Unintended Ableism: On Calling Men “Creepy“9 min read

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 the recip­i­ents 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:

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 façade 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.

Communication

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. 

Unintended Ableism

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. 

________________

Carter, S. (2009). Bullying of stu­dents with Asperger syn­drome. Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing, 32(3), 145–154.
 
Mehrabian, A. (2017). Communication Without Words. In Communication Theory (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

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