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The Principles of Creepiness

I think I just inadvertently creeped out a barista. During a pretty routine coffee and sandwich buy I asked, “Does anyone ever tell you that you look like Chloe Sevigny?” And I got a curt, “No.” Sensing I’d somehow misstepped I followed up with, “I mean that as a compliment, I think she’s adorable.” Uncomfortable silence. “Um, well, does that sandwich come with fruit?”

I think maybe I was being creepy, but I’m not sure how or why. Isn’t it harder for women to be creepy than it is for men to be anyway? I always thought it was.

In order to get to the bottom of this, I guess it makes sense to explore the principles of creepiness.

For starters, though subject matter can determine whether an interaction is creepy, really, context is everything. If my sister casually said to me as I was about to leave the house, “I can see your panty line,” I would take it as a helpful note to either change my undies or my skirt. Whereas, if the office FedEx guy lowered his gaze and said in a smoky voice, “I can see your panty line,” I’d be overtly creeped.

Using the panty line example just mentioned, creepiness can be dissected into three basic elements.

Creepiness usually involves some level of unwelcomeness. Is the office FedEx guy, either directly or tacitly, invited to comment on underpants, rears, or the visibility of underpants on rears? Based on my understanding of common workplace and acquaintance etiquette, I’d say, no.  On the other hand, sisters are not only invited to comment on correctable outfit flaws, they’re expected to. If my sister let me walk around with preventable VPL (visible panty line), I’d be kind of annoyed with her.

But unwelcomeness is only part of the equation. If the office FedEx guy noticed my panty line in a chipper or joking tone, I’d still raise my eyebrows, but with the comment lacking intensity I might be willing to believe he’s not a complete creepster. Prolonged eye contact can make a conversation creepier, unnecessary touching, laughter that is too loud or too sinister. Anything with too much intensity (I realize this is kind of vague, but it’s the best I can do ““ think pornography and Potter Stewart’s great quote about it, you know it when you see it) can greatly exacerbate the creepiness of a situation.

Misplaced interest is also key creepster tip-off. My sister loves me, she helps me pick out clothes, and she has an interest in presenting our family in a positive light. Because she cares about me, she has an interest in keeping me VPL-free, knowing that I might find VPL somewhat embarrassing. Because she helps me choose outfits, she has a self-preserving interest in making sure my outfits look decent. Finally, because she wants me to avoid bringing VPL shame upon the family, she has an interest in keeping me VPL-free. All of these motivations are legitimate reasons for her to be interested in my panty line. The office FedEx guy, of course, has none of these reasons to be interested my panty line. Thus, my understanding of common workplace and acquaintance etiquette would suggest that any interest he might have in my panty line would be a misplaced one.

Given the three tenets of creepiness, I still don’t know where I erred at the coffee shop.

I generally assume that some amount of small talk and certainly compliments are a welcome part of sandwich buying. And I don’t believe the exchange with the Chloe lookalike was any more or less intense than any other sandwich transaction. Last, my reason for making the comment was an interest in small talk, and, to an extent, in evacuating a thought from my mind simply because it had arrived there.

Where did I go wrong?

I’ve tried looking at my interaction with the barista from a different standpoint by imagining a man of my same relative attractiveness, charm, and posture, in my place, but it doesn’t bring me any closer to an answer. Were I that barista and a man compared me to an attractive actress, and then proceeded to tell me it was a compliment, I might think he was flirting with me, but I don’t think I would take it to be inappropriate or especially bothersome flirting. Likewise, if I were the barista and a woman I believed to be gay compared me to an attractive actress, and then proceeded to tell me it was a compliment, I might assume she was flirting, but again, I don’t see how mild, polite chit-chat-variety flirting would be bothersome?

So, given the fact that prior to the Chloe Sevigny incident I had had many perfectly pleasant interactions with this barista, the only conclusion I can come to is that she hates Chloe Sevigny.

Sorry, Chloe. It’s the only plausible explanation. I’m such a lovely person, I couldn’t possibly be creepy.

14 replies on “The Principles of Creepiness”

I don’t see anything wrong with your attempt at paying the barista a compliment. My gut reaction is: maybe she was having a bad day and just didn’t want to interact with anyone. I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt. So long as there is no creepiness factor (which you detailed very well) I don’t make assumptions about why someone is paying me a compliment, and a I certainly don’t pass judgment on the person or their comment based on those assumptions. I just take it for what it is – another human being trying to be friendly or nice to another human being. I mean, let’s face it, your appearance is the first thing someone blessed with eyesight is going to take in… unless you’re seriously stinky or very loud. Paying a compliment is just a friendly way of bridging the gap.
I don’t think you should feel bad in anyway for complimenting the barista. You have no idea where she was mentally or emotionally when you spoke with her and you have no control over how a person will receive anything you say. Maybe she was thinking really hard about how she was going to pay to replace her car’s transmission. Or maybe she had just gotten a call to tell her that Spanky, the family’s 20 year old cocker-spaniel passed away that morning. Maybe she did just find you creepy. The point is: be confident in the fact that you were doing a nice thing by being friendly, and give her the benefit of the doubt.

Wow, I had no idea people got so upset about strangers commenting on their appearance when it’s clear the stranger is being nice and meaning it in a complimentary way. I don’t get compared to any celebrities so maybe I’m just not familiar with that kind of constant annoyance. Here I thought telling a stranger that I love her hair was just honest and nice. I’ll stop complimenting strangers immediately.

I think you’ve got a good set of comments here. If someone compliments my appearance, I generally like it, but I’m not good-looking enough or similar-to-celebrity enough to get it frequently, so I also sympathize with the poster (referencing “hot Donna”) who said it can be objectifying–I wouldn’t want it to happen all the time. Also, like others said, if I do not feel like engaging with person x on a personal level, then said interaction has now been opened at a level of MY personal appearance, which is invasive and puts me in a vulnerable position. I don’t think you were creepy, but I do think “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get personal,” might have been the right denouement.

It sounds like she doesn’t think Chloe is attractive, and she probably gets the comparison a lot. I’ve been compared to a certain celebrity whom I don’t find unattractive really, but who I know I share certain features with her that I hate. When people say I look like her, I cringe, because it’s a reminder that those features really are as “bad” as I think they are.

I think it’s really hard to compliment a stranger’s appearance without appearing creepy, so I prefer to avoid it.

I’m a small lady and people – especially my co-workers – seem to think that gives them license to comment on it; like somehow it’s a compliment to constantly be commenting on how small I am. Waitresses, when I’m ordering food, will often give me the head-tilt and say something like, “Are you sure you’re going to be able to eat that much, a small thing like you?” When I was working as a waitress, I became accustomed to having tables talk about me and my appearance right in front of me, as if I wasn’t standing there waiting to take their order.
And I always get the feeling like they expect me to be flattered, but really it’s just obnoxious. I think maybe it was something along those lines with the barista. Baristas & waitresses, from personal experience, seem to get the worst of it. An innocent comment like yours doesn’t seem like much, but when you hear it multiple times a day, every day, it starts to get irritating.

A lot of people feel awkward when dealing with compliments regarding their appearance. I really don’t know how to respond to those, because I don’t really want to engage in a conversation about my looks. It’s why hitting on me by saying I’m cute doesn’t work, but talking to me about substantive things does.

I think other commenters are right-on when it comes to the unwelcomeness of a stranger commenting on your personal appearance. And while my threshold for creepiness is vastly different for men vs. women, I’m thinking about the times strange women have compared me to a celebrity, and each time, I felt uncomfortable. Sometimes, it’s because the person they compare me to is someone I consider unattractive, or because I feel mislabeled or stereotyped if they compare me to someone who doesn’t look anything like me, but just happens to also be a curvy black girl, or also be a woman of color who wears glasses. Earlier this month, a woman on the bus told me I liked “like Ugly Betty but better” and then went on to say how the America Ferrera is pretty but how much worse she looks as Ugly Betty. Then, perhaps sensing my discomfort, she insisted repeatedly that she was complimenting me. And while I could tell her heart was in the right place, I still felt insulted. Likewise for the time I was likened to Jordyn Sparks. And the time I was told by a skinny drunk white girl in a club that I should be proud of my curves. I love, love, love compliments on my clothing or accessories, but comments on my physical person… just don’t. Body, face, skin color, hair… just don’t, unless we’re friends.

THIS, ohmigosh, yes, I get this all the time. You have the same skin tone as (random celebrity) or the same hairstyle, so you look exactly alike!
Actually that is completely untrue, assclown. But now I have to respond in some way, to your stupidity and stereotyping. Thanks.

I can see both sides of the argument.

You were already engaging with the woman to an extent as you were receiving goods/services from her, so I think it’s less rude to talk to someone who is already interacting with you than it is to say, grab her on the sidewalk and tell her she looks like an actress.

I suppose it’s possible the woman hates Chloe Sevigny or doesn’t find her attractive (maybe she’s only seen her with the terrible hairdos she sports on Big Love), or has never heard of her at all. Or maybe she gets hit on all the time at her job and thought that’s what you were doing. Or she could just be having a bad day, who knows.

I’m a blonde these days, but from age 15 up until I hit 28, I was a redhead. I cannot tell you how many times I was told, ‘you look like the girl from That 70s Show’. I heard it so much that I really began to resent it. People would stop me on the street to tell me that I looked like her, bother me at work, tell me online, etc. It’s all I ever heard. “You look like Hot Donna”. I didn’t see it, and I didn’t like it. I’d tell my friends, ‘I do NOT look like her’ and they’d say, ‘What do you have against her, she’s pretty? It’s a compliment!’. But to me, it wasn’t after a while. I felt like nobody saw me, they just saw me appearing to resemble some horrible actress from a sitcom. I changed my hairstyle to look less like her, true story. So maybe she hears it all the time and she’s sick of it, or whatever. *shrug* My whole rant was just to say that to YOU it might be the utmost of compliments but others may not always agree.

I wouldn’t beat yourself up about it; you were just being well-meaning and complimentary, but it might be something to think about in future when interacting with folks.

Nope. This makes me crazy. As someone who is regularly a victim of strangers randomly making pronouncements on my hair, skin color and general appearance, I have to say, comments on my physical appearance from strangers are 100% UNWELCOME.
Like my shoes? Great. Think I have a cool bag? I’ll tell you where I bought it.
But do not tell me to smile, do not compare my looks to some celebrity, or ask where I was born, and do not ask to touch my hair. My looks? Are none of your business.
Because, you see, even if you think it’s a compliment, you are a random person, and I am now required to respond to your inane comment. I am forced to interact with you, even though that is not my choice. It’s harassment, and even if it’s not the threatening kind that men can often produce, it is yet another bit of unwelcome crap coming my way.
If I respond positively, then that invites you to ask more stupid, personal questions.
If I react coldly, they’re all GEEZ I’M JUST TRYING TO PAY YOU A COMPLIMENT GOSH GEEEEEEEEZ. No, you’re not. You’re forcing me to engage with you in a conversation about my looks, when I don’t know you and have no interest in discussing them. And now you try to make me feel like a jerk for not wanting to engage with you. And all I was trying to do was sit quietly on the subway reading my book, or buy a cup of tea to take into work. Or walk down the damn street, for pete’s sake. Keep your observations about me to yourself.
/endrant

Yes, this. All of this.

My looks and my body are not up for public comment. I do not want strangers complimenting me on them at all.

Also, you have no idea what that barista’s orientation is, nor what she perceived your probable orientation to be. When you’re working in a very public job, you get unwelcome passes a lot. There’s nothing to distinguish your compliment from a clumsy attempt at such a pass, and no reason why she might think a woman wasn’t making one.

I generally agree with your general tenets of creepiness and I think your experience in the sandwich shop is really in reference to the unwelcomeness. While small talk may be welcome and encouraged in retail situations, comments dealing with the cashier personally are generally not.
When I was a cashier I would gladly chat with anyone about the weather, plants, holidays, etc., but whenever anyone would make a comment about me specifically, particularly about my appearance, I was creeped out.
So basically, too personal because you don’t know them?

Kinda reminds me of the time that I got my senior HS photos taken and the woman taking our name cards told me “You know, you’re just the spitting image of… oh, what’s her name… You know, that little girl from the Shining?”

Fortunately, I’ve been drawing comparisons with Drew Barrymore for most of pre-adolescent adult life, so I had an idea of where she was headed with her misplaced comment. I politely prompted her with “You mean ET? Yeah, I get told I look like Drew Barry more a lot.”

I don’t know how I feel about people comparing me to well-known actors. Usually, it doesn’t bother me too much, but from my experience it’s mostly middle aged women who are making the comparison too, with the occasional peer thrown in. I guess for me it becomes more benign if I feel like the comment is coming from a sincere observation (which I’m more likely to accept coming from a middle-aged woman than, say, a young man).

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