Unspoken social agreements


posted by on body project, exercise, musing

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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