Do you ever just rub people the wrong way? Ever think you're just being friendly and acting interested, and yet the person you're talking with seems to think you're trying to pick their pocket (or worse)?

Maybe you were being really creepy--and you didn't even realize it.

Researchers at Knox College in Illinois interviewed 1,341 people, asking them to rate how likely they'd be "creeped out" by someone exhibiting a list of behaviors. The common denominator? Creepy behaviors are the ones that introduce an uncomfortable ambiguity into social interactions.

And as you suspected, most creepy people seem to have no idea of what they do that makes them so unsettling.

So, as a public service, even if you're absolutely sure this article doesn't apply to you, maybe you should share it around anyway. The creepy folks among us who have no idea what they're doing to make everyone else feel strange might one day thank you. And they might stop doing things like...

1. Standing too close.

Americans require more personal space than people in other cultures. It's just a rule. Check out this article on NPR comparing how much less personal space people in places like Egypt or Brazil require, or this article advising international students in the United States:

Try to avoid physical contact while you are speaking, since this may lead to discomfort. Touching is a bit too intimate for casual acquaintances. Don't put your arm around their shoulder, touch their face, or hold their hand. Shaking hands when you initially meet or part is acceptable, but this is only momentary.

Bottom line? Step back and don't be overbearing. Otherwise, your risk coming off as creepy. If we can smell your breath, you're too close.

2. Smiling oddly or insincerely.

It seems like ancient history now, but back during the presidential debates, there were news articles analyzing whether Hillary Clinton's "creepy grandma smile" might turn voters off. Yes, it's totally unfair, maybe even sexist--but people found it creepy.

What makes a smile seem fake? In part, it's the degree to which the person doing the smiling uses the muscles around his or her eyes, according to one study that goes back more than 150 years.

3. Having greasy or unkempt hair, or wearing dirty or odd clothes.

There's no specific explanation given in the study for why this makes people seem creepy--as opposed to simply looking poverty stricken, or down on their luck, or just plain dirty. Maybe it's because, as a society, we expect people to try to maintain a certain minimum level of grooming, and when people don't bother to do that it's just unsettling.

4. Licking their lips too frequently.

This is also just one of those nonverbal signals--maybe leftover from caveman times--that sends an unsettling message. Perhaps it telegraphs that "you're attempting to comfort or soothe yourself," according to psychologist Carol Kinsey Goman's 2008 book, The Nonverbal Advantage.

5. Laughing at odd or inappropriate times.

It's all about ambiguity. If you're laughing and there doesn't seem to be anything truly amusing, you're sending mixed signals. That creeps people out.

6. Steering conversations toward awkward topics (especially sex).

This is basically the textbook definition of a certain kind of creepiness: the creepy old man variety. You leave the other person wondering if she or he will wind up having to resist an unwelcome advance. At the very least, you come off as if you're reveling in the other person's discomfort.

7. Making it impossible to leave without seeming rude.

On the one hand, the person you're talking with doesn't want to offend you by leaving. But on the other hand, they resent the fact that you're using their desire to avoid offending you against them.

8. Asking for a picture.

This might be a little bit less of a creepy behavior in the modern age of social media and posting, but ask yourself: Does this person either have or want a photo of me somewhere? If not, you probably shouldn't be trying to take their picture.

(Aside: Sorry, Mike Birbiglia, for that time I walked up to you in a Manhattan deli and asked to take a selfie.)

9. Showing too much or too little emotion.

For some people, witnessing almost any emotion weirds them out. But it's especially difficult when the degree of emotion seems incongruous with the circumstances or occasion.

10. Acting too friendly.

This one is of a piece with the idea of smiling oddly, laughing at weird times, or showing too much or too little emotion. Bottom line? To act sincere, most of us need to actually be sincere. Only sociopaths can pull off the deception--and that's kind of creepy to begin with.

Extras: Things you can't control

There were a number of things that participants said were likely to make people seem creepy, according to the study, that are simply outside anyone's control. Being male, for example.

"Males were perceived as being more likely to be creepy than females, and females were more likely to associate sexual threat with creepiness," wrote Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke, who conducted the study.

Other creepy things you may not be able to control: having bulging eyes, long fingers, pale skin, or bags under your eyes.

Creepy professions

Bonus content: The four creepiest professions?

  • Clown
  • Taxidermist
  • Sex shop owner
  • Funeral director

Least creepy profession? Meteorologist.

Meantime, the creepiest hobbies included collecting things--especially "dolls, insects, reptiles, or body parts," along with hobbies that "involved some variation of 'watching,'" according to McAndrew and Koehnke.

Published on: Jan 27, 2017
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