Feature Creep …

This is tagged with the “Overcoming Shyness” tag even though it isn’t one of my specific posts in that series because being or not being a creep is something that a lot of shy people both fear and, unfortunately, do.

Anyway, here’s a guide to not being a creeper (or, I guess, creep). It starts out defining what a creeper is:

Let’s define our terms here. Let’s say that for this particular conversation, a “creeper” is someone whose behavior towards someone else makes that other person uncomfortable at least and may possibly make them feel unsafe. A creeper may be of any gender and may creep on any gender, but let’s acknowledge that a whole lot of the time it’s guys creeping on women. Creeping can happen any place and in any community or grouping of people, but in geekdom we see a lot of it at conventions and other large gatherings.

Well, it’s nice that it tries to make it gender-neutral, but it clearly isn’t when it gets into the details or, if it is still trying to be, would fail miserably in at least a couple of places. Anyway, in my quest to point out how a lot of the rules people devise around these sorts of things don’t actually work so well if people tried to follow them — which shy people not only often try to do, but it’s also one of the best ways for them to gain the social skills they lack — I’m going to go through them all and point out the issues with them, if they have any. And some clearly do.

Let’s start with, well, the first one, just to be different:

1. Acknowledge that you are responsible for your own actions. You are (probably) a fully-functioning adult. You probably are able to do all sorts of things on your own — things which require the use of personal judgement. Among those things: How you relate to, and interact with, other human beings, including those who you have some interest in or desire for. Now, it’s possible you may also be socially awkward, or have trouble reading other people’s emotions or intentions, or whatever. This is your own problem to solve, not anyone else’s. It is not an excuse or justification to creep on other people. If you or other people use it that way, you’ve failed basic human decency.

Well, yes and no. Yes, you are responsible for your own actions, but we do generally tend to think that if someone has a particular issue that makes it harder for them to do certain things that we loosen our standards a bit for them. In this particular case, if you happen to be socially awkward and are known to be so and are known to be struggling with fixing that it would seem only reasonable for people who know that to give you some slack when you screw up, instead of, say, claiming that you are a “creeper”, which seems to imply either a deliberate attempt to make someone uncomfortable or that you’re making no attempts to learn how not to be a creep. This one seems to translate to “If you screw up, it’s your problem and that you didn’t intend it at all and are genuinely both puzzled that you did cause discomfort and apologetic for means absolutely nothing at all”. It’s the epitome of the utterly insane “If you make someone else uncomfortable, you are automatically wrong and bad” argument. Sure, you have to take responsibility for your actions, but other people have to take responsibility for their reactions. If you make a genuine mistake and didn’t intend to cause discomfort and give every indication of being sorry and will try to learn from it so as not to do that again, it’s a problem with the other person if they react with anger and not with understanding.

2. Acknowledge that you don’t get to define other people’s comfort level with you. Which is to say that you may be trying your hardest to be interesting and engaging and fun to be around — and still come off as a creeper to someone else. Yes, that sucks for you. But you know what? It sucks for them even harder, because you’re creeping them out and making them profoundly unhappy and uncomfortable. It may not seem fair that “creep” is their assessment of you, but: Surprise! It doesn’t matter, and if you try to argue with them (or anyone else) that you’re in fact not being a creep and the problem is with them not you, then you go from “creep” to “complete assbag.” Sometimes people aren’t going to like you or want to be near you. It’s just the way it is.

This is similar to 1, and has similar problems. Look, there are cases when you can, indeed, argue that you aren’t and that they are wrong, because they are reading something into your actions that isn’t there and, in some cases, that no reasonable person should think is there. If someone thinks that you are hitting on them because you ask them to pass the salt, and that you keep doing that every time you want the salt is creeping them out, the problem is not with you, but with them. And there are many closer cases where someone, say, mistakes an innocent offer of a drink with a proposition, say. So if they think you are a creep because they are making guesses at your intentions and you can prove that you don’t actually have those intentions, then yes you can indeed argue with them over that. And while it might not change their feeling that you are a creep, if you are right then the problem is theirs, not yours. Just because someone is creeped out doesn’t automatically make them right to be creeped out.

3. Acknowledge that no one’s required to inform you that you’re creeping (or help you to not be a creeper). It’s nice when people let you know when you’re going wrong and how. But you know what? That’s not their job. It’s especially not their job at a convention or some other social gathering, where the reason they are there is to hang out with friends and have fun, and not to give some dude an intensive course in how not to make other people intensely uncomfortable with his presence. If you are creeping on other people, they have a perfect right to ignore you, avoid you and shut you out — and not tell you why. Again: you are (probably) a fully-functioning adult. This is something you need to be able to handle on your own.

This is an issue over obligations. Yes, no one is obligated to tell you that you are creeping them out, but they really should … especially since they might be reading something in that isn’t there or may have eccentric views on what counts as “creepy”. But, hey, in conventions it’s easier to just avoid people you don’t like than try to explain it, since you aren’t likely to be friends already and aren’t even likely to see each other again anyway. But this goes for absolutely everything, even someone you don’t like because their voice reminds you of Fran Dresher’s. In a more tightly knit social group, like a class or having a friend of a friend join in to social outings, then this is a really, really bad way to go. You really should let them know and see how they react, if you can. Simply ostracising them won’t help them in any way, and might really hurt them — and might hurt them more than your discomfort at their creepiness.

4. Acknowledge that other people do not exist just for your amusement/interest/desire/use. Yes, I know. You know that. But oddly enough, there’s a difference between knowing it, and actually believing it — or understanding what it means in a larger social context. People go to conventions and social gatherings to meet other people, but not necessarily (or even remotely likely) for the purpose of meeting you. The woman who is wearing a steampunky corset to a convention is almost certainly wearing it in part to enjoy being seen in it and to have people enjoy seeing her in it — but she’s also almost certainly not wearing it for you. You are not the person she has been waiting for, the reason she’s there, or the purpose for her attendance. When you act like you are, or that she has (or should have) nothing else to do than be the object of your amusement/interest/desire/use, the likelihood that you will come across a complete creeper rises exponentially. It’s not an insult for someone else not to want to play that role for you. It’s not what they’re there for.

This one’s fairly good, but a lot of people who get called creeps already get that. Also note tha a lot of people who do think that don’t come across as creepy, because they learn how to get what they want from people. Shy people who are trying to get into social groups but don’t think that people are just there to be used are the ones who didn’t learn by failing because they disliked it so much because they see people as important, unlike those who treat them as toys.

5. Don’t touch. Seriously, man. You’re not eight, with the need to run your fingers over everything, nor do you lack voluntary control of your muscles. Keep your hands, arms, legs and everything else to yourself. This is not actually difficult. Here’s an idea: That person you want to touch? Put them in charge of the whole touch experience. That is, let them initiate any physical contact and let them set the pace of that contact when or if they do — and accept that that there’s a very excellent chance no touch is forthcoming. Do that when you meet them for the first time. Do that after you’ve met them 25 times. Do it just as a general rule. Also, friendly tip: If you do touch someone and they say “don’t touch me,” or otherwise make it clear that touching was not something you should have done, the correct response is: “I apologize. I am sorry I made you uncomfortable.” Then back the hell off, possibly to the next state over.

This is the first of the ones that clearly break the gender neutrality, or else it doesn’t work. Imagine that everyone, male or female, followed this rule and waited for the other person to touch first, and let the pace be settled by the other person. So, you are doing this … and so is the other person. Ergo, no one makes the first move and so touching vanishes. Nice job breaking it, hero.

So, either it’s a call to let women touch first — which ignores that they may set a faster pace than the people they are touching are comfortable with — or it’s actually logically impossible. Nice. And since touching is so crucially important to a lot of social bonding — which is why PUAs make a big deal out of anchoring — following these rules will end up with the person being considered odd or strange because they never touch anyone. Not, then, a rule that shy people ought to follow.

6. Give them space. Hey: Hold your arm straight out in front of your body. Where your fingertips are? That’s a nice minimum distance for someone you’re meeting or don’t know particularly well (it’s also not a bad distance for people you do know). Getting inside that space generally makes people uncomfortable, and why make people uncomfortable? That’s creepy. Also creepy: Sneaking up behind people and getting in close to them, or otherwise getting into their personal space without them being aware of it. If you’re in a crowded room and you need to scrunch in, back up when the option becomes available; don’t take it as an opportunity to linger inside that personal zone.

Kinda good, but the issue is that personal space actually varies with the amount available — I once actually had people feel bad walking into an empty theatre because at the time I was all alone and would have had a solo movie — and with the person and culture. Yes, violating personal space can be an issue, but I’ve had it happen to me and just moved back. Eventually, people get it, and if they don’t, tell them. Do pay attention to circumstances and context, which takes a lot more than what is said here.

7. Don’t box people in. Trapping people in a corner or making it difficult for them to leave without you having the option to block them makes you an assbag. Here’s a hint: If you are actually interesting to other people, you don’t need to box them into a corner.

Again, context. If you don’t need to box them in, don’t, but don’t panic if you happen to due to perfectly natural mechanisms (like a crowded table, or whatever). Never try to box anyone in, but don’t obsess and move around to avoid it either. If they feel boxed in, they can always ask for space or ask you to excuse them and move out of the way if they want to leave, as happens many times a day every single day everywhere in the world.

8. That amusing sexual innuendo? So not amusing. If you can’t make a conversation without trying to shoehorn suggestive or sexually-related topics into the mix, then you know what? You can’t make conversation. Consider also the possibility the playing the sexual innuendo card early and often signals to others in big flashing neon letters that you’re likely a tiresome person who brings nothing else to table. This is another time where an excellent strategy is to let the other person be in charge of bringing sexual innuendo to the conversational table, and managing the frequency of its appearance therein.

Again, context is important. Listen to conversations among real people. You’ll hear an awful lot of it. Does this mean that all of those people are tiresome and bring nothing else to the table? Of course not. It’s simply not the case that sexual innuendo is a problem generally. It becomes a problem if it’s all you do, or if it’s done at inappropriate times, or if the people you are talking to are sensitive to it. Be yourself with these things and hope to find a group that talks the same way you do. After all, you’ll be looked at funny if you slip physics jokes into inappropriate places or with a group that doesn’t care for them, so the focus on sexual innuendo is odd and seems to be coming from someone who doesn’t realize just how normal that is. It’s like my aversion to swearing, except that I realize how normal it is; I just don’t care much for it. He may not care much for it, but that doesn’t make it generally inappropriate.

Now, starting off a conversation with someone you just met with one would be a problem, but that’s one of those “inappropriate times” that I referenced before.

9. Someone wants to leave? Don’t go with them. Which is to say, if they bow out of a conversation with you, say goodbye and let them go. If they leave the room, don’t take that as your cue to follow them from a distance and show up wherever it is they are as if it just happens you are showing up in the same place. Related to this, if you spend any amount of time positioning yourself to be where that person you are interested in will be, or will walk by, for the purpose of “just happening” to be there when they are, you’re probably being creepy as hell. Likewise, if you attach yourself to a group just to be near that person. Dude, it’s obvious, and it’s squicky.

So, you’re talking to someone and they say “I want to get a coffee”, and you could use one, too, and so you say “I’ll join you”, is that wrong? Likely not. If you’ve seen someone that you find interesting, and want a chance to talk to them, and you’re told that they might be at place X later, is it wrong to head over there just in case? Again, likely not. There’s a fine line here between stalking and just doing perfectly normal things, and one that isn’t easy for people to figure out. Essentially, what people need here is to learn how to read body language and so know when the person isn’t interested in talking to you, not some hard-set rules about when you go with someone and when you stay.

10. Someone doesn’t want you around? Go away. Here are some subtle hints: When you come by they don’t make eye contact with you. When they are in a group the group contracts or turns away from you. If you interject in the conversation people avoid following up on what you’ve said. One of the friends of the person you are interested in interposes themselves between you and that person. And so on. When stuff like that happens, guess what? You’re not wanted. When that happens, here’s what you do: Go away. Grumble to yourself (and only to yourself) all you like about their discourteousness or whatever. Do it away from them. Remember that you don’t get to define other people’s comfort level with you. Remember that they’re not obliged to inform you about why they don’t want you around. Although, for God’s sake, if they do tell you they don’t want you around, listen to them.

It’s good to know when you aren’t wanted, and while I’ve messed it up in the past I do have a rule that I don’t want to be where I’m not wanted. So learning to read these signs and respecting them is a good thing. But, the people described here are jerks, and I see no reason to not grumble about it to other people. The big thing, though, is to not take this as a sign that there’s something wrong with you, necessarily. They might not like your shirt (yes, some people are that shallow). They might think you’re a creep. You might be one. As many shy people know, if this keeps happening you might have something that you need to work on, so go try to figure that out. But just because some other people are uncomfortable around you doesn’t mean that they should be, or are right about that, or that you have a problem.

And I think that sums up the whole problem with this list: it is built around the idea that if other people are made uncomfortable around you, then that’s your fault and your problem and something to be worked on, rather than perhaps it simply indicating that you and they really shouldn’t hang out together. And if shy people take the former interpretation as if it is the absolute always true truth, then it can set them back massively. So, we need to look at nuances and contexts, and understand that the creepee might be wrong or the creeper might be wrong, and figure out how to figure out who is wrong and how to fix that, even if just for interactions with other people than the creepees.

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