A Reflection on Creepy Mustaches and Creepy Hobbies
Do your hobbies creep people out?
Posted Sep 22, 2017
Getting the creeps while interacting with another person is an unpleasant emotional experience that occurs when there is ambiguity about whether that individual poses a threat to us or not.
This is not the same thing as being afraid of or disgusted by someone—those emotions result from threats that are very clear to us. Rather, when it comes to creepiness, we find ourselves facing confusing signals that leave us at a loss to know for sure what's going on.
Previous research by myself and others has convincingly demonstrated that men are far more likely than women to come across as creepy, so forgive me for using male pronouns in this essay as I discuss creepy individuals.
What Makes a Guy Seem Creepy?
First of all, he probably behaves in ways that make him unpredictable: Maybe he laughs too hard or at inappropriate times. Perhaps he stands too close to you, licks his lips a bit too frequently while speaking, or his eye contact is inappropriately intimate or oddly distant. And why does he keep steering the conversation in the direction of sex or other topics that seem ill-suited to the setting, and why does he make it so difficult for you to escape from the conversation?
Interacting with a creeper impales us squarely on the horns of a dilemma, as it would seem rude or embarrassing to run away from someone who has done nothing overtly threatening. But, on the other hand, it could be perilous to ignore your intuition and get more deeply involved in an interaction that could lead to trouble. After all, you may sense, if this person is clueless about basic rules of human interaction, what other rules might he be willing to violate? The resulting ambivalence leaves you frozen in place, mired in unease.
What is it with Mustaches?
Also, why is the prototypical creepy guy so often described as sporting a mustache?
The association of mustaches with creeps seems to be pervasive. If you do a Google search of images using “creepy guy” as the keywords, six out of the first eight (and nine out of the first 12!) pictures that come up depict a guy with some sort of mustache, and creepy characters in movies and TV shows are frequently portrayed with a mustache. For example, the TV program Orange is the New Black featured a character known as George “Pornstache” Mendez, a prison guard with a magnificent mustache who is regularly described as being a “creep” or a “pervert.” It may be just a coincidence, but I am not so sure.
Do Your Hobbies Creep People Out?
How you choose to spend your time may also wave some red flags about how uncomfortable others expect to be when they interact with you; in other words, your hobbies can be a way of flaunting creepiness. In my original creepiness study, I asked our participants to list two hobbies that they thought of as creepy. I did not provide any examples or lead my participants in any particular direction—I simply asked them to come up with two ways of spending one’s leisure time that seemed creepy to them.
Easily, the most frequently mentioned creepy hobbies involved collecting things. Collecting dolls, insects, reptiles, or body parts such as teeth, bones, or fingernails was considered especially creepy. In other words, if you spend your time actively seeking out and saving things that other people avoid like the plague, you may be perceived as a creeper.
This suspicion of “collectors” has popped up in a number of different settings since then. For example, I was doing an interview about creepiness on a talk show on Irish National Radio shortly after my study had been published. It was a call-in show where people could ask questions or tell anecdotes, and the issue of collecting as a hobby came up. A woman called in and unselfconsciously announced that she had saved every toenail that she had ever clipped, and that she kept them in a metal box under her bed. She was curious as to whether this somehow crossed the line into creepiness. Needless to say, the follow-up conversation was pretty lively. I have often reflected on this episode, fantasizing about the situations where something like this might be used as an icebreaker. Imagine meeting this woman at a bar and being invited back to her apartment, and over a glass of wine, just as things seem to be progressing, having her say, “I’d like to show you something.”
One of their essays was devoted to the topic of “avoiding the creep zone,” and in this essay they warned men against spooking their dates by divulging hobbies that might be disturbing. Being a collector of something perverse was one of the biggest no-no’s. By way of illustration, I will quote directly from their column. A woman told the story of “a very nice man who informed her on their first date that he collected dolls. Not Star Wars action figures, but rather baby dolls that little girls carry. Now, chances are he was a very nice man. But this woman just couldn’t get past the thought of a roomful of children’s dolls, and that was the end of that.”
There are certainly other types of hobbies that come across as more than a bit creepy. A fascination with pornography or exotic sexual activity was often referenced by the people who participated in our study, but probably the second most frequently mentioned creepy hobbies involved some variation of "watching." Watching, following, or taking pictures of people, especially children, was thought to be creepy.
Even bird watchers were considered to be creepy by many.
I have a friend and colleague who is an ornithologist. He is a biology professor and he is in charge of the annual bird count in our county; wherever he goes he keeps a keen eye out for new species of birds. Unfortunately for him, the people in the neighborhoods where he walks his dog apparently find the spectacle of a middle-aged man walking down their street with a pair of binoculars to be somewhat unsettling and he has had the police dispatched to investigate him on more than one occasion.
As I have gotten older, I myself have become wary of behaving in ways that might set off the creep alarms of other people. For example, I used to enjoy taking my children to water parks and similar venues when they were small, and I think that I could still enjoy going to these places even without kids. However, knowing how suspicious a guy my age would look prowling around such a locale without a child in tow keeps me wisely away.
Occupations can also signal important things about the people who work in them. Yes, your wealth, educational level, and social status can be gleaned from your occupation, but the choice of a vocation is also an expression of your personality. How you choose to spend most of your waking hours throughout most of your adult life tells us something about you, and other people will form their impressions of you accordingly.
In my creepiness study, I gave people a list of occupations and asked them to rank them on creepiness. Not surprisingly, I found that we are placed on our guard against people who are drawn to occupations that reflect a fascination with death or unusual sexual behavior. The top four occupations on our list when it came to creepiness were clowns, taxidermists, sex shop operators, and funeral directors/undertakers.
I have already had quite a bit to say about clowns in other contexts, so here I will focus on taxidermists and undertakers.
Suffice it to say that people do not like to think about death in general, and they certainly do not like to think about their own death in particular. Consequently, most people avoid things that have to do with death as much as possible in their day-to-day lives. And yet, there are individuals such as taxidermists and undertakers who choose to spend time with things that are dead, with people who have recently lost a loved one to death, and in a world where death is generally in the air. This alone makes the person different from others and unusual. In and of itself, this may not be a problem if the individual in the occupation appears well within the norm and minds his P’s and Q’s in all of the other areas of his life. However, the occupation alone may create creep vigilance, leading to a closer than usual scrutiny of other aspects of that person’s behavior.
Because who knows, if you are interacting with someone who likes dead things, might that individual like you better if you were dead too?