Use your words.

One of the most common reasons that paralyses people when dealing with a creepy person, is that they are not sure whether the creepiness is intended. What if they don’t mean anything by that? What if the person is just socially awkward? The socially awkward card can also be used to justify a person’s ongoing creepiness. Poor bugger just doesn’t know how to deal with people. All we can do is put up with it, forever, until it’s pushed too far. At that point we will be entitled to wreak havoc on a person to whom we’d given no prior warning whatsoever that there was a problem.

That makes perfect sense, as long as we believe that it is iniquitous for us to ask others to change their behaviour around us, regardless of how subtle that change of behaviour may be or of how politely we ask. If we believe that anyone has the right to do anything to anyone, at any time, then of course we cannot ask a potentially-just-socially-awkward person to stop doing whatever is making us feel creeped out. Although, if everyone’s behaviour is inherently acceptable, then our asking for a change in behaviour should also be acceptable… wait, I’m probably overthinking this.

Maybe we believe that socially awkward people are incapable of learning to stop being socially awkward. That because they were socialised differently from us, or because they cannot read subtle, non-verbal clues, they are incapable of ever reaching our standards of behaviour. So we must show them consideration and respect by treating them as lesser people… wait, that doesn’t sound right either.

Maybe we cannot convey our displeasure to them because the only way we can do so is by exploding: by physically injuring them, or by kicking up such a ruckus that our entire social world would collapse around our ears. After all, it’s not as if we’re capable of expressing our needs and feelings in a calm and controlled fashion, right?

The truth of the matter is that the only way to distinguish between “someone who is just socially awkward” and someone who isn’t, is to talk the problem out. Which yes, sounds uncomfortable as hell, but that’s largely because we don’t practice it, so we don’t learn to do it right. We don’t do it because it’s uncomfortable, and it’s uncomfortable because we don’t do it. And seriously, the only way to break out of this is to do the thing.

I personally hate this sort of thing. I hate socially awkward situations with such a passion that I actually prefer when said situations reveal themselves to be asocial. So it’s not as if I don’t sympathise with anyone’s wishes to avoid social friction at all costs. But avoidance just isn’t a cure in this kind of situation. The problem needs to be addressed if it’s ever to go away.

Seriously, I can’t think of any other way, short of telepathy of some kind of psychometric testing by experts, to identify whether someone is “just socially awkward.” This is the ultimate and simplest litmus test for this kind of situation. Socially awkward people respond to being told when and how they are stepping out of line, provided it’s done with a degree of consideration. If they don’t, they are not “just” socially awkward: they are socially awkward, and some kind of asshole to boot.

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One thought on “Use your words.

  1. In “The Myth of Mental Illness,” Thomas Szasz posited that even a psychotic person is aware when they are transgressing boundaries and doing wrong, but frequently pretend to be more ill than they are in order to have an excuse to act out inappropiately. I have seen the same thing with persons diagnosed with Aspergers or PTSD. Sorry, but your illness does not constitute a free pass to victimize others. It does not matter if they “don’t know any better.” If that is true, and if they are making you uncomfortable, you have an obligation to flat out tell them what they are doing is wrong and why. Otherwise it will not only continue, but likely escalate. That is the pattern with 85% of workplace harassment cases (bogus statistic, but relatively accurate): the victim ignores the harassment out of fear of “being rude,” “causing drama,” or “upsetting him,” and the offender then becomes emboldened by that lack of resistance, viewing it as tacit consent. Harassing behaviors need to be called out and stopped immediately. No need to overreact by immediately filing a formal complaint with HR and gossiping about them to everyone in the office, but tell them “NO” firmly, clearly, and in no uncertain terms. That way, if the behavior continues you know beyond all doubt that it is intentional and malicious.

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