3 Creepy Body Language Signals
Some consistent nonverbal cues can give off that creepy vibe.
Posted July 5, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- It is both the type and timing of nonverbal behaviors that can create a sense of “creepiness.”
- Unexpected or highly-unusual body language can trigger the creepy vibe.
- Patterns of nonverbal behaviors that appear creepy are extending eye contact, smiling, and invading personal space.
This post is co-authored with nonverbal expert Alan Crawley.
From Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, his sneering “Heeere’s Johnny” scene, to Heath Ledger’s Joker character, to the odd guy staring at you on the bus, what makes a person appear “creepy”?
Although the research is limited, some consistent nonverbal cues give off that creepy vibe. Here are several vital cues:
Gaze Behavior/Eye Contact
As is the case with many nonverbal cues, it’s about too much or too little. A stranger staring for an excessive amount of time is creepy, but so is the location of the stare. Typically, we make eye contact with someone and look away after a few moments, but holding that gaze too long is odd and creepy, as is intense staring at the lower part of another’s body. On the other side, eyes that dart around quickly – looking at you, then away, then back again, can create discomfort.
Malicious and Predatory Smiling
A great deal of creepy behavior comes from the way a person smiles. Timing and the form a smile takes can turn a normally pleasant facial expression into a creepy one. An extremely slowly-appearing smile – from a neutral facial expression to a slow and very wide smile is very creepy (and often used by actors in horror movies).
Alan Crawley has labeled two creepy smiles the malicious smile and the predatory smile. The malicious smile is a combination of a typical smile – upturned corners of the mouth – with exceptionally wide-open eyes. You see this in movies where the villain is enjoying watching a poor victim being harmed.
The predatory smile again begins with a typical smile. Still, the upper part of the head is tilted forward so that the chin moves closer to the chest, accompanied by staring – a fixed gaze on the other person, which sends a threatening, “you are my target” message.
Asymmetrical smiles, as well as exaggerated smiles, can also appear creepy. Consider the Joker characters' distorted mouth makeup in the Batman films and TV series.
Proxemics is the study of the way people use, structure, and give meaning to social distances. Each culture has unspoken norms for how close or distant we allow others to approach us. We have a personal space “bubble” that can make us uncomfortable when invaded (without our consent). A stranger or mere acquaintance who doesn’t recognize the personal space rule and gets too close can be interpreted as creepy (it’s important to mention here that there are individual differences in what people will find creepy).
Unwanted touch can also trigger feelings of creepiness, as can the type of touching – awkward stroking, too little or too much pressure, touching certain areas of the body (e.g., a stranger who touches your face instead of a tap on the shoulder), etc. Again, it’s about both the type and the amount of nonverbal cues that give off the creepy vibe.
One general definition of creepy behaviors is that they are cues that are so deviant from our expectations that they create a feeling of uncertainty, and that can be interpreted as threatening. If we experience unwanted or unexpected body language cues from others, it can make sense of “creepiness.”
Facebook image: SpeedKingz/Shutterstock
Mori, M. (1970/2012). The uncanny valley (K. F. MacDorman & N. Kageki, Trans.). IEEE Robotics and Automation, 19(2), 98–100. http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/MRA. 2012.2192811