Instead, he drops red flags all over the place. If a hot woman ignores me in the club, that doesn’t mean I have the right to follow her to work the next day to introduce myself to her then.
Maybe he’s well-intentioned and ignorant. Or maybe these are all signs that, if given half a chance, he’ll run roughshod over her boundaries and ignore her wishes in other areas. It’s that lingering question – is he going to be a danger to her – that makes the difference between someone being creepy and being a cool guy.
How Do You Avoid Being Creepy?
One of the issues that comes up over and over again is the frustration of how to avoid being creepy. Some of the most common complaints I hear include:
So we’re not allowed to give women compliments? – No, telling a woman how sexy she is isn’t a compliment, especially when you don’t have that level of intimacy with her.
How’re we supposed to approach women then? – If you’re unable or unwilling to meet women in ways that don’t signal your willingness to ignore her boundaries? Then you don’t. Git gud, noob.
How’re we supposed to know if our attention is wanted? – Well, you could, y’know, spend time learning how to read people’s signals and communicate with them in ways that don’t make them feel like they could be in danger.
But I didn’t mean to creep her out, shouldn’t I be given a chance for this? – Intent isn’t magic. The fact that you didn’t intend something doesn’t change its outcome or its effect. Or to put it another way: if someone feels creeped out by you, you don’t get to argue that they aren’t allowed to feel that way.
Here’s the thing: not being creepy isn’t that hard. Nine times out of ten, it’s about taking a little self-awareness and being willing to see things outside of your own worldview. What does your behavior here say to somebody who doesn’t know you at all? Many of the examples of creepy behavior listed in the Knox University study could be avoided through basic social calibration and being aware of the other person’s signals. Is this an appropriate time to be talking about sex? Do you actually have the level of intimacy that it would take to be able to make sexual jokes with this person? Is the person you’re talking to showing signs of discomfort – closing off her body language, brittle smiles that don’t reach the eyes, trying to change the subject, forced laughter, edging away? Is she giving signs that she wants to end the conversation – looking around the room, checking her watch or blatantly paying attention to things other than you?
In the case of Arden’s admirer, there were a number of ways he could have finessed this instead of just asserting his specialness. In fact, Arden provided a very specific and thorough example:
After seeing my inactive Tinder profile and looking me up on Facebook, send me a message saying I came up in their “suggested friends” or whatever.
– Ask me a question based on my profile that I am likely to be happy to answer like “I see you’re in a band, got any shows coming up?” (Musicians are ALWAYS trying to get people to come to shows).
– Come to my show, introduce yourself afterward, and realize that since I just played a show and I’m exhausted, you have about 3 minutes to build enough attraction with me that I have a slim chance of giving a fuck about you the next time you write me.
– Follow up on Facebook a week later and personally invite me to an event I will definitely think is cool based on what you know of me from your friendly stalking of my profile.
– If I accept, allow me to see you there in an environment where you are in control and in your element and therefore attractive. Physically escalate, build/break rapport, and qualify to build attraction in person.
– Ask me out on an actual date.
This isn’t quite as complicated as it seems. Written down it seems like a process; in practice, it’s not that different from meeting someone at a party and introducing yourself, then following up later… just over social media instead. It shows a level of social awareness and consideration for her, her interests and her comfort. It’s considerably different than just trying to jump the metaphorical queue on Tinder and get access to someone who’s otherwise ignored you.
I know it’s easy to overthink things and get caught up in a recursive loop of “how can this go wrong”. If you want to avoid being creepy, then just be aware. Be friendly, be considerate and pay attention to them. Be aware of that ambiguity and you won’t be a creeper; you’ll be a cool person that she’ll want to get to know.