Unspoken social agreements

I went to the gym today. On my way out, the owner called me over when I passed the front desk, and asked if he could give me a hint.

He’s a nice man; knowledgeable, too friendly for my liking, but helpful, always remembers everyone’s names.


“When you do the bicep curls right after the pulldowns, your muscles are tired, and you are using your body to lift the weight. If you put your back up against the machine, it’ll give you some support so you don’t put your back into it…”

We chatted about that some more, I appreciated the help, but…

It felt weird because he’d broken an unspoken social agreement by revealing that he had been watching me for long enough to see a set change and to see that I was indeed putting my back into exercises when I got fatigued.

It didn’t creep me out (after all, it’s really his job to make sure people are not hurting themselves in his gym), but it did make me uncomfortable to know that he had been watching and I was unaware of it. It would have been different if I had seen him doing rounds of the gym and he’d spoken to me between sets. But I didn’t see him at all.

I actually felt a bit the same the first time I talked to the personal trainer (That Fucking Bastard!). He correctly identified the program I had been doing at the gym even though I had never had any contact with him before. In other words he was saying, “I’ve been watching you.”

The unspoken social agreement at the gym (or, actually, in most public locations) is that everybody pretends not to notice or watch anyone else, *even if everyone knows that’s not true*. It’s like a big game of ‘let’s pretend’, which makes me laugh, but it’s so true! Watching random people do their thing is okay, but you can’t let on that you are perving or that you are paying attention because then it can get creepy.

So, the unspoken social agreements for the gym are:

  • Watching someone without them noticing: okay.
  • Watching someone without them noticing, then saying something later that lets them know you were watching: uncomfortable, borderline creepy.
  • Watching someone blatantly with them noticing: not okay at all.
  • Watching someone and getting caught: if you can manage a sheepish smile, maybe a ‘mea culpa’ shrug or a friendly non-threateny nod, then okay. If you look furtive-guilty, then it’s not okay!
  • Watching someone (briefly only!) and then saying something to them: okay.

I suspect that quite a few people will look at that little list and actually think that our unspoken social agreements over those things are quite different from that, so there is definitely a perception thing going on there also.

Then on top of those unspoken social agreements are personal preferences, which are something else again. Someone who loves being watched is going to have a very different idea of what’s okay and what’s not from someone who hates it of course.

I find the idea of these unspoken social agreements interesting because while they aren’t written in stone, we can mostly *feel* when they have been breached. And if someone doesn’t stay within the social agreements *as we perceive them*, it usually makes us uncomfortable because they have overstepped the acceptable boundary. Trying to define or explain those agreements, though, can be really difficult, so it’s understandable that some people (especially if they aren’t neuro-typical) struggle with what’s okay and what’s not.

Okay, well some of them can be pretty easily explained. I mean, I’m not a dude and I don’t use urinals, but even *I* know that there is an unspoken social agreement that you don’t look at anyone’s dick while you are in there peeing, right?

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  1. Hmm interesting take on it. I actually don’t find that scenario creepy or borderline creepy. But maybe that’s cause I like being watched? Not sure. But in that situation I think it was fine for him to say that, in terms of social etiquette, because he’s the owner and it’s his job. But I’d even be okay with it of someone random at the gym said that to me.

    1. I actually don’t find that scenario creepy or borderline creepy. But maybe that’s cause I like being watched?

      Maybe, I do think personal preference plays a big part in how you view social agreements (or how you *stretch* them to your liking).

      To be clear, though, I said specifically that I didn’t find it creepy, it just triggered the train of thought because I *did* find it uncomfortable. Probably because he had to have watched me for quite some time to be able to give that advice, and I was unaware of it.

      To me, gyms are places where ‘watching others’ is obtrusive, and not really acceptable behaviour. Do you EVER see people just standing around watching other people that they don’t know at the gym? Most people studiously avoid doing just that because… the agreement!!

      Hmmmm, and now I am thinking that culture ( micro (type of gym) and macro (nationality)) probably play into it also.

      “But I’d even be okay with it of someone random at the gym said that to me.”

      Really?! Aww hell no! Random dude tells me what to do, he can fuck off! Staff get special rights because I know they have the qualifications.

      Out of curiosity, are you male or female? I wonder if that factors in also.

      Now that I have asked that, I actually expect that some unspoken social agreements might be different based on gender also. Something like ‘huge dude can tell little dude how to do some lifts, but little dude can NEVER tell huge dude how to improve his form…’ Heh.


  2. Ferns why are you peering at dicks in the urinals under cover ?


    Inquiring minds need to know*

    *For inquiring minds read nosey old cow

  3. I actually do agree with you on this one because this would have made me very uncomfortable. Though one of the reasons why I chose the gym where we take karate is because in that particular gym it has 6 sections and the one I work out in stays pretty empty so I get it to myself most times. I hate to be watched when I work out it makes me very self conscious.

    I am like you or some people on this that even if you do watch someone its not something you make obvious. To me that is just rude. Kind of like my email last night we were talking about on twitter. Even if you do that thinking of someone don’t go running and telling them about it. ~laughs~.


    1. “…even if you do watch someone its not something you make obvious. To me that is just rude.”

      Exactly: As far as I’m concerned THAT’S the unspoken social contract. Stare all you want for as long as you want, I just don’t want to know about it.


  4. Nice read. Being considered near expert level in my field of work, I can relate to noticing something purely out of knowledge and experience. If I see something that’s out of order or not correct in my line of work, legally, I need to make sure the situation is under control thus informing people they need to be practising their works in a safe, yet efficient manner.

    But, in saying that, I do not spend countless amounts of time watching and waiting for something to be observed.

    Maybe he noticed by a glance, maybe he didn’t. I guess it cannot be determined in which way he was watching.

    I’m only trying to add that you may have consolation knowing he wasn’t ‘watching’ as such. I could always be wrong. That’s not in my nature though -grins-

    1. “Maybe he noticed by a glance, maybe he didn’t. I guess it cannot be determined in which way he was watching.”

      From what he said, he had to have watched more than one set (because he talked about the transition).

      If he’d just commented on the *one* exercise he wanted to help with, we could both have pretended he only saw that one bit. That would have preserved our unspoken social agreement and I’d not have thought a thing of it.


  5. I was recently confronted with a similar situation. I was at archery practice and getting tips from the trainer (I asked her for help!) when this weird guy came up and started commenting on everything I supposedly did wrong. I was pretty annoyed and he just wouldn’t stop.
    However, as far as your situation is concerned: They are trainers, after all. I think it’s not that bad. As you said, it is their job to look after the people/equipment etc. I appreciate a little help from my archery trainers, even if I’m not specifically asking for it.
    Btw, the creepy guy wasn’t even a trainer, in fact, I later learned that he didn’t qualify for a tournament I qualified for, so he had no business giving me “tips” whatsoever. GRR!

    1. “…this weird guy came up and started commenting on everything I supposedly did wrong.”

      Ugh. This is something different, but I’m with you… GRRR!!

      It seems annoyingly common for bro-dudes to do this with (‘helpless’, ‘clueless’) women. I’ve only had it happen once so far at the gym (the owner doesn’t count, that’s his job):

      Some big guy working in with me decided he had to tell me how I *should* be doing stuff. I just laughed and said ‘I’m not changing my workout because you said so’. He took it well (I suspect he was thinking ‘Feisty little lady, aren’t you? Hurr hurr…’ *laugh… eyeroll*)


      1. She’s back again. I’ve been watching her sculpt herself for over a year now. Her form is like an eye magnet. I can’t not look. I know that’s wrong, on one level.

        I also know that I’d need an alternate universe version of my psyche to have the guts to say how amazing she looks.

        I think that. I think that’s she’s amazing for doing that with her physique.

        She’s sculpted *herself* with patience, and persistence, and effort. Her energy shines out of her like a beacon. She was noticeably beautiful on day one.

        Now? She’s … Awesome? Breathtaking? Divine? …

        Looking at me?


        Now I look away fast, but not before she scowls at me. My stomach starts to tingle. My face flushes, and I look at the floor.

        I can see her moving towards me in my peripheral vision. Her scowl says “You evil creep!”, echoing my flinching Id.

        Oh hell.

        I wish I had the stones to look up and smile. I wish I could tell her how amazing she is. But based on that look, she’s so mad at me, I’ll be lucky not to get flayed alive.

        She stops. I *have* to look up and make polite eye contact now. I’m so owned already, it’s unreal.

        I look up into her steely stare, her fabulous eyes, those angry piercing lasers that scan my soul…

        Down …

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