I happened to find you through a google search when I tried to look up info about how to avoid creeping people out. I’m emailing you because I want to see if you’re able to answer any questions that I have about your article: “Social Awkwardness is Not an Excuse” in writing? I’m asking because I have limited ability to pick up on non-verbal cues and adhere to social norms due to my Aspergers, which is often resulting in me being subject to numerous complaints to school officials and authorities. Many times, I normally don’t realize that what I happened to do to someone is actually crossing the line until the very last minute, which by then, it’s already too late for me to fix. Here are the following questions:
1. What creepy behaviors would most likely subject the person responsible to civil and/or criminal penalties, including disciplinary action from school?
2. Do difficulties with social cues and norms really increase the risk of unintentionally creeping people out? If so, can you explain how come and how prevalent this issue is?
3. Many times, I often resort to briefly advocating to those I’m about to associate and/or frequently cross paths with about my Aspergers and the extent of it (which especially includes my frequent need for clear communication) in order to reduce the chances of any misconceptions that could happen. What do you have to say about that?
4. I’ve heard rumors that because women and girls are conditioned to be nice in certain situations, any chance of them communicating clearly to you if something was to happen that I may not know about is very rare. Is that really true? If so, how can I possibly get around this?
5. How come can’t you use “I wasn’t really aware since she didn’t communicate her boundaries to me clearly” as an excuse when it comes to being accused of unintentionally creeping her out? Bc for me, this is more of a concern if the circumstances were a misconception
Please note that I am NOT seeking a dating relationship by asking these questions, I’m only trying to make sure I have confidence in building friendships the acceptable way and staying out of trouble in general from there. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Trying To Find The Manual
Alright TFTM, I think you may have misunderstood part of the point of “Socially Awkward Isn’t An Excuse“. The point of the column wasn’t “It doesn’t matter if you’re neuroatypical or not,” it’s exactly what I said in the lede:
[The] problem isn’t about being socially awkward, it’s about pushing boundaries; claiming that being socially awkward – or defending someone on the grounds that they’re just awkward – means that we shouldn’t be so hard on them becomes about excusing their behavior and helping them put pressure on women to tolerate that behavior.
That is, people will use “Oh, he is/I am just awkward, so really you shouldn’t be upset that he violated your boundaries or did things that were wildly inappropriate” as a defense when people point out just how creepy, inappropriate our out of bounds a person’s actions were. In the example I gave in the column, a guy developed a crush on a cashier at Hot Topic and tracked her down on Facebook in order to try to get a date — ignoring not just her soft “no’s” (she ignored him until he poked at her again, at which point she wanted to know how the hell he found her personal account) but the fact that tracking down people you don’t know on social media is creepy as hell. Whether he intended to or not, the message he was sending was “I should be allowed to press my case for us dating despite the fact that you’ve never shown any interest.”
People were defending him for “not knowing better” or “just being a little awkward”, and that clearly she should give him a break. Except it wasn’t about his being awkward. It was about the fact that he was stalking someone he decided he was in love with, despite her not giving him so much as the time of day.
In other words, what he was saying was that his interest in dating her overrode her interest in not talking to him. The fact that he took the extra step of tracking her down by getting access to information she hadn’t given him permission to have made it worse. It says that he’s willing to put effort into ignoring her boundaries. That’s not him showing how devoted he is or how deep and abiding his affection is, that’s him demonstrating just how easily he can track her down. If he’s willing to plow past things like “no, not interested” AND he’s going to seek her out using information that she never gave him, what else is he going to do if he decides he doesn’t like her answer?
And that misread — along with other things in your letter — that makes me wonder if you’re not missing more of why I wrote that column.
Case in point: your first question. Now in fairness, maybe you just worded it awkwardly. However, the way you wrote it makes it sound like you’re more concerned about avoiding the consequences of being creepy rather than not making other people feel uncomfortable. And honestly, when it’s paired with “often resulting in me being subject to numerous complaints to school officials and authorities,” I have to wonder if you’re not getting just what the problem is. It makes you sound as though you’re less worried about how your actions have made other people feel and more about what it means for you, personally.
It also doesn’t help that your first question is fundamentally unanswerable beyond “it depends”. There are so many factors involved that it’s impossible to give a hard and fast answer to what actions will get you into trouble with the authorities. Your concern shouldn’t be “what’s going to get me into legal/disciplinary trouble”, it’s “what am I doing that’s making people feel so uncomfortable or threatened that they felt they had to report me to someone.”
If this has happened multiple times and you still haven’t learned to not do the thing that got you into trouble, then I think you’ve got bigger issues than a loudmouth with an advice column can answer.
As for your second question: yes, not being able to read the room can make you be creepy by accident. I’ve written about exactly why this behavior can bother people on many occasions, with many different examples and explanations and you should read those. The short version, however, is that things like ‘ignoring somebody’s disinterest’, ‘invading their personal space’, ‘displaying unwanted sexual interest’ or ‘talking about inappropriate topics’ can all be signs of predatory behavior. While these can be the result of misunderstandings or not reading the room, they can also be signs of someone testing boundaries and seeing just what they can get away with before the other person puts up any resistance. It can also be an indicator that they’re willing to ignore somebody’s boundaries and discomfort; if they’re willing to ignore that someone isn’t interested in talking to them or that they’re making somebody feel uncomfortable, what other things are they willing to ignore? How many other “no’s” are they willing to ignore if they want something?
Now, telling people “hey, just FYI, I have a hard time reading signals, so I would appreciate if you were blunt and direct with me” is a good idea. Letting folks know what you need for clear communication, especially if it means that you and they are going to be on the same page, is a good idea and something that folks should put into practice. I know plenty of people who’ve had issues understanding subtleties or implied messages; after they got over the initial awkwardness of admitting that they didn’t understand, they had a much better time overall. They got in the habit of asking for clarification and making sure they were understanding what the other person was saying and, as a result, had far fewer problems communicating with folks. I’m a big believer in normalizing using your words, even if it feels like something you “should” be able to grasp. If you don’t know or don’t understand, no amount of “but you SHOULD understand it” is going to change that. Better to have a brief moment of awkwardness where you ask for clarity than to proceed on incorrect information.
Question 4 is a great example of this. You’ve worded this awkwardly, and it sounds like you may have misunderstood what you’d been told. If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re talking about how women are socialized to prioritize not making a scene or causing people — especially men — discomfort or inconvenience and this may lead to them being less direct or clear when communicating with people, or may even do things that they’d prefer not to do. Assuming that I’m understanding you, then yes: women are frequently taught from a young age that they should put other people’s priorities and comfort ahead of their own, even when it inconveniences them. This has lead to issues like not feeling like they could say “no” to being asked for favors, or even turning someone down directly when asked for a date. This is where soft “no’s” often enter the picture, where a person will not say “no” directly but will instead give a socially plausible reason why they can’t do something. The “can’t” part is important, because it softens the refusal; it’s not a rejection, it’s that things are just not going to line up the way they would need to and it’s nobody’s fault.
The way that you deal with this is two-fold. First: you invite the “no”, if you’re not sure someone would be interested. This is something I tell folks to do when, say, they’re letting a platonic friend know that they’re interested in the possibility of a romantic or sexual relationship: make it clear that the other person can say “No” if they’re not interested and it won’t make them upset or ruin the friendship. So in this case it would be “Hey, I love what we have together and I would never want to lose that, but lately my feelings have been changing and I wanted to know if yours had been too. If you’re interested, I’d love to take you on a date and see if there’s more between us than just friendship. It’s totally ok if the answer is ‘no’ or that you’re not interested; if that’s the case, we’ll just drop the subject and we can keep being friends.”
Secondly, you want to focus on getting a “yes” instead of not getting a no. If you have a hard time reading signals, then if someone isn’t giving you a solid and unambiguous ‘yes’, then it’s safer to assume that what they’re really saying is ‘no’. If they know you well enough to know that you have a hard time reading signals — or, getting back to question #3, you told them about this — then they will know to be clear and direct with you, one way or the other.
However, question 5 gets right back into the “I think you’re a little too focused on YOU” issue. While you may not be intending this, it certainly sounds like what you’re looking for is a way of getting out of trouble when your behavior harmed others. Part of the problem with the way you’ve framed the issue is that it gets very close to the way that some folks will excuse sexual assault or sexual harassment: they didn’t say “no” clearly enough or at all, so clearly you weren’t at fault.
Part of the trouble with this question is that there are a lot of behaviors and boundaries that we take as being understood — things that most of us were taught in kindergarten or grade school. Ask for permission before taking things or touching people; if you realize you’re making people uncomfortable, then apologize and stop doing that behavior; avoid talking about certain topics in some places, especially when other folks have indicated that talking about those things make them uncomfortable. Don’t persist in talking to folks who aren’t interested in talking to you.
If you’re consistently having issues with behavior that makes people uncomfortable to the point that the authorities get involved, then you need to put a lot more time in understanding what behaviors you need to stop fucking doing than worrying about whether “well she didn’t clearly communicate her boundaries” is your “get out of consequences free” card. Because here’s the thing: while folks can and should be in the habit of stating and enforcing their boundaries, if you violate them then that’s on you. And if you’re doing so consistently, then either you aren’t paying attention enough to learn or you don’t seem to care. This is especially true if you’re only violating the boundaries of, say, women you’re attracted to and not the boundaries of people in positions of authority over you. If that’s the case… well, then it’s not that you can’t read the signs, it’s that you’re doing so selectively.
And that’s a much bigger problem than worrying about whether someone’s giving you a soft no or not.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
So, I have a weird problem for you and I don’t know if it’s in your wheelhouse or not.
I (27/F) am married and in an ENM/polyamorous relationship. My husband (26/M) and I both have partners in addition to one another. Before now, things were pretty good; my husband, my boyfriend and I had something of a kitchen table poly relationship going on, while my husband didn’t have a committed partner but a string of people he was sleeping with. Most of them weren’t serious and didn’t really fit into the dynamic we’d set up. We’d try, but since he was more interested in a series of short-term relationships that were more about sex than commitment, they rarely stuck around for long. This could be a bit awkward when they were clearly not comfortable with other people knowing their business (and one person who got very angry to find out he wasn’t cheating on me with her) but we made it work.
Well, it worked until his latest girlfriend (29-ish/F). We’ll call her Emerald or E for short. E was the first time that my husband got serious with somebody besides me and this is a problem.
I’ll be clear: my husband is (was? I’ll explain) my primary partner. I love my boyfriend, don’t get me wrong, but my husband is the man I built a life with. I thought that we were on the same page: that this was an addition to our relationship, not an “instead of”. Then E enters the picture. My husband is smitten with her in a way I’ve never seen with anyone else. He’s deep in the NRE and can’t stop talking about how amazing she is, how fun she is, how smart, how gorgeous and how great in bed. I have to be honest: it kind of hurts to constantly hear about how great she is (and the implication that I’m not, because he doesn’t talk about ME this way to people) but I understand how the NRE feels. So I try to let it go.
But E actively encourages this. In fact, E seems to be trying to sabotage my relationship and I hate how paranoid and crazy this makes me sound. Except I’m not the one who even noticed it at first. It was my boyfriend who brought it to my attention and now I can’t NOT see it.
Here’s an example: when we’re all together, E goes out of her way to undermine my relationship with my husband. She inserts herself into discussions about our relationship and gives her two cents in ways that make me sound unreasonable. And the problem is that my husband uses this against me ALL THE TIME.
I’m not going to say that our relationship was perfect before E came along. We’ve had our ups and our downs but we’ve come through most of it. I say most because… well, I’m the responsible one in the household. We’ve had a lot of issues early on in the relationship where he ruined his credit score by defaulting on a lot of important bills, even going pretty heavily into debt because he’s bad with managing money. He’s got a good job that pays well, but he doesn’t think much past the moment. He spends the money almost as soon as he gets it without any real regard to things like rent and bills. I’ll come home and he’ll have a new game console or something but the electric bill is past-due. So I’m stuck in the position of being the one who spoils all of his fun, because I have to remind him that he can’t buy the latest gadget he read about on some gear blog that caught his eye because we have to cover rent that week.
(We have separate accounts for precisely this reason, plus a joint one that we contribute to for household expenses. I’ll give you three guesses who puts more money in the expenses account and why.)
When we’re all hanging out together and my husband mentions some new thing he wants to do or trip he wants to take or whatever, I have a choice. I can either gently remind him that this isn’t in the budget (even allowing for the shared account) or I can bite my tongue and not say anything. If I don’t say anything then E encourages him to get it or do it, especially if she can take part. “You only live once, you know” she’ll say or talk about how this would be a good bonding experience for them. If I mention the money issue, E will chide me for being too serious or not letting my husband have his space.
Similarly, she will make plans that interfere with plans I have with him — including important plans, ones that we’ve had for years before she was even in the picture. Like, she got angry at me because I was “interfering with her date night” with my husband because she just “happened” to schedule it on the same day as our anniversary. A date that she knew was coming up because we’d mentioned it before AND it was in our calendar. If we’re on a date night for just us, she’ll text him CONSTANTLY. And I know she’s been telling him about how “bad” I am for him because as much as I love him he can’t keep a secret to save his life and accidentally brings it up if we’re disagreeing about something.
Lately she’s been telling me, ME, how I’ve been failing as a partner and wife for my husband to my face and what I should be doing differently. She’ll cite some book she read or some podcast she listened to like she’s an authority on the subject (she’s not) and of course, my husband eats it up with a spoon. She implies (or outright states) that she knows him better than I do, when she and my husband have been together for less than four months, when he and I have been together for YEARS. Lately she’s been lecturing me about all the ways I was falling down in my “duties” as his wife and what I should be doing differently. Sorry, did I say “lecture” I meant “giving friendly advice”. Just telling me all the ways she knows my husband’s needs better than me in the name of “being helpful”.
Of course, I can’t bring this up to my husband because if I do, then I’m just “being jealous” or because I have “less experience at being poly” than E does. It doesn’t matter that E’s last relationship ended in an incredibly ugly and protracted break up because (according to everyone who was around for it) she’s an incredibly controlling and domineering “do as I say, not as I do” type. That got so ugly that even her husband eventually threw her out over it, especially after she kept interfering in HIS attempts to date too.
(I should point out that her husband was that poly-under-duress thing that Dan Savage talks about. Poly for her, but she kept vetoing all HIS partners so he never had one that lasted longer than a week)
It doesn’t help that she does things that I don’t ask for or even want, because “she’s just trying to help” or “thought we needed this”, which just means that my husband takes her side when I point out how much she’s been disrupting OUR relationship. I can’t be upset at her because look at what she’s doing and i should be more grateful.
I feel like I’m losing my mind, Doc. I swear that she has all but said directly “I’m his REAL partner, not you” but I can’t bring this up to my husband because he doesn’t see it. At all. It hurts me to hear about how amazing she is and what she’s said and how she said this and that and the other thing and I can’t say anything about it. We agreed early on that we weren’t going to do the “primary has veto power” thing because that’s not fair but I feel like I’m stuck with someone in my polycule that’s actively trying to push me out and I don’t know what to do.
Help me, Dr. Nerdlove, you’re my only hope.
The Other Other Woman
I can’t say for certain whether she’s trying to take your place as your husband’s primary partner, TOOW, but it definitely sounds like she’s trying to undermine your relationship with him. Maybe she’s the “relationship anarchy” type who thinks that thinks that having primaries is wrong and she’s trying to enforce her view of things. Maybe she’s just a toxic controlling person and sees you as competition for your husband’s time and attention. Hell, maybe she’s hoping to push you out of the relationship entirely and take your place.
We can speculate wildly as to why, but honestly? The “why” doesn’t matter. “Why”, in this case, would give you insight to her motivation… but her motivation isn’t the issue here. Her actions are, and her actions are saying that she doesn’t respect you or your relationship to your husband and she’s treating you with active disrespect under the most charitable of readings. And honestly your husband isn’t covering himself in glory either.
Part of the problem is that your husband is allowing this to happen. I don’t know if your kitchen-table poly arrangement is a “all part of the chosen family” thing or if it’s more of a “we all hang out together regularly instead of having relationships that are entirely separate from our other relationships”, but she’s his girlfriend; by all rights, he’s the person who should be establishing the boundaries with her. He should be the one to say “hey, maybe don’t blow up my phone when I’m having a date with my wife” or to remind her that they can’t go out because it’s your wedding anniversary and you already have plans.
But he’s not. And I suspect that, as you said, part of it is the New Relationship Energy. Whether someone’s poly or not, when they’re with a new partner, their brain starts producing oxytocin and dopamine at an elevated rate. These hormones go straight to the pleasure centers of the brain and make you feel amazing; you are quite literally getting high off being around them. It’s why everything about a new partner is incredible and remarkable; even the way they chew their food is adorable.
Unfortunately, NRE also means that you’re more likely to miss — or ignore — giant freaking red flags because who wants to interrupt the all-expenses-paid love trip they’re on? So, to a certain extent, there’s a motivation to… overlook, shall we say… certain things that might put a halt to those amazing feelings. It’s like the old Percy Sledge song; he’ll turn his back on anyone who says she’s trouble.
It also certainly doesn’t help that she’s the new hotness; she’s like the shiny new toy that’s caught his eye and he’s going to be focused on that for a while.
However, that’s only part of it. The other part is… well, it’s like you said: you’re the Serious One. The Funwrecker. The person who throws ice water on his dreams of owning some new cool gadget or device. It doesn’t matter that, y’know, he’s got a habit of blowing through his budget on stuff and not having enough to cover his end of the bills. That makes sense logically, sure… but logic ain’t here right now, emotion is and emotionally, this feels like you’re cockblocking him from the latest Apple product or something. Meanwhile, since E isn’t paying the bills and isn’t in danger of getting evicted, she can be The Cool One. The devil on his shoulder that says “yeah, you can have the thing you want, ignore the old fuddyduddy who doesn’t get it.”
This, needless to say, ends up being another reason to not see anything going wrong. It’s not necessarily something he’s consciously aware of. I don’t think he’s thinking “yeah, E lets me get all the stuff I want, I’m going to side with her over TOOW”, I think that he’s going be inclined to look more favorably the person who’s currently his primary source of dopamine. All that NRE ends up like a filter that just blurs away the hard edges of her behavior and makes it less of an issue to him.
So that’s what’s working against you. What should work in your favor is… well, presumably the love and affection and respect you two have for one another. So, for that matter, should the history that you two share. While years together of going through the ups and downs of married life isn’t necessarily a guarantee that your husband is going to snap out of this and realize that your relationship is more solid and enduring than the one he has with hers (God knows folks have left spouses of decades for people they’ve known for months or even weeks), it should give more weight to your end of things.
Now part of what’s going on is that E is trading on your politeness. She’s doing things that seem generous or thoughtful on the surface because it makes it harder to accuse her of anything. It’s like how toxic people will insult their friend “for their own good” or “telling you the truth because nobody else will and I care”. She’s trusting you to not make a fuss because you’re trying to be “reasonable” because how can you be mad at someone who’s trying to help or giving you gifts? It sounds like she’s the passive-aggressive flavor of DARVO when it comes to conflict — that is, Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. She does things in the name of “just being helpful” because if you tell her to knock it off or lay into her about how she’s interfering in your relationship, she can flip the script and insist that you’re interfering with hers and look at how generous and giving she’s been and she’s tried so hard to connect with you and you just throw it back in her face. Now you’re on the defensive and having to justify your feelings and how they’re not an attack while she acts the part of the offended party.
So what do you do? Well, to start with: you get ready to stop being reasonable. Enforcing your boundaries with her over her “I’m just trying to help” is a good start. Whether it’s doing you favors you didn’t ask for or giving you unsolicited advice, it’s time to tell her you don’t want it, you don’t need it and you certainly didn’t ask for it. The fact that she was trying to do something for you doesn’t obligate you to accept it, nor do you need to sit there and listen. Saying “thank you but we don’t want this/need this” when she gives something or saying “thank you, but I didn’t ask for/don’t want your opinion” cuts her off at the knees. She can try to play to the crowd, as it were, by trying to make you out as being unreasonable, but if you refuse to explain or justify things, she has far less to work with. When all you say is “thank you, but no,” and refuse to be put on the defensive, you make it much harder for her to shift the argument to how you are doing things to her.
However, she’s not the person you need to focus on here. Your husband is. Like I said: if you are his primary — and I presume you still are — then it’s really on him to recognize that and respect that. Part of the way you can address this is to point out the ways that she doesn’t seem to be respecting your relationship with him. Framing it as “disrespect” is far more likely to reach past his NRE haze than saying “I think she’s trying to push me out of our relationship”. While the latter may be true — God knows she’s acting like she’s trying to take charge — it’s still the sort of thing that sounds more like the plot to a mid-90s thriller than real life. Disrespect, on the other hand, is a much easier lift to make. It’s easier to accept, and, critically, easier to project himself into. “How would you feel if $BOYFRIEND texted me constantly while you and I were out on a date?” “How would you feel if $BOYFRIEND was always making plans that interfered with our date nights?”
Now to be clear: this can still be an uphill climb. It’s easier for him to see your concerns as being jealous or reading into things that aren’t there; after all, you’re emotionally involved here. Whether he comes to that conclusion on his own or E nudges him towards it, it’s an all-too easily scenario to see. What may help more is if this information comes from a less-invested third party. Say, another guy.
Like, and I’m just spitballing here, your boyfriend. He’s the one who pointed it out to you in the first place, so clearly, he’s perceptive enough to pick up on this. The three of you have your kitchen-table poly arrangement going on, so presumably he’s close enough to your husband to talk about these things with him. If that’s the case, having him pull your husband aside and go “dude, this isn’t cool” may mean that your husband will be more receptive to hearing it than he might be from you.
(Also, and I hate to say this, it may play more into some of the systematic sexism we all get raised in. Your husband may take it more seriously if it comes from another man than he would hearing it from a woman.)
Regardless, you’re going to have to remain calm and less reactive than you feel. Again, it’s sexist, but getting emotional about this plays into her hands; it lets her flip things and pretend to be the well-meaning victim. Sure she may have overstepped her boundaries but she was just trying to help and you’re being so mean. The less you react, the less you give her to work with and the less you give for her to use against you with your husband.
But at the end of the day, it’s going to come down to how your husband feels. If he’s still in it to win it with you, then hopefully the infatuation’ll pass and he’ll recognize that she’s causing drama. However, if he’s checked out of the relationship… well, then there’s not really much you can do.
So, gray-rock E and see if your boyfriend’s willing to broach the subject with your husband. Hopefully that’ll help bring him to his senses and make it that much easier to kick this particular cuckoo out of the nest before she does it to you.