Creepiness is usually one of those characteristics that's easier to spot than it is to define; to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you know it when you see it, particularly at work. But what about all the creepy things society says are OK at work? As I've discussed before, the elusive creep factor is fairly culturally-bound; research shows that it arises when something deviates ever-so-slightly from the behavior we expect — too much eye contact, for example, or maybe too little. Whatever it may be, it's not dangerous enough to be threatening, but it's "off" enough to catch our attention in a bad way.
In short, creepiness is largely subjective on both the individual and societal levels. Unfortunately, cultures are so complex and slow to change that some societal norms these days are actually pretty creepy when you think about them. If you don't trust me, trust Reddit; when one user asked people to list the creepiest society-sanctioned behaviors, the thread was flooded with thousands of responses. Of course, much of the discussion devolved into arguments about whether certain things "counted" as creepy — if you want to retain your faith in humanity, don't look at the thread centering around the creepiness of finding teenager girls attractive — but the point remains: Sometimes, society as a whole isn't the best judge of creepiness.
Considering Americans spend most of their time working, it stands to reason that many of these "creepy" things happen in the workplace. Let's take a look at five examples below.
1. Business Meetings In... Unusual Places
Although most people assume business meetings take place in boardrooms and offices (or maybe over the phone or via Skype in remote situations), that's not always the case. In 2013, a study of more than 90 countries found that people have had meetings in bathrooms, during sleigh rides, on Navy warships, and all kinds of other places. It's a pretty cool perk of the job, but the environments aren't always so innocuous: Certain industries are notorious for meeting clients in gentlemen's clubs even in the modern day. Stripping itself isn't the issue, but when you consider corporate culture's history of misogyny and sexism, holding business meetings in strip clubs is creepy, at the very least.
2. The "Sleep Your Way To The Top" Cliche
When a woman achieves a position of power, her ability is routinely questioned, and there's often an underlying assumption that she must have used her "feminine wiles" to get to where she is today (as opposed to, you know, hard work and ambition). It's a sexist and harmful cliche, but it's also pretty creepy — do you really want to spend that much time thinking about your boss's sex life? Actually, for that matter...
3. Water Cooler Gossip
On one hand, gossiping is a universal human pastime, and it's natural to be curious about what's going on with your friends and family. That being said, the fact that gossip is such an ingrained part of workplace culture can't be healthy; in fact, gossip is known to ruin people's careers and relationships, sometimes when it's not even true. The world is a much lovelier place when we respect each other's privacy.
4. Sexist Humor
Technically, sexual harassment laws cover sexist comments even when they aren't directed at anyone specific, but in practice, it can be hard to know where to draw the line. Do you report your coworker every single time they make an offensive joke, or do you "save" your sexual harassment reports for something more overt? Either way, in my experience, sexist humor is the fastest way to end up labeled as the creepy coworker to avoid.
It's pretty obvious, but it's worth noting: You don't have to be in the armed forces or a fraternity to undergo a "rite of passage" when you start working somewhere new. Hazing is surprisingly common in the workplace, and it's kind of the worst. Simple things like practical jokes or asking a newbie to buy coffee can end up being a bonding experience, but it can quickly get out of hand — and the fact that some workplaces expect hazing is kind of weird, don't you think?
Well, unless you're Jim Halpert. In that case, carry on.
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