I was sweating profusely on the subway platform on a sticky summer day when I spotted a man I knew from college. I hadn’t particularly liked him back then, but I remembered that only later. In the moment, the surprise of a familiar face in New York’s stinky underworld caused me to greet him with an enthusiasm I usually save for Seamless deliveries. We exchanged brief, friendly chitchat and what I assumed were insincere promises to hang out “someday.” I immediately forgot about the conversation.
I am incapable of delivering disappointment to men. I say, “Let’s hang out someday” when I have no interest in hanging out, and I say, “Sorry, I have a boyfriend” when I really mean “Leave me alone.” And when the man from the subway sweetly reached out to me on Facebook a few hours after the fact to make plans to hang out—I had, after all, said we should—I replied that I would be out of town for a while. I would be out of town for a while, and I hoped his invitation would wither in my absence. It did not. Over the next two months, he kept reaching out, sending me messages every week. Each began with “Yo yo!” followed by an inquiry into my schedule. At first I responded with excuses (“weird time at work!”), but then I stopped responding. The “Yo yos!” kept coming. The dynamic hadn’t started out creepy, but when he began to ignore the clues that I wasn’t interested in hanging out, as friends or otherwise, it started to feel sinister.
I can understand how a guy might wonder why I didn’t just tell the man from the subway that I wasn’t interested, why I didn’t just block him on Facebook, and why I expected him to be able to hear “No” when I’d said, “Yes, definitely!” But I don’t think I should have to explicitly reject a man I chatted with on the subway. If a guy were to tell me he was “too busy with work” or if he failed to respond when I texted him three times in a row, I’d consider that an explicit enough rejection. Very little separates a creepy man from a noncreepy man beyond the ability to tell when a woman isn’t interested in what he’s putting out there and to back off accordingly. But since sex-ed teachers spend more time instructing kids how to suit up a banana than they do on the subtleties of nonverbal cues, we all hit adulthood totally unfit for social survival, predisposed to creep and be creeped on.
So here are some guidelines:
That women can tell a guy is creepy just by looking at him is a myth perpetuated by “incels” and other “men’s rights” proponents online.
We have no radar for creepiness, which is why I once went on three dates with a man who thought he was a prophet. Creepiness has nothing to do with appearance (although a pencil moustache suggests a certain alienation from civilised society). Michael Shannon, for example, may look like the personification of the dark basement in The Conjuring, but he’s still a low-key sex symbol because he’s so polite. Shannon has, in 2018 parlance, “big dick energy.” BDE, the opposite of creepiness, is characterised by quiet confidence.
I bet that if a woman didn’t message Shannon back right away, he would be very cool about it. He would not send her a 300-word text tirade about how women are teases, and he would not continue to fire off invitations just in case she changes her mind. Likewise, a guy can be objectively attractive and wholesome looking and still come off very creepy. James Franco may look like Firefighter Jesus, but it was still unsettling when he repeatedly booty-texted a 17-year-old girl.
Creepiness has very little to do with specific behaviours and a whole lot to do with context.
With the exception of criminally creepy behaviour, like upskirt photography, very few actions are inherently menacing. While I might be thrilled to get a dick pic from a boyfriend, receiving one from a stranger on Tinder is always unwelcome. And I’d be perfectly comfortable with a guy sitting on my side of the booth on our second date, but it was creepy when a guy once boxed me into a booth on our first date. The trick is knowing where you’re at on the intimacy spectrum. There are circumstances when that’s really straightforward—a 17-year-old girl cannot legally be interested in James Franco, so that’s an easy one—but in most cases you have to pay really close attention.
It’s rare that a woman will tell you when you’re being creepy.
Women are nice to men for the same reason you don’t eat blowfish every day: Each bite might be the one that kills you. I’ve seen a lot of Lifetime original movies, so when a man starts talking to me, looking at me, or standing too close to me, I’m always aware of the chance that he may stalk me relentlessly until I’m forced to move to a remote ranch in Louisiana, where he will find me years later in the embrace of a swole local and go insane with jealousy, killing us both. So instead of explicitly rebuffing a man’s creeping, I try to passively deflect it. Nicely.
But there are degrees of niceness.
If a woman is interested in you, she will be very, very nice. She will make eye contact when you’re talking. She will answer your texts. She will ask you questions about your life. If you’re getting anything less than extreme niceness from a woman—even if she’s still being base-level nice—you should take a metaphorical and literal step back. If a woman is even a little bit rude to you, she’s probably extremely uncomfortable. Failing to respond to the man from the subway’s messages is as un-nice as I get. (As of press time, he seems to have finally gotten the point.)
This article originally appeared on Men's Health