When a person (or group of people) makes us uncomfortable in some way that is not openly harmful or violent, they are being “creepy.” This subject is not very well fleshed out, however; lines are drawn between violence and nonviolence, between harm and non-harm, but “creepiness” and other kinds of foggier, less obvious discomforts can also ruin people’s ability to enjoy their surroundings. This word has become pretty common; a lot of people experience “creepiness” quite often. So why aren’t we talking about it more?
The fact that creepy behavior isn’t generally an open, above-board issue means that there’s comparatively little discussion about how it happens, how to put a stop to it, and – most importantly – how to address the [sometimes unaware] source of the creepy behavior and get their cooperation in resolving the issue. How are we supposed to deal with creepy behavior if we can’t come up with a good framework and explanation for it?
This is, by definition, a gray area – but there are some very important characteristics that often make up creepy behavior that are not unclear at all. Let’s start there:
Lack of appreciation for refusal of consent. Ohhhh, this is a big one. A huge one. Very often, especially in romantic or sexual contexts, this is the main component of creepy behavior. And I say “lack of appreciation…” because the behavior of somebody who is “just” creepy and not openly violating anybody will often reveal, in little ways, that they don’t really, truly respect the boundaries others have put up. You know – those people who, even when they have gotten ‘no’ as an answer and have scaled back much of their initial behavior, still test and nudge. They try to see what little things they can get away with – often as a prelude to trying out bigger and bigger things. That is literally the dictionary definition of “creep.” And it’s disgusting, unacceptable behavior, no matter how insignificant it seems.
Lying and other dishonest / shifty behavior. Many lies and half-truths don’t actually end up hurting anyone seriously, of course – which is why this is perfect creep territory. Creepy people not only hide their true intentions; they also make it difficult for others to figure out their bullshit. Often, creepy people will tangle up a conversation in something minuscule or unimportant, like the definition of a specific word or some observation they have about something obscure that you may have mentioned – and you find yourself thinking, “what the hell are they driving at?” Even when there is no outright lying going on, creepy communication makes it harder, not easier, to reach understanding: you end up feeling like rather than understanding more, you are getting unnecessarily confused and sidetracked (as opposed to “necessary confusion,” when there is a clear misunderstanding, as opposed to an unclear one). And yes, the source of the creepy behavior may have no idea – it often shakes out that way, especially when such a person is themself too confused or deep in their own head to interact coherently with those around them. Sometimes a person’s [unintentional] shiftyness occurs because they are not in touch with their own truth. Unfortunately, this often doesn’t make their behavior any less creepy.
Subtle coercion and micro-pushiness. The shifty behavior I just described becomes a whole lot more creepy when the person is also requesting something and somehow making you feel guilty or embarrassed that you aren’t immediately comfortable complying with the request. Creeps often find ways to make you feel ashamed about your own discomfort, as though your unsettledness, rather than their creepiness, is what is messing things up. And of course all this is done in such a way that there is no official way that you can tell the person off for any specific harmful behavior – because the behavior is still safely within the gray realm of creepland. But that doesn’t mean we should give up calling out bullshit when we find it. I, for one, lived a good deal of my earlier life in coercive, passive-aggressive environments, and thus I have a zero-tolerance policy for guilt-tripping and emotional coercion. I make it very clear: you either cut that behavior out right away or I am done. I wish more people could follow this example.
Remaining in spaces where you are not welcome. Anybody who has ever felt uncomfortable about government surveillance (or any other kind of unsolicited surveillance) knows what this kind of creepiness feels like. But it goes right down to the personal level: It’s as simple as, for example, when one person says to another “leave me alone,” and the other person does not comply. Or it could be a group of people that share something in common – a racial, sexual, or class identity for example – meeting together outside the presence of others that don’t belong to their group, BUT there’s always those outsiders who just must be there, who just must participate, even when the space is not meant for them. Ok, sure, they don’t say or do anything harmful, so you can’t call them violent, right? It’s often hard even to convince people that such provocateurs are “disruptive.” But damn straight, at the very very least, they are being reeeeally creepy, and that creepiness is at best disruptive, and well on its way to becoming oppressive if not immediately dealt with.
Making assumptions. This could be called the most common kind of creepiness, because it happens so often. It’s so easy to make assumptions. And let me be clear: it’s not wrong to find yourself entertaining judgmental or presumptive thoughts – this will involuntarily happen all the time. If you see a really big, muscular man with ripped clothing and visible tattoos walking around outside carrying a knife in his hand, well … you might have some thoughts about that! The trouble happens when we take these thoughts (which often aren’t quite so obvious or flagrant as the example I just gave) and [usually subconsciously] codify and incorporate them into our behavior – something we can’t always help. Social forms of discrimination such as racism can be incredibly creepy, specifically because of how much of it is not out in the open. Moreover, a lot of passive, covert, less obvious discrimination gets labeled as tolerable, acceptable behavior; it camouflages itself within the cloak of “preference” or “tendency” or “circumstance,” thus making it difficult to dredge up the underlying assumptions that indeed are being made all the while – assumptions that very much motivate how we behave.
And in fact the creepiness goes deeper than just being directed at others: Those that are self-aware and catch themselves making such assumptions often feel how unpleasantly creepy their own subconscious assumptions are. They might ask themselves things like “was I really actually thinking in that way?” Or “how in the world did I end up saying/doing what I said/did?” It’s a bitter-tasting lesson in creepology when you find yourself implicated in your own act of assumption creep – which happens to all of us at some point or another.
Denying or downplaying that one’s behavior causes discomfort. This is probably the least outright creepy behavior described here in this article, as at first glance it seems pretty straightforward. The trouble is, someone who cannot / refuses to recognize how they bother other people does not automatically disappear thereafter. Usually, their presence remains, along with the history they have. And again – just like with the other examples, it’s quite easy to declare that they haven’t done anything wrong. They just disagree, right? People have a right to disagree, of course! But then, you see, this isn’t just any old disagreement; it’s a denial of other people’s experiences. When one refuses to acknowledge another’s discomfort (or makes claims that others are “oversensitive” or “overreacting”) it basically communicates to other people that their feelings and experiences don’t actually matter – that according to the person denying/downplaying the impact of their behavior, your feelings and how you perceive things may not be worth full consideration. Such people are often particularly creepy because they very often don’t always dismiss your feelings – at times you’ll feel like you’re having a healthy interaction with them. But you never know when they’ll arbitrarily decide that no, actually you shouldn’t feel / have no right to feel what you are feeling. The truth is, what you feel is never wrong. Don’t let any sneaky wackjob convince you otherwise.
The positive response: clarity and communication
Creepiness persists because it often takes a good hunk of time and brainpower to get at the rot underneath the varnish. But you know what? It’s really important that we talk about this more, because the effects of creepy behavior can often be just as far-reaching as more obviously harmful behavior, especially since so much creepy behavior passes for healthy and unharmful interaction. People’s lives get constrained and boxed in by the opportunities they miss when they are made to feel uncomfortable – and the more we tolerate creepiness, the more people are likely to later on find themselves ensnared in situations they didn’t actually ask for.
The positive side to all of this is the following: when somebody is not creepy, they are listening. They are present, in touch with the world around them, aware of other people, in addition to being aware that they may not be seeing everything. They are open to new perspectives. They are in touch with themselves, but not so self-obsessed that they impose their wants and points of view onto others. They care about how they relate to the world around them, and they show this by attempting to communicate clearly and meet other people’s understanding. If there is a lack of understanding or they are uncomfortable or angry, they don’t use the misunderstanding against other people, and they make sure not to use their discomfort and anger as a passive-aggressive tool to get people to do what they want.
I also want to add something very important: there is nothing wrong with speaking up if you feel uncomfortable by how someone is behaving in some way. If we want a better, more positive society, we desperately need to take away any stigma associated with saying “I’m not ok with this.” Those awful situations in which coercion and abuse happen have usually gotten there because of this stigma – because most of us receive a lot of encouragement in life to not complain, to not bother people with our discomforts, to not “spoil the fun.” That has to change. We have to change how we orient to these things.
Don’t take it personally if you are asked to change your behavior. Creepiness thrives in those places where people are told “oh, it’s not a big deal, don’t worry, don’t overthink things, don’t be oversensitive” and other such stuff. We need to make room for people to feel comfortable asking for something in a given interaction to change. Of course, if you are uncomfortable with the request made, there has to be room to talk about that also. But when there is an automatic aversion to even talking about our discomforts, we give creepy behavior a place to fester.
Discomfort will always happen – it’s unavoidable. The question is, would you prefer it to be a lingering, intangible, hard-to-get-at discomfort that you can’t talk about and have no control over, or would you rather it be clear and out in the open, such that you and those around you have a chance to actually work out a resolution?