Awkwardness, victimization, and Dunning-Kruger

The last echoes of the viral discussion of creep-tastic-ness seem to be trailing off around the interwebs. Several people, I note, have mentioned that they hate seeing the "but what if they don't know any better" protest that sometimes comes up when online communities argue over whether it's appropriate to give anyone the label 'creepy' based strictly on outward behavior -- often it's followed by the assertion that people who have social disadvantages like autism or cultural ignorance or Horrible Paralyzing Social Awkwardness Syndrome (HPSAS) are in more danger from creepers than the general public, but strangely, no one ever mentions why that might be. It seems to be one of those curious everyday agnosonosiae: Either it's never occurred to you, or you suffer from it and it's true, although you can't articulate why.

Much has been made on the internet of something called the "Dunning-Kruger Effect". It stems from a Cornell study called "Unskilled and Unaware of It", in which the titular researchers demonstrated that at least part of incompetence in any given field can be attributed to ignorance of the required standards of performance. What they did was give a load of tests to a bunch of Cornell undergraduates on a variety of things (English grammar was one of them; another was chess). They then asked the undergrads to estimate their own scores, and how they ranked relative to the average score of all the test-takers. They found that people with very low competence in the given subject tended to guess the average correctly, but overestimate their own scores by a lot -- in other words, they knew about how many other people knew what they were doing, but didn't know enough to realize they didn't.

(Dunning and Kruger also found, interestingly, that people who were highly competent tended to get their own scores correct, but vastly overestimated the average, suggesting that their own competence falsely led them to believe the task was also easy for other people. A lot of GATE kids fall victim to this. They repeatedly overestimate the average person's competence at any arbitrary task, which leads both to getting very frustrated with people who are not in their IQ/educational bracket, and to not realizing when they're doing something that seems nigh-on miraculous to non-GATE people.)

But what of the people who know just enough to know what they don't know? This is the category into which fall a lot of autistics and aspies, and people with HPSAS. They know enough about how social interaction is supposed to go to realize that they're somehow failing at it, but not enough to know how to fix it -- otherwise, obviously, they would. If you really don't know how this people-ing thing goes, then you're oblivious not only to what you ought to be doing differently, but also to the fact that other people don't like what you're doing now, giving you no apparent reason to feel awkward or become paralyzed with indecision and fear of doing something you'll regret. You need to know just enough to know what you're doing isn't working before you get gripped by terror at the thought of going to a cocktail party.

The usual advice given to people who are paralyzed by the idea that they'll look like idiots in front of a crowd is "be yourself". I hate this piece of advice. It's stupid. Do they really think you're in danger of chatting up members of the appropriate sex in character as Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter? (If yes, you have larger problems than my essays on sociability can fix. Find a counselor, pronto.) The problem with social anxiety is that "yourself" is the one gibbering in the corner after your brain has decided to suddenly devolve into a calvarium full of lightly-caramelized flán. What they actually mean is 'don't sit there trying to figure out what other people want so you can pretend to be that when you talk to them; it's a huge time- and effort-sink, and it won't work, because most people don't know what they want anyway', but what they say just makes you feel like you're failing at socialization because you're failing at being you, which is just such a gigantic mindfuck that I just wait what I don't even.

A more useful piece of advice is "if you don't know what's going on, ask". This is a decent piece of advice, but the part people tend to leave out is to whom exactly they mean you to direct the questions. Eight or nine times out of every ten, asking the person who is confusing you what exactly they mean is probably the best solution; they may not have any idea what they mean, but getting that answer will at worst leave you no more confused than they are, which is all you can really hope for most of the time.

But there are occasions when the person who is doing the confusing is the worst possible person to ask. People who are crazy, people who are cruel, people who are bullying you, people who are manipulating you -- they will confuse you as much as perfectly normal people, but when you ask them what they mean, they will tell you whatever will make you think what they want you to think, which is frankly not likely to be anything that's at all good for you. There are some definite signs that a particular person is not good to be hanging around with, but almost all of the ones you're likely to run into before you end up in hot water up to your neck are of the "conflicting vibes" variety: what they say and how they make you feel are completely at odds with one another, and the more they talk the wider the gulf opens. If you don't have any social antennae of your own, or don't trust the ones you do have, then pretty much every new social interaction feels like this, and it's very difficult to tell the difference.

Asking other people may not be much of a help, either. Manipulative people are likely to say different things to everyone involved in a particular situation -- this is a common divide-and-conquer strategy, in fact; my mother used to do it all the damn time -- so it's possible to get a completely different verdict from everyone, which mostly makes the HPSAS worse. It's impossible to figure out whose word you should go with, because when you're that deeply socially anxious, everyone has more social authority than you. Your best friend, your worst enemy, your parents, the lunch lady, the school janitor, everyone. Most people with HPSAS are decent folk at heart and don't want to believe ill of anyone, and in my own experience at least, the trend on this is not to condemn anyone else's behavior until it gets really undeniably mean, and sometimes not even then.

So basically, the reason socially awkward people are vulnerable to creepers is that, in a situation where the creeper's words say one thing and actions say another, sufferers of HPSAS are ill-equipped to figure out which of those datastreams is the one they should act on. Furthermore, in trying to make a decision, they are also ill-equipped to figure out what outside data they should be taking into account, and are as likely to take the creeper's word for it as anyone else's.

This is particularly true of people who are prone to seeing signs of rejection (a.k.a. "oh god I screwed up again") at every turn, whether or not they were actually intended as such by the other party in the interaction, and whether or not they would be seen as such by a hypothetical socially-competent outside observer. These people have heard "Jesus Christ, it's all in your head, will you stop being neurotic?" so often that they start to use it as a sort of self-soothing mantra, even in situations where such a message is in reality dangerous, and puts them in a more vulnerable position. They simply do not have enough information to distinguish between times when they're self-judging more harshly than others are judging them, and when the awkward feelings are a result of something genuinely bad going on.

Secondarily, when people who suffer from HPSAS do fall into a group of friends, it's often a group which makes a point of tolerating non-standard social behavior. This is good, in that the group will tend to avoid calling people out for things like blushing or stuttering or not having a particularly suave line ready for when the cute server comes by again. This is also bad, in that the group will also tend to avoid calling people out for anything else, each person being afraid of being seen as the judgmental asshole who secretly hates all the weird kids they've been hanging out with. Much has already been written on this -- try Googling "Geek Social Fallacies" for the ur-document -- but the upshot of all that is that other HPSAS people, when asked for advice, will typically tell you "ignore it, s/he doesn't mean it" because that's what they think they should be doing, in order to minimize conflict.

In short, the same awareness of social awkwardness that drives people with HPSAS to try to learn more so they can function better also serves as their greatest handicap. Until such time as they hit a plateau that makes them comfortable in social interactions, they know they need to learn more, but they don't yet have the ability to discriminate between useful teachers and manipulative bastards. Their internal mistrust of their own reactions serves to further muddy the waters.

My best advice, to be honest, is to start poring over as many advice columns as you can find. Don't necessarily follow any of the advice, mind -- the object here is not to educate you in what to do, but to demonstrate how many other people find themselves in awkward predicaments, and to eventually help you in discriminating between useful sources of information and people who are talking directly out of their blowholes. Miss Manners is generally less "what do I do?" than it is "what does the historical Code of Etiquette say on this matter?" -- less than useful if you don't live in the Beltway and have formal dinner parties on a regular basis -- but Dear Prudence, Cary Tennis, Dan Savage, Captain Awkward, and others, all have their own biases in how they answer questions, and I'd suggest reading through their archives en masse until you can get a grip on just what those biases are.

You can also, if you have a question about damn near anything, email me at miss.arabella.flynn at Gmail. I don't necessarily recommend you follow my advice either, but you can have it if you want it.


  1. Great post! You have just shed light on something that has been troubling me for awhile.


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