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November 17, 2009 8:17 AM   Subscribe

Does "creepy" have specific meaning?

I'm trying to understand what it means to be "creepy". Are there specific behaviors or traits universally recognized as creepy? Does it vary from person to person? Or is it just a catch-all term for unsociable behavior?

Is it possible for girls to be creepy? Is creepy behavior different for girls than for guys? Is it necessarily tied to interactions between genders?

And, is "creepy" different from "creepifying"?

Not looking for stories about creepy people you've met, unless you really have no other way to explain some aspect of creepiness. Hearing these stories is what got me writing this question in the first place.
posted by d. z. wang to Writing & Language (42 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think there's a definite, if not easy to state, meaning.

Creepy interactions are ones where the "creepy" person acts outside of social norms in a way that suggests a lack of understanding of said standards and in a way that intrudes in some way upon the person they are interacting with.
posted by LSK at 8:22 AM on November 17, 2009 [5 favorites]


Creepy is about as subjective as descriptions get.

If there is a specific creep (or "creeper" as I like to say), then "creepy" describes whatever qualities are responsible for afflicting the creepee with "the creeps".
posted by hermitosis at 8:23 AM on November 17, 2009


Creepy, as my peers and I use the term, refers only to men. Creepy men don't respect the structure of existing relationships: they hit on co-workers, salespeople and retail workers they interact with, the woman at Desk C at the DMV, etc. They tend to use alcohol/manic periods/otherwise lowered inhibitions to try to ply or take advantage of women. They pursue women much too young or much too old for them, including girls that are legally or socially underage. They often brag about doing all this, even if they place a more innocent veneer over it. They tend to invest in lots of hair gel, cheap cologne, etc. and fancy themselves Euro-style speedo-wearing playboys, when no such animal has ever existed that hasn't been the laughingstock of the region it inhabits.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:25 AM on November 17, 2009


Well, the dictionary definition is "causing an unpleasant feeling of fear or unease" and that sounds about right.

The key component is the undercurrent of fear or threat. An unsociable person who is goofy or harmless is not creepy. Also, the interaction is not necessarily gendered. I, as a man, could be walking in the street and easily encounter a "creepy" guy or one who is vaguely threatening in his actions or demeanor.
posted by vacapinta at 8:25 AM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Creepy generally means violating cultural norms, not in an annoying way as much as an unsafe-feeling way.

Talking too loud: Annoying
Showing up at your house and letting themselves in: Creepy

Girls can be creepy. It doesn't have to be between genders. The behavior probably is different between girls and guys.

There are creepy behaviors that 99% of people agree about, like, say, stalking, but I imagine there are a few socially weird people who don't find those things creepy.

What is creepifying? I have never heard that word before and I doubt it's a commonly used word.
posted by kathrineg at 8:26 AM on November 17, 2009


Creepy generally means violating social norms in a way perceived to be threatening (fairly or not), not just annoying.

For instance, I am a female person, and a woman who's always standing too close and invading my space relative to cultural norms is annoying to me; a man who consistently does the same will probably come off as creepy. Creepy here means, "possibly trying to turn a normal social interaction into unwanted (on my part) sexytime/dominance behavior."

When it comes to eye contact, however, staring on the part of both genders can be perceived as threatening in some way (not just clueless), so I would say that a woman who won't break eye contact appropriately, or who stares, would be someone I would find creepy as well as a man exhibiting that behavior.
posted by availablelight at 8:26 AM on November 17, 2009


It's someone who, while doing something nominally normal, also gives you the feeling he's up to something secret or sinister. Usually that something you imagine has elements of "ewwww gross" as in your headline here.
posted by rokusan at 8:27 AM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Girls can be creepy. Showing too much interest in a guy's ex would be creepy. Showing too much interest in a guy's father would definitely be creepy.

Creepy comes from the dread we have for things that creep along the ground and go up your leg. It suggests someone who misbehaves in a way that isn't clear-cut enough that you feel the right to say, "Hey, stop it!" Which makes it worse. They invade your personal space just a little -- they creep into your zone of comfort -- or they suggest things you don't like in subtle ways so you aren't entitled to reject them outright.

Creepifying is a funny semi-made-up word that implies you're not feeling too threatened by the behavior, but if it were, you'd feel it was creepy.
posted by musofire at 8:29 AM on November 17, 2009 [5 favorites]


I think of creepy as "I have this socially unacceptable, non-negotiable need, and I'm going to manipulate you or the people around me however I can to meet that need." It can be real or perceived (perhaps they're just coming across that way but really aren't), and the need can be major or minor (wanting to murder someone, or making a thousand origami swans out of rare comic books). Girls can definitely be creepy, like the goth women who would hang out in Harvard Square in the 1980s and make weird comments to passersby. Of course, that was creepy to me, perhaps not to others, hermitosis is right, it's definitely subjective.
posted by Melismata at 8:29 AM on November 17, 2009


The general connotation of "creepy," in my experience, is akin to "weirdo" with the added sense that the person is secretive or not being straightforward about their real motives or feelings (maybe that's the part that's figuratively "creeping" about (moving stealthily)?

Men or women (or boys or girls) can be creepy. Sexual dynamics can add to the sense of creepy when applied to men, a sense of "leering," would be the main distinction I can think of.

In terms of shades of meaning, "creepy" would be a direct description of the discomfiting individual, while "creepifying" (which I am not sure is a real word) would be a description that highlights the speaker's discomfort more than the characteristics of the person being described.
posted by aught at 8:30 AM on November 17, 2009


I'm pretty sure the current use of "creepifying" comes from Joss Whedon's defunct space western series FIREFLY, where Captain Mal Reynolds used it to good effect. It's faux-Western dialect.
posted by musofire at 8:31 AM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Whatever original meaning it had, it now just means "something I don't like."
posted by Electrius at 8:32 AM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


"producing an uneasy fearful sensation, as of things crawling over one's skin; strangely repulsive" - http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/creepy

Usually it's a situation where I don't feel safe but there are no obvious reasons for why I don't feel safe.

Are there specific behaviors or traits universally recognized as creepy?

Some traits that I consider creepy:

Person seems to be following you
Person stares at you and makes no attempt to hide that fact
Person asks odd or strange personal question they have no reason to be asking
Strange noises with no obvious source

Does it vary from person to person? Or is it just a catch-all term for unsociable behavior?

I'd describe creepiness as more of an emotion and therefore hard to point out as universial across all humans. Maybe describe it more as mild fear?

Is it possible for girls to be creepy? Is creepy behavior different for girls than for guys? Is it necessarily tied to interactions between genders?

Girls can be creepy. I don't think the behavior is different, the level of which the behavior persists might be a more deciding factor (Female following you isn't going to be nearly as creepy a male doing it, especially if you are female). I do think it's tied to interactions between genders.

And, is "creepy" different from "creepifying"?

I think they're the same thing. Creepifying sounds like something a 10 year old would say.
posted by royalsong at 8:33 AM on November 17, 2009


I find more men creepy than women, but I have definitely met my share of creepy women. For me, I think it comes down to feeling there is a serious mismatch between their expectations and mine in an interaction. Usually this is directly related to a perceived romantic/sexual interest (and that's what triggers the "RUN THE OTHER WAY" feeling in me), but it can be something as innocuous as a manicurist whispering to me about how the others steal her tips and hate her and can she have my phone number so that if/when she quits and goes to another salon she can call me and let me know. She perceived a completely different level of relationship between us than I did, and wants me to act on it. Thus, creepy.
posted by olinerd at 8:36 AM on November 17, 2009


Is it possible for girls to be creepy? Is creepy behavior different for girls than for guys? Is it necessarily tied to interactions between genders?

It's like many negative terms (along with loser, jerk, etc.): in theory, it could be applied to either gender, but in practice, it's probably applied to males over 90% of the time.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:43 AM on November 17, 2009


I agree with those above that creepy is definitely tied to threatening (or potentially threatening) behavior and to fear.

Specifically, I think feeling "creeped out" is feeling a level of fear that is perceptable (in some cases barely so, in other casese pretty recognizable) but is not so high that you're feeling other physiological signs, like racing heart or quickened breathing. It's the "high alert" phase you're in before you hit fight-or-flight.

So, to be creepy is to scare or unnerve someone just enough that they're watching you, but not enough for them to totally run away. If you're a big hulking dude with an face that naturally falls into "menacing" when relaxed, you will probably have a pretty low bar in terms of odd social behavior before you're considered creepy. (Staring intently at someone would probably do it.) If you're a petite woman with a perky face, or even just a shorter guy with cherubic features, you probably have a *lot* of latitude to act outside of social norms before people will perceive you as creepy. (You'll be perceived as annoying, probably until you did something directed at those perceived as even less strong than you, like lean too close to someone's toddler, or try to keep grabbing a baby out of a stranger's stroller, or something like that.)
posted by iminurmefi at 8:48 AM on November 17, 2009


dictionary.com says:
1. having or causing a creeping sensation of the skin, as from horror or fear: a creepy ghost story.
2. that creeps: a creepy insect.
3. Slang. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of a person who is a creep; obnoxious; weird.

To me, creepy is that skin-crawly feeling, and applies to anybody who gives me that feeling, including certain smarmy guys.
posted by theora55 at 8:52 AM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm with Jaltcoh--I think the examples of "creepy" women would really just be "crazy." I've never heard of, or encountered, a woman who was creepy.

However, girls and old women can be creepy--but I expect it would be tinged with a more "supernatural" creepiness--say Samara from The Ring or the Twins from The Shining, or an older witchy woman. In common parlance, "creepy" seems to have the more mundane boundary-transgressive sense above and seems universally reserved for men.

Creepifying is just slang. As used, I think it softens the term--you might say your homeroom teacher is totally creepifying, but the homeless guy outside the Circle K is creepy.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:53 AM on November 17, 2009


Is it possible for girls to be creepy?

I had an eyelash stuck in my eye during a group meeting once, and wrestled a bit to get it out. Embarrassing and annoying. Eventually, I fished it out and dropped it on a napkin next to my coffee, then went on with the meeting.

After walking the visiting participants out of the room and saying goodbye, I went back to retrieve my notepad and other things, and found that the napkin (and only the napkin) had been removed already. I gathered the rest of my stuff and forgot about it, figuring someone had started to clean up but was interrupted.

A few months later, while looking for a book a coworker had borrowed, I noticed a tiny vial tucked between two books on her shelf. It was the type of vial used for, like, a free sample of cologne from the department store. And yes, it had a single eyelash inside of it, and yes, I remembered that this coworker had been at that meeting too, but she'd lingered behind when the rest of us walked out.

I never said anything about it, though I started giving her a much wider berth after that. Unless she's reading this now, she probably never realized that I'd found it.

Creepy.
posted by rokusan at 8:55 AM on November 17, 2009 [18 favorites]


Another female example: I saw a barista cut herself on some chrome coffee making thing (no idea) once, and instead of running to wash her finger off, or sucking on it, or any number of normal reactions, she just froze and stared at it for a much too long period of time, holding it right in front of her eyes like she was examining a bug.

I said "Um, you should probably clean that or something?"

She said "No way, I like bleeding."

Creepy.
posted by rokusan at 8:58 AM on November 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


Also important--and very situational--is that the behavior be unwelcome.

royalsong mentioned Person stares at you and makes no attempt to hide that fact

...and that's creepy if you're not attracted to the person and hoping for the attention.
posted by kittyprecious at 9:01 AM on November 17, 2009


There's usually some ambiguity involved in creepiness. What does this person really want? Is there an actual threat? Is there some kind of response I can give to this person that will resolve this in a non-dangerous way?

Without the ambiguity, it's just annoying, offensive, repulsive or threatening.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:06 AM on November 17, 2009


For what it's worth, my 8 and 10 year olds will sometimes say something "creeps them out".
As in "I don't want to watch Intervention dad, it creeps me out". I'm not sure where they picked it up.
posted by qsysopr at 9:07 AM on November 17, 2009


As I hear people use it (among college students in both the Northeast and the South), it can be used both seriously and casually/nonseriously. For instance, saying "Oh no that guy's a creep/He's so creepy!" can be serious, but saying someone is creeping/being a creeper when they're looking someone up on facebook can be completely not serious.

The serious use of creepy mostly seems to be in reference to people stepping outside of social norms. I'm a girl, and I would probably use it more often in reference to guys. Someone acting friendly in a weird, unsettling way, someone flirting in an inappropriate context- those things might be creepy, especially if they caused a gut level "this is weird I don't like this" reaction. A guy dancing behind a girl he doesn't know at a party and not responding to cues to move on and leave her alone would definitely be creepy.

On the other hand, I often hear people use it in reference to people using the Internet (especially facebook) to learn about someone. You might say that someone is creeping on someone else's facebook, for instance, especially if they didn't know that person well. Creeping on someone's pictures, being a creepy stalker, etc, might be used to describe someone acting in a way that is recognized as both being very common (because really, everyone facebook stalks) but also being sort of creepy by definition because it's outside of social norms. I see the word "stalk" being used in the same way- someone might call someone "a creepy stalker" and not mean either of those in a pejorative way. Usually it's context and relationship dependent.
posted by MadamM at 9:10 AM on November 17, 2009


I have done some creepy things in my time, that have been described as such by others. So as subjective as that is, women can be creepy. I could get into examples but those records have been expunged, no need to bring those things up again.

Almost no one will admit to having been creepy, because once they do, you start to think of everything they do in that light. So maybe it's a classification of a person more so than a behavior? Something to think about.

I'm joking about the records being expunged, although some of the stuff I used to pull as a teenager got my ex arrested and put in juvie, because he's a big, scary lookin' dude.
posted by kathrineg at 9:10 AM on November 17, 2009


For me, creepy is something that is unsual and usually sets off that little alarm in my head of 'something here is amiss.'

It's become a joke among friends of mine, calling it 'The CreepyMeter', but it's gotten me out of strange situations before, such as leaving a frat party and heading out the front door of the dorm as security was coming in to bust it, or knowing that something was off about the drama teacher at my high school and then it came out 2 years later that he was sleeping with half the female student population.

I'm aware that there's a good chunk of confirmation bias at hand here, but things have worked out in strange ways sometimes that makes me think there's other factors at work here.

The uniting factor in all the instances was that it was one of those things that can sometimes be a bit hard to put your finger on, but it's like obsenity--you tend to know it when you see it. Or rather, when those little hairs on the back of your neck see it. And anyone, anywhere, anytime can be creepy.
posted by sperose at 9:11 AM on November 17, 2009


There's two usages, both of which have been alluded to here:

1) Traditional, encompassing any weird or disturbing behavior by either gender.

2) The one that is used by women, especially young girls, to refer to unwanted sexual attention/behavior by men, especially older. This has only come into vogue in the last decade or so, especially among young girls. Some of them seem to extend the definition of "creeper" to any man who they don't find attractive who shows interest in them.*

* I know what this sounds like, this is just from third-party observation I swear.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:32 AM on November 17, 2009


Whatever original meaning it had, it now just means "something I don't like."
posted by Electrius at 8:32 AM on November 17


I agree with many of the above definitions, but I increasingly find that people just use it to mean things they don't like.
posted by proj at 9:38 AM on November 17, 2009


The only difference between creepy and romantic is how attractive both parties find each other.
Creepy = one person is much more attracted/interested in the other. Romantic = both parties are interested.

Think over a bunch of situations:
A guy brings you unsolicited flowers at 1:00 in the morning:
Attractive awesome guy: So sweet.
Old balding man you want nothing to do with: Creepy.

Plays a boombox outside your window looking in at you intently.
John Cusack = Heart flutters.
Jeffrey Dahmer = dial 911.
posted by spatula at 9:50 AM on November 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


Have you ever seen a cat hunt? Creep, creep, creep, creep, creep, creep, creep, POUNCE.

Creep = Predator on the prowl
posted by Sys Rq at 10:04 AM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


(Also, creepy people are more likely than regular folk to leave dead mice on your pillow.)
posted by Sys Rq at 10:12 AM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


A creep is what someone is until you can prove conclusively that they're dangerous.
posted by paanta at 10:13 AM on November 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


The only difference between creepy and romantic is how attractive both parties find each other.
Creepy = one person is much more attracted/interested in the other. Romantic = both parties are interested.

Think over a bunch of situations:
A guy brings you unsolicited flowers at 1:00 in the morning:
Attractive awesome guy: So sweet.
Old balding man you want nothing to do with: Creepy.


Well, the first scenario would still be creepy if you were already in a relationship and the attractive guy knew it. It's not JUST about hotness.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:30 AM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Creepy is something that makes your skin crawl.

It is entirely subjective, but largely the above "any social interaction that a reasonable person would consider abnormal" is spot-on.
posted by jefficator at 11:01 AM on November 17, 2009


Here's what I said in a discussion of a confused advice column article ("Stop the Stares by Calling Out Creepers") in my campus newspaper:

People use "creeper" as a euphemism for "person who makes me uncomfortable because he is looking at me, brushing against me, or talking at me in a way that signals he does not care if I consent or not", aka stalker-y. Sometimes "creeper" just means "awkward" or "weird-looking" or "shows up in the backgrounds of all your photos".
posted by dreamyshade at 11:10 AM on November 17, 2009


My understanding of the word "creepy" is that it refers to an emotion that you feel when you recognize a pattern of behavior that you associate with an action that would be harmful to you, but you have no direct evidence of the harmful action itself; it's how you feel about behavior that suggests or threatens harm or a violation of your rights, without (apparently) following through.
posted by Vorteks at 12:24 PM on November 17, 2009


[few comments removed - can we keep creepy to definition type stuff and a little less of the naming names please? thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 1:25 PM on November 17, 2009


Creepy usually really translates into "the kind of guy who won't listen when I say no." Or "the guy who won't take a hint." Or "the guy who doesn't respect your personal space." This sets off danger alarms with me because a guy who won't take no for an answer, well.... he's got the potential to be worse.

Creep = slowly progressing into your life/physical space even after you've said no to being okay with that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:59 PM on November 17, 2009


Creepy has a lot to do with disregard for other people's boundaries (either because the person doesn't understand where those boundaries lie, or doesn't care).

Creepy guy doesn't take hints. Creepy guy stands a little too close, expects a little too much of your attention (and does it a little too insistently), dominates the interaction just a little too much, is a little too presumptuous about how intimate you want to be with them, is a little too indiscreet in general.

Creepy guy doesn't pick up on (or just ignores) polite indications that the conversation is over, or cues that you didn't want it to begin in the first place. Creepy guy doesn't appreciate the rules of social space (e.g., you can start a conversation with the person standing next to you at the bar ordering drinks, but you can't flop down uninvited next to the couple talking quietly in the back by themselves). In short, creepy guy is pushy.

Creepy guy usually smells a little funny, dresses a little strangely, and may give off vibes of being crazy or desperate to the point where, in the wrong situation, he could be dangerous.

Creepy guy often isn't doing anything so obviously and patently inappropriate that you can call him out on it—i.e., he's not groping you. But his behavior (at best) makes you uncomfortable, simply because he behaves without regard for your comfort, and (at worst) is implicitly threatening—he's already demonstrated that he doesn't care about your boundaries, so who's to say he wouldn't take whatever you have that he wants, given the opportunity?

Your question about gender is interesting. I live in a small town which contains, for whatever reason, a lot of eccentrics. Most of them are harmless, but there are definitely some whose behavior toward me is creepy, in all the ways I've described above (I'm a guy).

But I don't usually call it creepy. If they're behaving that way toward a woman, than yeah, I'd say "that guys is being creepy to Jen". But if they do it to me, I'm more likely to say they're "annoying" or a "weirdo". And I can't think of any women I would describe as "creepy".

This may just be gender stereotypes at work—"creepy", to me, implies a certain level of threat or malice (suppressed or even self-directed malice, perhaps, but malice nonetheless)—it's the feeling that tells you someone just might be a rapist or a serial killer, or eventually become one. And we're (perhaps rightly) not as ready to ascribe those motivations to women as we are to men.

And, while I've certainly known women whose social skills are deficient in similar areas, the majority of people who behave this way (and certainly the most comprehensive cases) are men.
posted by ixohoxi at 4:39 PM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


It is entirely subjective, but largely the above "any social interaction that a reasonable person would consider abnormal" is spot-on.

I still think it requires an element of secrecy or something sinister and icky.

Because, for example, if you asked my name and I started to tap dance or shot you with a water pistol, that would be pretty abnormal, but not creepy, necessarily.

(Unless filmed by David Lynch of course. If shot by Lynch, eating a sandwich can be creepy.)
posted by rokusan at 5:59 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Think of the weak, sickly, runt cur hyena, the last in the pecking order among his packmates, creeping in on its belly for a scrap at the water buffalo kill. That's creepy.
posted by Muirwylde at 10:53 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Another example of woman creepy from the movie Wedding Crashers:

"You'd never leave me, right? Cause I'D FIND YOU." Said in a very high pitched voice, after knowing a guy for less than a day.
posted by Night_owl at 7:36 PM on November 18, 2009


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