Between theory and reality, pt. 1

Every time I think I’m going to get on with the “Creepology” book, something happens to make me realise how full of crap I am, and I have to stop again.

There’s a rule of thumb in dealing with socially awkward people: if you tell them clearly and politely what they are doing that is socially awkward and how they need to change it, they will comply. If they do not comply, then they are either not socially awkward, just pretending for their own convenience, or not just socially awkward. We can therefore use this as a litmus test to distinguish between the people we may want to help along and those we can squish without compunction.

There’s a tiny problem with this: it doesn’t work. It’s a beautiful theory, but in real life I’ve only ever seen it play out with foreigners, and even then it’s not a definite. Someone visits a foreign country where they don’t know the rules, a local tells them that they’re misbehaving, and sometimes they will say thank you and adjust accordingly. Sometimes they’ll have a hissy fit about fucking foreigners and their backward ways instead. Even when they adjust, it’s not necessarily out of an interest in Doing Right: they might do so begrudgingly, patronisingly, because their politeness forces them to indulge even those who don’t quite know how to behave.

I have never, ever seen a socially awkward person be told any permutation of  “don’t do X” and oblige. Not once. It doesn’t matter what the underlying reasoning for the request was, whether it was about generic behaviour – “that’s grossly inappropriate” – the local environment – “we don’t do it here” – or personal preferences –  “I don’t like it”. I’ve just never seen it work out.

I’m not saying that out there there aren’t people who are oblivious to non-verbal cues but respond well to specific requests, and who’ve been waiting all their lives for someone to explain things to them in a way they can parse them. I’ve been told that they exist and I have no reason to doubt that. However, I’ve yet to encounter any of them out in the wild. It makes sense if you think about it: logical as the rule of thumb is, it doesn’t explain how so many people get to grand old ages still socially awkward. This society may be conflict-averse, but to the point that someone can get to their 60s without ever having been told in a useful fashion that, for the love of all that is holy, that behaviour is obnoxious and they really need to cut it out, or else. That’s the myth, though: that real socially awkward people will modify their behavior when given clear, specific instructions.

In real life, or at least in my real life, this is how it actually goes. Someone engages in a behaviour I deem inappropriate. I tell them about it, specifying why I consider it inappropriate, and clarifying whether it’s my beef or society’s beef. The response I get is invariably one or more of the following:

  • They tell me straight up that I’m full of shit.
  • They turn around and rule-lawyer me to death about why the behaviour is ok either in general, or because they’re doing it and they’re pure of heart so everything they do is by extension ok.
  • They tell me that they appreciate that it’s not ok but they’re going to carry on because it’s not that bad, not really, and the risk:reward ratio is stacked up right for them.
  • They tell me that if I don’t like someone doing X, I should engineer my environment so X can’t be done around me.
  • They have a hissy fit and never speak to me again.
  • They carry on with the same behaviour somewhere else where they think I can’t see it.

This doesn’t just happen around sexual misconduct. In the last six months I’ve had this kind of conversations for behaviours as disparate as approaching busy women in public places (“but I would like it if women approached me!”), making racist jokes (“but my friend lets me make them at him so you have to let me make them at you!”), interfering in third party conversations and/or mansplaining (“if people didn’t want my contribution, they wouldn’t talk where I can hear it!”), and, get this, going up to perfect strangers who are minding their own business without bothering anyone and correcting their behaviour or appearance in order to help them with their social awkwardness.

It is possible that every one of the people I’ve encountered in my misadventures has pretended to be socially awkward. I reckon that’s not the case, though. I reckon that this theory is overly simplistic and doesn’t take into account a rather important fact: that not everyone gives a crap about everyone’s opinion.

Plenty of people don’t care about what I know, think, or like. In their social hierarchy I’m a nonentity. I do not have the right to tell them what to do. I do not have the credibility to tell them that what they are doing is, here and now, inappropriate. I also am not important enough to them to make them modify their behavior to suit me; to them, their convenience or sheer habit is more important than my preferences, and why shouldn’t they be? Who the fuck am I to demand that they make changes? Aren’t they just as entitled to ask me to change my requirements?

It’s not just about me. I’m not that special. Those people react in a similar manner every time anyone tries to get them to modify their behavior. That’s how they got to be socially awkward at 30, 40, 50,… they discount information to the contrary. In umpteenth years’ time, they will still be having the same conversations on the same subjects, and still wondering why they struggle so much to retain people in their lives. (Meanwhile, my social circle will remain almost a dot because I’m a bitch; the social cost of speaking out is a whole other story, and this strategy discounts that, too.)

I’m not saying that telling people straight to cut shit out never works; I’m saying it works if and only if certain circumstances are in place. If one of my 6′ tall, 6′ wide, multiple-black-belt-wearing, armed friends tells someone that something is bothering them and could they cut it out, and that person complies, it could be that they’ve finally managed to help the poor bastard out by kindly explaining the rules of the world. Chances are, though, that they’ve just unwittingly intimidated someone into compliance, and that the compliance will only last as long as they’re around. That’s something that someone like me can’t easily do. The fact that for them it works every time can easily become evidence that the system works, though. The fact that it doesn’t work for the likes of me, or that it only works for me when they’re around, can be taken to prove that I’m just not doing it quite right.



5 thoughts on “Between theory and reality, pt. 1

  1. Probably a G&T talk, but I’ve had a lot of good success with it. Road-tested it with a population that had a wide variety of diagnosed mental illnesses as well as criminal behavior. The team needed heuristics that could distinguish when behavior was motivated by criminal intent or was byproduct of a mental health issue. When you’re on the streets, life is tough. More so when you can’t trust your own brain. The guys that got coping mechanisms that made life a little less hard were genuinely grateful. I’ve also used it on some of our officers with good effect.
    Most important, though– without a lot of people explaining a lot of things to me, there’s no way I could have become this successful at faking being neurotypical. I’m a poster child for this working in the wild.


    • How many times have you done it successfully with people who identified as your equals or your superiors? My theory, such as it stands at present, is that if someone perceived as an inferior tries this, it won’t work as effectively. At least that’s how I see it going down for me and for a bunch of people who, much like me, are perceived as inferiors by a notable proportion of the population. Social awkwardness and willingness to learn from minions don’t necessarily go hand in hand.


  2. What seems to work for me, some of the time, with people I have to be around, is modeling what I feel to be appropriate behaviour. It takes a while, and feels frustrating, but seems to evoke less resistance than requesting behaviour change.


    • I find that modelling works REALLY well if you’re someone people look up to (e.g. mom says please and thank you, kids learn to say please and thank you), or if it’s combined with an environment that rewards that type of behaviour (e.g. only the people who says “please” get dessert). If the environment doesn’t support that behaviour (e.g. waiting patiently in line in a culture where that’s not the done thing) or you’re a low status member of the group, it can be a bit hit-and-miss. And the people at the receiving end have to be wired to be able to pick up and replicate certain social clues, which can be an issue. But yeah, for someone like me, who is generally regarded as a nonentity, it works a lot better than “telling people what to do.”


  3. Good question, Ash. Equals, a few memorable times. Most of my superiors were political creatures, far better at not being socially awkward than me. But I frequently had to point out some really stupid policy decisions and almost always got the reactions you describe. Thanks. A good perspective to check my assumptions.


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