In my piece on how not to be a creeper, I made a point that today I’d like to expand on just a little; I’ll explain why in a bit. Here’s the point:
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 apparently has struck some to be dreadfully unfair, with the implication being that other people responding to folks (usually men) as creepers when in fact they’re trying to make an effort to be charming and witty and fun (or whatever) is some sort of special case in the interaction of human beings, and that such mismatches between intent and reception hardly ever happen in other situations.
To which my response is: you have got to be kidding me. Outside of the realm of possible potential creepiness, you don’t get to choose how other people respond to you, either. In any context. Indeed, regardless of your efforts to present yourself in a certain way, it is almost certain you will come across to some other people as not that way at all, and possibly the opposite of that way entirely.
Let me, as I so often do for matters such as this, use myself as a good anecdotal example. You know, generally I try to be amusing; some people don’t find me amusing in the least. I try to write engaging books; there are people who can’t stand my writing. I often speak up on issues that are of concern to me; there are people who wish I would shut up about them, including some folks who are nominally on my side of an issue. I try to be pleasant with people; to some people I come across as insufferable, glib or insincere. I try to be open and upfront about most of my opinions; some people see that as me being an arrogant asshole. And so on.
I’m not gonna lie, here: I don’t really see myself as a glib, unamusing asshole who writes awful books and doesn’t know when to shut up. But despite my best efforts not to be any of those things, there will be people who think at least one (and possibly all) of those things about me. Because in their heads, that’s how they see me. It doesn’t mean they’re having a psychotic break with reality. There’s enough room for variation in basic human interaction for this sort of thing, even before you add in everyone’s own personal life experience to the mix — their own personal reasons for thinking a person acting like I do might be glib rather than pleasant, as an example.
What can I do when I try to be [x], and I come off as not[x] to some other person? In the very short run, not much of anything. People are going to respond to me the way they’re going to respond to me, for all the reasons they have that response. I’m not going to know all those reasons unless I try to engage them in a Quest for Context, which may not be convenient or appropriate at the time. I’m best off accepting that to them, that’s how I’ve come across.
The next thing I can do is ask myself, well, do they have a point? Am I being glib/unamusing/an asshole? Because sometimes they’re right and I am wrong. In which case, fair enough. I’ve learned something and will work to fix my behavior. Note that this requires a certain amount of personal honesty and willingness for critical self-examination that everyone says they have but lots of people actually don’t. On the other hand, If I decide they don’t have a point, then I generally chalk it up to people having differences of opinion and let it go.
What I don’t generally do is demand that the other party see it my way and believe that if they don’t then there’s something wrong with them. One, who has the time, and two, I’m not sure it’s really important that everyone respond to me in precisely the same way.
(If one does have time and the other party has an interest, one could talk to them about the variance and see where the disconnect is. But sometimes one party or the other doesn’t have that interest or time; that’s fine too. If one does that, however, one probably shouldn’t do it with the underlying thesis of “let’s discover why you’re so very wrong in your opinion about me and how we can fix that.” Most other people won’t sign up for that.)
Bottom line here: Your self-image is not the same as the image of you others receive. People will often see you entirely differently than you want them to. No one’s required to see you the way you see yourself, and you probably can’t make them do that even (or often especially) if you try. If you try to insist that they must, the likelihood of you coming across as petulant and unpleasant rises significantly.
So, no, in this respect, some people (often women) seeing other people (often men) as creepers when those other people are trying to be interesting and engaging and fun is not actually an unusual reaction dynamic at all. What is different about the creeper scenario is that there is very often a physical and psychological dynamic that has threatening possibilities to it. Which to my mind makes it more important for people to realize in that situation that they don’t have the ability to dictate how others respond to them, and to accept that as part of the ground rules going in.
One final point: If your takeaway from all the above is to think “If I can’t control how other people respond to me, then I’m relieved of my duty to be concerned about how I come across,” then you’re doing it wrong. People may respond to you differently than you intend; you should still make an effort not to be a grasping, self-centered assbag. In my experience, being a grasping, self-centered assbag is one of the very few times where how you present yourself is exactly how other people see you, every time, without exception.