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Socially Awkward Isn’t An Excuse

It’s that time of year again: convention season gets started, students go on Spring Break and we brace ourselves for a new round of stories about creepers, predators and generally shitty dating behavior. It’s Creep Week 2014: like Shark Week, except during Shark Week everyone is actually rooting for the shark. So it’s time to talk about creepy behavior, how to avoid it and what to do about it.
“It’sssss the mosssst wonderful time of the year!”

And today, I’m going to piss a lot of you off. I’m going to piss a lot of you off and I’m going to do it deliberately. Because today I’m going to take a whack at one of the greatest sacred cows on the Internet: the Socially Awkward Exception.

This is something I’ve seen over and over again whenever the topic of meeting women comes up: the plight of the guys who supposedly have been mislabeled as “creepers” when in reality they’re just socially awkward and we should all be giving them a break, maaaan.

All too often, we hear that someone who’s socially awkward should get a pass because, hey, he doesn’t know that he’s doing something wrong! He’s probably really just a nice guy! Shouldn’t she be nice to him, anyway? Or maybe she should just teach him what he did was wrong!
Sure, he stands too close, ignores signs that people don’t want to talk to him, keeps trying to give women massages and says incredibly inappropriate things to women at the drop of a hat… but he brings Chimay to the party!

Except… no. No, we shouldn’t. More often than not 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. But even when someone genuinely is socially awkward, it ultimatelydoes not matter.

Assuming you haven’t clicked away in disgust, let’s get into why social awkwardness isn’t an excuse.

The Socially Awkward Vs. Creepers
Being socially awkward is often held up as a defense against being labeled “creepy”; it’s another variation of “it’s only creepy if you’re ugly”, but with the vague hints of ableism or social justice for flavor. Almost everyone has been creeped out by someone out only to be told “Aw, he means well. He just doesn’t know any better,” or “Hey, he’s a nice guy! He does so much for us! He’s just a little awkward, you know?” There’s tremendous social pressure to look the other way, to “give him a second chance”.

Let’s run down just what makes someone creepy again:

Behaving in a manner that makes someone feel uncomfortable, unsafe or threatened.
Behaving in a manner that pushes against an individual’s boundaries – especially repeatedly.
That second one is incredibly important and forms a critical distinction: creepers and predators will frequently push against people’s boundaries in order to see what they can get away with. When they get caught, they’ll often claim to be “socially awkward” as a way of deflecting responsibility for their actions and – more importantly – putting pressure on their target to let them violate their boundaries with impunity. Many creepers will turn their actions around on their victim and make it seem as if they’re the one being unreasonable. “Hey, I was just paying you a compliment!” “I just wanted to talk to you!” “It was just a joke, geez, get a sense of humor.” “Man, don’t be so sensitive.”
“Giving out random shoulder massages to women we don’t know is how we say ‘hello’ in my country. Why do you insult my culture?”

Someone who is socially awkward, on the other hand, is someone who has issues with basic social skills. They may have acute anxiety or nervousness in social settings. They may not be used to social norms, have a hard time keeping the conversation flowing naturally, or get nervous and say the wrong thing at the worst possible time. More often than not, someone who is socially awkward has poor social calibration; they may make people uncomfortable because their behavior feels off. When someone isn’t behaving in a way that’s congruent with the social context, we get uncomfortable because they’re inadvertently signaling that something is wrong; it might be that they’re dangerous or there’s a hazard the rest of us haven’t noticed, but that “off” behavior is going to make us instinctively look for a threat.

But being anxious or socially clumsy or inexperienced isn’t the same as being creepy. Someone who is socially awkward will occasionally trip over somebody else’s boundaries by accident because they may not necessarily understand where the line is in the first place. A creeper, on the other hand, knows exactly where those boundaries are… he just doesn’t care. A socially awkward person frequently realizes that they fucked up almost as soon as the words are out of their mouth and will often freeze up or try to verbally backpedal; a creeper who is using “socially awkward” as an excuse on the other hand, will wield their supposed infraction against the other person as proof that they didn’t do anything wrong… or rely on others to do their defending for them.

In fact, we have an excellent example of this behavior. Let’s examine a recent bout of internet infamy for “awkward vs. creeper”, shall we?

“She Should Have Been Clearer”
Last month, the tale of  “FedoraBeard vs. The Hot Topic Clerk” hit the popular image sharing site Imgur and rocketed across blogs and tumblrs into Internet legend. To sum up the situation: a guy developed a crush on a clerk he saw while shopping at a Hot Topic. After getting her name from a mutual friend, he tracked her down on Facebook and proceeded to attempt to woo her… to disastrous results.
It’s a master class in what not to say…

After reading him the riot act, the worker put his conversation up online to equal parts applause for telling off a creepy guy with stalker-ish tendencies and prompting many others to excoriate her for – wait for it – not giving him a chance because he’s just a little awkward. After all, it’s not like she didn’t tell him to fuck off or anything right? She never once said “go away” or “I don’t want to talk to you”.

Except… she did. Notice the time-stamps. Her first response to him is on 2/16. She doesn’t say anything else until he prods her again a day later, and even then doesn’t respond until the next day, 2/18 … with a very curt and less than friendly message wanting to know how he found her. After three hours of no response he prods at her again, then yet again on 2/19.

The lack of response and engagement is what’s known as a “soft no”; a way of indicating a lack of interest without a direct refusal. This is something that men and women are very familiar with and use on a regular basis, not just in terms of sex and relationships but as a conversational norm. There is incredible social pressure for people – men and women – not to give a direct refusal or actually say “no”. Saying “no” directly is often seen as rude or needlessly hurtful and so we have a surprisingly complex system of refusing without actually saying “no”. In fact, a study from the University of The West of England and Loughborough University documents just how many ways we say “no” without saying the words. Women are especially socialized to be considerate of other people’s feelings – even at the expense of their own – and face greater pressure to offer a “soft no” rather than a direct refusal, as a way of sparing the feelings of others.

Now, often when dealing with stories about why this woman or the other didn’t “tell him no”, we will see people say that it’s impossible for a guy to realize he’s being refused because she didn’t say the magic words. In fact, returning to the story of FedoraBeard, we see this in the commentary on the blogs that reported the story – she didn’t say “go away”, therefore how could he have known he was unwelcome?

Except he specifically notes her silence and proceeds anyway. On 2/21 he comments on the fact that she hasn’t blocked him or shut down her profile, therefore she must be ok with this. In other words: he understands that her lack of response1  is an indication that she doesn’t want to talk to him but he has decided that these other signs – that she didn’t flee the Internet to get away from him – are a stronger indication that she’s OK with his tracking her down.

In other words: he knew exactly what she was saying, he just didn’t like the answer. This isn’t a case of being socially awkward and unfamiliar with social norms, it’s a case of him deciding that he’d rather choose the interpretation that favors his interests over hers. His desire to “worship” her trumps her desire to be left alone.

This is creepy behavior being excused as “socially awkward”.

“Just Give Him A Chance”
One of the undertones of the “he’s socially awkward” excuse is that he’s being misunderstood. That he’s harmless. He’s really a good guy… and this is why the woman maligning him should be willing to overlook the way he’s stepped all over her boundaries. Because he didn’t mean to.

Can you imagine why this argument isn’t going to go over well with women?

Here’s what’s happening when you’re telling someone that somebody deserves a second chance or should be forgiven for being awkward: it’s reframing a woman’s right to enforce her boundaries into a discussion about why the man shouldn’t be inconvenienced. He deserves a chance to convince her that no, she really does want to keep talking to him because he doesn’t want to intrude but how is he supposed to make her realize that he’s worth talking to? It is somehow inconsiderate or rude of her to enforce her boundaries because this person is actually a good guy. He’s a little weird, sure. He may have said things that are creepy, violated her personal space, followed her when she was trying to leave the conversation and otherwise ignored signs that she was uncomfortable… but he didn’t mean to. It’s just not fair for him to be treated like a potential rapist just because of other people’s bad behavior; he didn’t have anything to do with that!
“So what if other clowns hid under your bed and grabbed your ankles at night. That had nothing to do with me!”

Except it doesn’t matter. All too often women have given someone the benefit of the doubt – either because they questioned their own instincts or because of social pressure – and realized that it was a mistake to do so. Having an aversion to people who trip up against their boundaries is important because predators use boundary testing to see what they can get away with. It’s how they pick their victims – looking for people who can be pressured into going along to get along, who have a harder time making a strong objection because of the possibility that “it was an honest mistake” or because the predators are skilled at using plausible deniability to convince others to persuade their target that no, he was just being friendly!

The pressure to give someone a second chance – that they were just being awkward and the woman should just relax her boundaries a little – is telling a woman that she doesn’t have a right to establish her limits or to control who she does or doesn’t talk to. It carries the message that the right of a maybe-awkward-maybe-creepy guy to talk to her is more important than her right to feel safe and secure. It means she’s not allowed to trust her instincts and instead should either magically intuit somebody’s intentions or just let the crowd override her decisions.

And this is where excusing creepy behavior as “just being awkward” gets especially insidious.

Why Socially Awkward Isn’t An Excuse
At this point, you’re probably wondering why I’m beating up on the socially awkward. I’m not. I actually have a lot of sympathy for people who get nervous dealing with others, who may be socially inexperienced, or who otherwise have problems interacting with people. In my bad old days, I used to be one of them. My life from 6th grade through… well, most of college, honestly, was one long cringe-fest of not knowing how to talk to people, saying the wrong thing at the worst time and generally flailing around making things worse. I creeped out a lot of women and when I was starting out in the pick-up scene; I creeped out even more through my awkwardness.
Let he who can’t relate to the meme throw the first stone.

Here’s the thing about the socially awkward: they don’t want to trip over people’s boundaries. You can almost always track the exact moment they realize that they’ve done something wrong by the way they desperately try to backtrack, apologize and generally try to reassure the other person that they didn’t mean to and they’re so embarrassed and are kind of freaking out and, and, and…

You know what you don’t see? You don’t see them justifying their behavior. Or turning it around and making it about the person whose boundaries they just blew past.  They don’t rely on social pressure – either through making a scene or through other people justifying their actions for them – to make the other person submit to their demands. They don’t argue that the other person is obligated to forgive him, to give him a second chance or otherwise pretend that the awkwardness just didn’t happen. Creepers and predators rely on other people insisting that their social awkwardness is a mistake because it gives them cover. When the “socially awkward” exception is in play, other people are less likely to call him out on his creepy behavior.2 It becomes a way of isolating somebody from potential allies and tricking others – people who might otherwise object to his bad behavior and assist his target – into being complicit in his actions. The Awkward Excemption teaches other people to tolerate, even expect creepy behavior… and to forgive it because hey, “he means well.” It gives the creeper cover and allows him to continue being part of the community; he’s not “Johnny the creepy predator”, he’s “Johnny the decent guy, a little weird sometimes but harmless.”

It turns him from being a potential threat to a missing stair problem – something everyone knows about and dismisses, right up until someone slips and breaks their leg because they didn’t know to watch out for the missing stair.

And not only does it end up continuing the idea that being socially awkward is inherently creepy – and thus alienating good people who just need to work on their social skills – excusing the behavior makes it harder for the socially awkward to not be creepy by accident. See, the socially awkward want to improve. They aren’t interested in getting people to tolerate their fuck-ups, they want to not fuck up in the first place. Part of why being awkward isn’t an excuse is because, frankly, sometimes the only way you realize a line was there in the first place is because you tripped over it and landed on your face. Fucking up is part of how we learn; we know not to make the mistake again in the future and – more importantly – learn how to respond when we screw up.

Being awkward isn’t a permanent condition; it’s something you can overcome with education and practice. But getting a pass on creepy behavior doesn’t help you learn, and it’s not on other people to teach you. Being willing to own your mistakes – not to explain them away as not your fault, to make it about her failings or otherwise pretend it’s not a problem – and being able to do so with grace and sincerity is the real way you show that maybe you’re not a bad guy after all. You don’t insist that you “deserve” a second chance or the benefit of the doubt, you earn it..

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