Upon hearing about the most recent accusations of sexual impropriety against a celebrity scientist, I noticed several things in the accuser’s comments which sounded familiar. He was accused of “not getting hints,” of being “oblivious,” of refusing hugs, and of being “awkward.” What was absent from the testimonies was actual sexual behavior or speech.
Because of the sensationalism of the current case, this seems the appropriate time to address this issue; however, nothing in this article should be taken as referential of any celebrity case or the veracity of any claims addressed in the media.
This article is about power of the application of the word creepy and what it means for those who are at the receiving end of that label.
A Standardized Definition of “Creepy”
Before reading further, if you would, take a pause and think for a moment about what you would consider creepy.
Here’s how dictionary.com defines creepy:
And when I asked some friends, several described specific behaviors: mistreating children or animals, following someone or lurking in the shadows, staring too much while talking, having eyes that linger too long, and knowing more information about a person than he/she has told the creeper, etc. Many stated or implied that lewd, uninvited sexual gestures or speech were creepy.
Most, though, described creepy in terms of feelings. They used words like “heebie-jeebies,” “palpable” sense of “sinister” intentions, a “blurred sense of consent/boundaries,” and “an intense feeling of dread when the person is around.” Almost everyone used the words “sense” or “feel(ing).”
Dictionary.com used the words “obnoxious” and “weird.”
Perception: Reliable or Not?
Though I couldn’t find it for citation, I remember reading a journal years ago which indicated that a majority of victims of sexual assault reported having a bad feeling about their attackers before the attack happened. To my recollection, this was a study conducted on people who were attacked by strangers.
Using my friends’ definitions, or dictionary.com’s definitions, most require some form of interpretation, even of the intentions of a behavior. Most of the sinister, aggressive, threatening, or demeaning sleights committed against us are subtle in nature and come with plausible deniability. They are passive-aggressive in nature, with the burden of proof being on the accuser. Calling out those behaviors comes with the risk of being doubly victimized if others don’t believe the claim.
Reacting to Differences v/s Reacting to Threats
Our innate nature is to empathize most with those who are most like us and to fear or reject differences. What would be incredibly “creepy” from one person might be welcomed and flattering from another. It would be hard for anyone to deny that demeanor, familiarity, charisma, age, race, socioeconomic status, and social norms are factors in how we perceive another’s behavior.
When we are in the presence of someone new, we humans tend to adapt to their traits and adjust ourselves to the conversation style, personality, and mannerisms of the other. In a professional setting, we might assume more formal speech, stand with a different posture, and suppress outward displays of emotion. With a close friend, we might let down our proverbial hair, speak in slang and colloquialisms, and be our most emotionally expressive and disarmed selves.
Most people, regardless of intelligence or education, are masters of navigating these social shifts. It’s as natural and as automatic as breathing. They easily transition from one facade to another, subconsciously able to know when it’s okay to tell that one joke, who needs a hug, how the meaning of that sentence changes when the inflections of the speaker’s voice changes, and that “drop by anytime” doesn’t actually mean to drop by.
But, for some people, none of these things are intuited.
High Pressure, High Stakes
Imagine playing a video game, and if you can outlast everyone else, then there’s a large cash prize. As you progress through the levels, the music quickens and the challenges come at you faster and faster. You have to be agile, coordinating your movements with precision and making thousands of split-second decisions.
Now, imagine what your face and posture looked like in that moment. What were your eyes doing? Your eyebrows? How were you sitting? What was happening with your pulse? How was your tone? Imagine that you actually outperform everyone else, but you later learn that the true contest was to appear the most poised during the game.
As absurd and as far-fetched as that hypothetical scenario is, it’s quite similar to what it’s like to be neurodiverse in a high-stakes social environment, wherein you have to interpret where everyone actually is in their comfort level and affection with you, where their unspoken boundaries are, and what everyone means when they don’t ever say what they actually mean.
As conversations progress or more people are involved, the difficulty increases. To process so much information and interpret it so quickly becomes intensely complicated, the difficulty compounded when trying to maintain appropriate body language, facial expressions, reactions, and tone.
Studies reflect that social and emotional intelligence are responsible for up to 90% of a person’s success on a job. That leaves only 10% of the onus for career success being contingent on how skilled, educated, and qualified a person is.
And what is meant by social and emotional intelligence essentially filters down to how well a person can conform to and navigate the social norms of the ruling class.
One of the most often-cited studies regarding the nature of communication is Dr. Mehrabian’s 55-38-7 theory, in which he posits that 93% of communication, and also 93% of our impression of another person– that is, whether we like or dislike them– is based on nonverbal communication (Mehrabian, 2017).
Mehrabian goes on to explain that when someone’s words (7% of an impression) are incongruous with their body language (55%) and tone (38%), the listener is inclined to believe the tone and body language more than the spoken words.
Autism, ADHD, many genetic and developmental disorders, some learning disorders, and other invisible conditions can cause impairments and barriers in verbal and non-verbal communication. Processing speed, speech and language difficulties, asymmetrical or divergent physical appearance, and body language differences can and do often trigger an innate negative response in others.
When as much as 93% of communication is non-verbal, neurodiverse people are at a substantial, innate disadvantage.
Studies have shown, too, that those neurodiverse individuals whose symptoms are less obvious to observers are at a much higher risk of being bullied. The graph (above right), taken from the Interactive Autism Network (March, 2012), demonstrates what other studies have shown: that those autistics with average to genius level IQ were more frequently bullied.
Susan Carter suggested that students with Asperger’s were more frequently bullied because they appeared “too bright” and articulate to be given tolerance by peers (2009). He’s too smart to be that blind. She is not that oblivious; she’s faking it! I’ve seen him be graceful before…
People with autism do not outgrow their neurodiversity, and the bullying and isolation, the misunderstandings and the social difficulties follow them into adulthood.
A Sad Fact
I spoke with some neurodiverse male friends, and many related to me stories about when they have been perceived as being creepy.
Instances ranged from being accused of sexually propositioning women one man had never met, having rumors started about being a pedophile and child molester, being questioned and cuffed by police, being accused of planning school shootings, and being put on probation at work for sexual harassment for telling a woman who asked how she looked in a light-up sweater that she looked “radiant.” She told HR it was said with a creepy tone.
One man said that while simply walking, he was accosted by a stranger who thought he had “shifty eyes,” and that his slow response time was a sign of him having an attitude. He was jumped and beaten severely by a stranger and his family.
One teen, Gavin Joseph (right; before), was sitting alone at an event when some teens from his high school lured him away from the crowds. He was shielded from the public eye by a group, jumped, choked, and beaten ruthlessly. They left him bleeding on the pavement with a broken nose, a bruised esophagus, a hematoma in his eye, a badly swollen face, bruises, and a concussion.
Gavin hadn’t interacted with these people before. They just found his tendency to be alone all the time “weird and creepy.” Instead of pressing charges, Gavin asked that the teens, accompanied by their parents, watch a twenty minute video he made talking about what Autism and Asperger’s is and how it impacts people. He asked that the teens do volunteership with disabled people to learn more about disabilities.
Gavin (left; after) was different, but not creepy. He was honorable to his core. Instead of revenge or suing the people who attacked him, he did something selfless and benevolent.
As much as 93% of his peer’s communication, through body language and tone, was lost to him; however, others were reading as much as 93% more into his communication than what was actually there. You can read the full story at dailymail.com.
This kind of bullying of neurodiverse people is prevalent because their behaviors are judged according to neurotypical standards. Typing “autism and bullying” or “Asperger’s and bullying” will yield hundreds of thousands of results, including disturbing videos.
Some may remember an episode from a few years ago when rapper 50 Cent posted a video to social media harassing a teen with Asperger’s doing his job in an airport:
Should We Trust our Instincts, Then?
There is no short or easy answer for that question. Instincts are often protective, and ignoring a “bad feeling” about someone could be dangerous; however, those “bad feelings” are grounded in biases. Sometimes, a bias is protective; other times, a positive bias can be devastating. The attractive, charismatic person who was relatable may have been the most dangerous. The awkward one may have been the hero.
The same instinct that will drive chickens to peck the weakest hen of a flock to death threatens to encroach on our humanity. This instinct gives rise to feelings of supremacy and bigotry, and the effort to examine and reject unfair biases is the core of human benevolence.
We have to make a conscious decision to use reason in conjunction with our emotions to determine if our negative feelings are justified. Is someone awkward, clumsy, and perhaps socially tone deaf, or are they sinister? Do they have trouble understanding hints and recognizing unspoken boundaries, or are they fully aware and getting a kick out of toying with others?
Make no mistake, though, that intelligence is not correlated with social awareness. A person may appear charismatic and socially graceful because of learned and performative behaviors, but that doesn’t always translate to unscripted and mutually-reciprocal interactions.
If you are attempting to drop polite hints to someone neurodiverse, it’s likely they will not pick up on those hints. To the neurotypical person, for whom 93% of communication is conveyed through tone, implication, and body language, they will feel that they have communicated clearly; however, unless the message is explicitly stated with words, the neurodiverse person is likely to miss even the most obvious hints (or not realize them until later, once they have had down time to process and analyze their interactions).
This is not to encourage anyone to forego his or her instincts to an extent that they put themselves in dangerous situations; instead, I hope to implore people to educate themselves on differences– all differences– and learn to recognize that diversity itself is not a threat.
Many of us have put in the cognitive and emotional work to recognize and overcome our hidden and innate biases against people of other races, genders, religions, sexual orientations, and other marginalized populations.
Recognizing neurodiversity is not as simple because it is often invisible or undiagnosed. It’s no one’s responsibility or right to diagnose autism or other syndromes which affect social processing; however, we can choose to override our fear of colleagues, neighbors, and those we encounter based on their different mannerisms. Before we assume that someone who behaves differently has nefarious intentions, we should– without putting ourselves in dangerous circumstances– extend the benefit of the doubt to people who may not be in sync with our norms.