inadvertant creepiness

Physical boundaries and social distance

Boundaries kind of gets used as a buzzword. So I’m writing some posts about how I understand boundaries. This post is most about physical boundaries.

What I mean by boundaries is that people have things that are completely theirs, physically and emotionally. It’s important to respect what belongs to someone else, and not treat it like it’s yours. This is especially true of someone else’s body, their personal space, their thoughts, and their feelings. Respecting physical and emotional boundaries is part of respecting other people’s humanity.

People have the right to control what happens to their body. If someone doesn’t want you to touch them, it’s important not to, even if you really want to. And it’s important not to put pressure on them to change their mind. And that’s true whether or not your intentions are sexual. Platonic boundary violations are still boundary violations.

(This is slightly more complicated than it sounds. For instance, it’s usually considered insulting to refuse to shake hands with someone unless you have a really compelling reason not to (eg: if it’s physically dangerous). I will write more about nuances in the future. But on a basic level, this is how bodies and boundaries work. And, even if someone is being unreasonable, it’s still important to not touch them against their will.)

Some things that are not technically someone’s body follow similar principles. Clothing and jewelry that someone is wearing are like their body in this way. So are purses and wallets. Mobility and adaptive equipment (eg: a wheelchair or communication device) is *especially* like someone’s body. This is true even if someone isn’t touching their equipment (eg: if someone’s not sitting in their wheelchair right now, it’s still like part of their body and you still shouldn’t touch it unless they want you to).

Personal space is also like someone’s body. Getting too close to someone is like touching them without permission. Personal space is a bit hard to define, because it depends a lot on context and culture. For instance, it’s ok to stand closer to people in an elevator than in an empty hallway. It’s a kind of thing where you have to develop your judgement. (To an extent by trial and error; watching what other people are doing can also be helpful.)

When people are uncomfortable with how close you are to them, they are usually more likely to communicate this with body language than with words. If you’re interacting with someone and they look uncomfortable, it’s worth considering whether you might be standing or sitting too close. If you think you might be, it’s worth trying giving them a bit more space and seeing what happens.

Sometimes when people are uncomfortable with how close you’re standing or sitting, they try to fix this by moving away to a distance they feel comfortable with. If someone does this, it’s good to err on the side of assuming it’s intentional. (Particularly if they move further away more than once.) If you repeatedly get closer to someone when they’re trying to create more distance, they’re likely to regard it as a threat. From their perspective, they’re saying no and you’re doing it anyway.

It can be hard to learn to understand social distance, especially if you have trouble understanding body language. It’s also both possible and important.

tl;dr It’s important to respect boundaries. One important boundary is a person’s right to control what happens to their body. An important part of this is to not touch people who don’t want to be touched. Some things a person might have are similar to their body. Standing too close to people is similar to touching them. Scroll up for more about how to tell where the lines are.




an inadvertantly creepy thing a lot of autistic people do


Sometimes autistic people want to hang out with a group of people and can’t tell if it’s ok to talk to them or not.

And then, they try to watch for a while to try and pick up on signs that interaction would be welcome.

This is generally a bad idea. The problem is that people find it…

This post confused me, I’m going to assume that watching is not staring here since staring is creepy but how is watching a group for signals creepy? That’s how social interactions are, non-autistic people do the same, perhaps less consciously but still do. Social interactions are about picking up signals from others. There is also a difference beetwen a group that doesn’t want you there and a group of people that isn’t aware that you are there and wants to join, if they don’t want you there obviously you should respect that. I don’t understand why is this wrong except when it crosses certain lines as staring and knowing you are not wanted but insisting anyway. The advice is probably not very useful for those with social anxiety or in some settings.

realsocialskills said:

The reason it’s creepy is because people you’re watching can’t tell whether you’re watching in order to judge receptivity, or just staring.

I don’t know how to explain where the line is, because of course everyone checks receptivity in some way. But there’s a way that sometimes autistic people watch for an extended period, or don’t explain their presence when explaining presence is expected, and that’s perceived as creepy.

I’m not sure how to explain where the line is, because I’ve been struggling a lot with this lately. But I think it is important to be aware that this dynamic exists.

atreeisatree said:

I wonder if a factor here might be whether/when the group (or individuals in the group) notice that someone is watching? I think there have been a couple times when I was in a group, or even just talking to one other person, when I noticed someone was watching us and kinda glanced at them, trying to figure out what they wanted. There might be some faltering in the conversation here if the people talking pause to evaluate you. Especially if there’s a little pause/falter where one of the group members is glancing at you, that may serve as acknowledgement that they think you’re waiting to speak, and a cue for you to cut in. If you’re wanting to try to join a group, that might be a good time to ask, because they are expecting you to jump in. But if the watcher doesn’t say anything at that point, and especially if they keep watching, then it becomes strange and feels like staring.

Or if one person in the group is in the middle of saying something when you are noticed (either by the speaker or another group member), they might watch you and try to evaluate whether you’re waiting to speak, so they know whether to pause the conversation for you. But if you aren’t really indicating that you want to jump in, it also starts to seem like you’re just staring or eavesdropping. It might be good advice to go ahead and make a decision about whether you want to try to join a group pretty soon after they notice you watching, especially if one or more people has been glancing at you: either come closer and try to cue that you want to speak, or stop watching. (If you don’t want to jump in right then, or are still working up the courage, it might be okay to just look away and try again a little bit later.)

On the other hand, if people glance at you, see that you’re watching them, and go right on talking, it might be cue that they don’t want anyone else to join. (Depends.) I think there are other factors too that might indicate whether the group is really open to you coming to talk, because sometimes people might try to give a watcher an opportunity to speak even if they aren’t really receptive to talking to them. (I feel like that’s sometimes the case when a couple of girls are talking and a guy wants to join in: I might give him an opening while also trying to give cues that I’m not receptive.)  

I’m not sure if that is what you’re thinking about? I wasn’t sure how close to the group you were imagining the watcher being. The closer you are to the group, the more watching them silently makes it seem like you’re waiting to say something, and it will become weird if you don’t say anything when they give you an opportunity to do so.

realsocialskills said:

A lot of that sounds right, yes. I think I need to think about it more.

I think this also might be the kind of situation in which neurotypical sighted people negotiate interactions nonverbally using eye contact. So, if you aren’t able to use eye contact that way, you have to find some other kind of workaround.

(Also, there are different kinds of eye contact, and some people who can’t sustain conversational eye contact can learn to use eye contact to initiate interactions. Not everyone can, but some people can, and it can help to know that eye contact isn’t just one thing)

an inadvertantly creepy thing a lot of autistic people do

Sometimes autistic people want to hang out with a group of people and can’t tell if it’s ok to talk to them or not.

And then, they try to watch for a while to try and pick up on signs that interaction would be welcome.

This is generally a bad idea. The problem is that people find it uncomfortable to be watched by people who aren’t explaining their presence. If they’re not ok with you joining them, they’re probably not ok with you watching them, either.

It’s better to just go up to people and ask if it’s ok to join them. Watching first for more than a couple of seconds actually makes things worse.