This originally appeared on Everyday Feminism. Republished here with permission.
No one wants to come across as “creepy,” especially not to the attractive person they’ve just approached. In the case of men who approach women, the word creepy doesn’t even need to be said.
A cold shoulder, quick step, or plain old rejection from a woman or her group of friends can signal to some men that they’ve just been dismissed as a “creep.”
So what exactly is a creep? A creep isn’t always the spray tanned, aggressively narcissistic jerk who treats women like crap as a way of hitting on them. A creepy person could be anyone of any gender or sexual orientation, well-meaning or otherwise, who makes someone else feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or wary.
For this article, we’re going to focus on the social norms and expectations targeting straight men. Given how men and women are socialized around dating in our society, men are more encouraged to behave in creepy ways toward women.
But, thankfully, tons of guys don’t actually engage in creepy behavior. Unfortunately, the ones who do, really, really stand out.
The good news for people who don’t want to come across as creepy is that they have some level of control over how they make other people feel. When flirting, or even just being friendly, the key word to remember is boundaries, which are the invisible gates of social interaction that people set up for themselves.
So for those of us who do want to be respectful of boundaries but are unsure of how to approach someone, here are some things to keep in mind.
1. Read Her Body Language
Let’s say a woman on a train has headphones on and is reading a book. In her mind, this may seem like a clear signal that she wants to be left alone.
But, wanting to be friendly, you approach her and attempt to strike up a conversation. Since she’s engrossed in something, you might just say, “Hey, I wanted to talk to you a bit but don’t want to be a bother either. Is it OK if we chatted?”
This hasn’t crossed into creepy territory, because you’ve asked her and not assumed anything. But if the woman is constantly trying to bow out of the conversation or if she avoids making eye contact, chances are she wants to be left alone.
If her body language is even stronger—she frowns when approached or scoots away and puts her music on blast—then she clearly wants to be left alone.
This may seem like common sense, but women who do their best to make it clear that they are not interested in interacting still get harassed and badgered. A woman walking down the street wearing headphones and a scowl might be told to “smile.” This may seem like a nice sentiment if it weren’t coming from a total stranger who is more concerned with her appearance than with how she actually feels.
What’s more, some women may smile or act polite out of nervousness or fear, so smiling shouldn’t always be taken as a sign of interest. That’s why body language is only part of the equation when it comes to picking up on boundaries.
2. Listen To What She Says
Let’s rewind the previous scenario. Let’s say the woman on the train is reading her book and you approach her. She smiles and takes her headphones out and you have a short but good conversation. You decide to ask for her phone number, but she politely declines.
A non-creepy person recognizes the rejection and moves on. A creepy person reads her signals wrong and presumes that she’s interested based on her body language and pleasant conversation. A creepy person might then decide to continue trying to get a phone number in the hopes that her “positive” response to his approach can be exploited.
If you don’t want to be creepy, do not do this. “No means no” applies outside of sex as well—if someone sets a clear boundary with their words, it’s important to respect that.
A clear rejection, more often than not, is a boundary that says “do not pursue further.” This is true even if the woman on the train genuinely likes you and smiles at you but does not want to give you her number or go out with you.
She’s not leading you on as some guys think. Just because she has a pleasant conversation with you doesn’t mean she wants to date you or owes you her number. Being friendly can sometimes just be that and nothing more.
3. Do Not Stare Or Follow—It’s Scary!
So the woman in the train is reading and you’re thinking of approaching her. As you’re gathering up the courage, you find yourself absentmindedly looking in her direction. She’s noticed, and is visibly uncomfortable under your gaze.
Easy mistake. At this point you can just look away. But do try to be aware of your gaze when approaching strangers.
Being stared at is unsettling for everyone because we can’t read minds—we don’t know if the person staring is thinking, “What a nice scarf they’re wearing,” or “I think I’ll follow them home and strangle them with that ugly scarf.”
Following someone is creepy for the same reason. In the scenario with the train, maybe your car is noisy and the woman is really far away from you and you have to get conspicuously close to her to say anything. If she’s aware of her surroundings, you moving toward her might instantly set her on edge and make her less receptive to your greeting.
The same could be said for meeting women on the street, at parties, in clubs, anywhere. If you’re approaching someone from a distance, try to get their attention and make your intentions clear before you make a beeline for them. You don’t want the person to feel like you snuck up on them.
4. Don’t Assume She’ll Like You Because You’re Being Respectful
If you’ve done everything you could to be respectful—respected her boundaries, avoided staring, avoided catcalling—you’re on the right track. But don’t expect women to fall at your feet just because you were respectful.
Respect is a basic human right. Showing respect to someone else doesn’t automatically get you brownie points in the dating world, and you may still get rejected even if you’ve been respectful.
Does this mean women hate guys who treat them with respect? Nope. It just means that women do not owe romantic attraction to everyone who treats them like a human being.
So respecting boundaries isn’t necessarily about finding a new way to seduce women—it’s just common courtesy.
5. Don’t Assume That She Wants Your Attention Because She’s Attractive and In Public
Women who wear heavy makeup, push-up bras, heels, or other “sexualized” clothing in public aren’t necessarily looking for the attention of every man in the room. And even if she is, this doesn’t mean that she wants to be treated with less respect.
It’s a common misconception that women are constantly dressing up for the sole purpose of getting men to talk to them. The truth is, you’re never going to know why someone chose to wear the outfit they’re wearing.
They might be dressing that way because it’s comfortable for them, they’re interested in attracting someone else, or they just like to look good.
Either way, try not to make assumptions about someone else’s motives. Unless you’re a telepath, you really don’t know.
6. Don’t Take It Personally If She Gives You the Cold Shoulder
She may have given you the cold shoulder because she wasn’t into you personally. She may also have given you the cold shoulder because of other reasons unrelated to you.
Remember, some women may be on guard because women’s bodies are highly visible. A lot of men do feel entitled to a woman’s time, attention, and body without considering her feelings. Dealing with men like this on a daily basis leads some women to adopt a stony faced, disinterested persona to avoid being targeted for street harassment.
Say, for example, that a woman who regularly uses public transportation keeps getting lewd or unwelcome comments from strangers about her appearance or her clothing. To avoid dealing with this every day, she starts wearing headphones and reading on the train.
You happen to meet her at this point, but when you try to strike up a conversation, she shuts you down immediately and acts distant.
It’s easy to think that you’re the one she’s reacting to, but it’s more likely that she thought her headphones would let her ride the train in peace. She might not be thinking that you are a terrible person or a potential rapist—you just happen to be in a space that she does not feel safe in.
So even when you don’t act entitled to a woman’s body, don’t take every cold shoulder personally. Whether you’re one of them or not, there are a lot of creeps in this world that she’s trying to protect herself from.
And could you blame her? If a woman says “I don’t want to give you my number,” and a guy badgers her into giving it to him, what’s to stop him from calling when she says “I don’t want you to call me anymore”? What’s to stop him from coming to her place when she says, “I don’t want to see you anymore”? If the first, small boundary is ignored, how will he handle the bigger ones?
So please, if you see a boundary in the flirting stage, respect it. It shows you’re not the kind of guy that thinks a woman owes him something just because he noticed her.
And if you see one of your friends disrespecting someone’s boundaries in an attempt to flirt, have a talk with them or show them this article.
Jarune Uwujaren is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. A Nigerian-American recent graduate who’s stumbling towards a career in writing, Jarune can currently be found drifting around the DC metro area with a phone or a laptop nearby. When not writing for fun or profit, Jarune enjoys food, fresh air, good books, drawing, poetry, and sci-fi.