This is important:
Just because someone is “socially awkward”, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be something else, too.
When someone acts in a way that makes people feel creeped out, the question tends to be “but what if s/he is just socially awkward?” You know, just someone who isn’t very good at following social scripts; just someone who can’t read non-verbal cues very well; just someone who doesn’t know how to talk to men/women/people and acts oddly as a result. It’s always just this, just that.
We tend to get so focused on screening for people who make us feel uncomfortable by accident that we forget that personal attributes aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Someone can be socially awkward, AND a predator, or a bully, or a misogynist/misandrist, or any other awful thing you may think of. The “just” in “just socially awkward” is not a given.
Let’s say that we’re trying to find out whether someone is “just” socially awkward, or deliberately being mean. There are at least two elements there:
- Do they have ‘normal’ social skills? Do they know how to interact ‘normally’ with people, what they can do to make people feel comfortable or uncomfortable? Can they read ‘normal’ cues?
- Do they get kicks out of hurting people?
Someone can have social skills, and get kicks out of hurting people (i.e. a socialised sociopath). Someone can have no social skills, and be a lovely person (i.e. your stereotypical poor bastard who has a heart of gold, but gets called a creep because s/he can’t interact). Someone can have social skills, and be a lovely person (e.g. Mary Poppins). Someone can have no social skills, and be a horrible person (e.g. your stereotypical weirdo who ends up in jail for getting caught doing something god-awful).
If we’re looking at two factors, unless those two factors are mutually exclusive, that gives us four possible combinations. The more factors we’re looking at, the more combinations are possible. If we fail to consider the possibility of certain combinations, we can end up entirely misinterpreting some people’s actions; we can end up attributing their motivations to one single factor, when several are actually in play. Worse than that, we can end up excusing their behaviour because they are affected by one “negative” attribute, poor things, while actually they’re presenting a whole host of issues, some of which may be malignant.
For instance, those gamer guys who spout rape and death threats against women gamers… I’m sure some of them are socially awkward as hell, but they’re also criminals, in most civilised countries; they are also misogynists, based on what they say; they are also bullies,trying to intimidate those who they believe are weaker; they are also cowards, preferring to do their intimidation anonymously, or so remotely that the chances of punishment are minimal; they are also giant flaming assholes. They are not “just” socially awkward. And their social awkwardness may be the least of anyone’s worries.