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The Ten Commandments of Flirting, Or, How to Not Be Creepy at Atheist Conventions

The atheist community is abuzz over a discussion at last month's Women in Secularism conference, in which it inadvertently emerged that there are prominent speakers who have a reputation for predatory behavior and whom atheist women informally warn each other to avoid. This revelation (as well as a few recent high-profile examples of unacceptable behavior) is leading to the institution of anti-harassment policies at many of the major annual conventions, something I'm very happy about.

Still, from the usual quarters, we're hearing the absurd fear that these policies are "Talibanesque" (because the Taliban are well-known for their strong anti-sexual-harassment stance) and will suppress well-intentioned and harmless social interaction. Some people are even threatening not to go to conventions that have them, saying that they create too much "drama", or that they're "dividing the movement" (and harassment doesn't?).

I want to stress that if I thought for even a moment that anti-harassment policies would have this effect, I'd be strongly against them. I'm all in favor of everyone having a good time at atheist conventions. I'm all in favor of people getting to meet and greet famous atheists, to network, and to make friends. And I'm all in favor of flirting, dating and sex being options for people at conventions, if that's what they're there for. These policies aren't intended to stifle these activities, nor will they. The whole point is that they make these events more enjoyable for everyone, by ruling out only those behaviors that make others feel demeaned or afraid for their safety.

I realize that bad behavior isn't always intentional. There are predatory people who are aware of the rules and deliberately break them, but I think there are also some socially awkward people who genuinely don't realize when they're making others uncomfortable. In the interests of helping the latter group so that members of the former group can't easily camouflage themselves among them, I want to offer this non-exhaustive list of guidelines on how to not be creepy at conventions. This is mostly, but not exclusively, a guide to flirting, since that's where the interpersonal stakes are highest, but all these tips are applicable in ordinary social interaction as well.

Pay attention to body language. In social settings, people rarely communicate their intentions in direct language (this Steven Pinker video explains why), so it's important to perceive what goes unsaid, what they express in their posture, body language and tone of voice. Body language can be difficult to interpret, but there are a few common tells. If someone looks away from you while talking; if they answer in monosyllables; if they repeatedly lapse into silence unless asked a direct question - all these things are often signs that they're uncomfortable, and that you should stop whatever you're doing that's making them feel this way.

Don't barge into other people's conversations. This happened to me and some friends at the last Skepticon. At dinner on Sunday night, an obnoxious old guy was following people around and loudly interjecting himself into their conversations, steamrolling over whatever they were talking about to express his own political opinions. (He was a fan of Rush Limbaugh, as I recall, although this would have been equally unpleasant if he had been a liberal.) If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: Don't be that guy.

My advice is, if you want to join someone else's conversation, sit and listen for a while first. (If they're all at a table and you're not, asking "May I join you?" is a must.) Then, when you have something relevant to contribute, jump in. Don't try to drag a discussion onto the topics you want to talk about, and don't start talking to people without regard for whether they're interested in what you have to say. A real conversation should be an exchange of ideas between all the participants, not a pulpit for one person to monologue.

Don't interrupt or talk over other people. Even once you've successfully joined a conversation, remember: every participant should be treated as an equal and given a chance to speak. Even if you're all talking about the same thing, if you're trying to dominate the conversation by repeatedly interrupting or talking over other people, it's rude and off-putting and will make others not want to be around you. This is a common symptom of mansplaining, and as that implies, it's especially common for men to do this to women. If you're a man, bear this in mind and be extra cautious not to do it.

Don't approach people in private or enclosed spaces. This, of course, is the rule whose breaking set off the internet flamewar that shall not be named. Even a gesture that would be innocent in other contexts can seem creepy or threatening if it's in a non-public setting, where there are no other people around, or one where the other person can't easily remove themselves if they feel uncomfortable. This applies to hallways, staircases, elevators, parking garages, and all enclosed or isolated spaces that usually aren't the setting for social interaction. If you meet someone in one of these places, it's probably best not to try to strike up a conversation. If you have to say something, make it a polite "hello" and go on your way.

Recognize that other people's time is valuable. Again, this is an issue where That Guy-ism often rears its head. At a convention, the speakers and organizers are there to work and to network; most ordinary convention-goers are there to meet friends and have a good time. In either case, they probably want to meet and talk to as many people as possible, and if you monopolize a stranger's time, you'll quickly be judged annoying, rude, and a Person to Avoid.

If you want to introduce yourself to someone, don't give them your life story; boil it down to a few relevant facts. If you want to tell someone else an anecdote, make it short and get right to the point. If you want to ask a question after a talk, don't ask one that's long-winded, interminable, or that has numerous unrelated parts and sub-clauses. And remember that not everyone has the same interests as you do: a stranger at a convention is likely not going to want to hear your dissertation on the origins of religion.

Approach people in public forums intended for social interaction. So, if you can't ambush someone in an elevator or wait for them in the hallway outside their hotel room, where can you meet and greet your fellow convention attendees? The answer is, in the forums that are set up and designated for just such a purpose! If you want to meet a speaker, most of them have Q&A sessions after their talks or chat with attendees at book signings. And every convention I've ever been to has satellite meetups in local pubs, restaurants and coffee shops before and after each day's activities, which you can easily find out about either from the convention website or just by asking around. This is where people go to get to know other people, and if you want to strike up a conversation or flirt with a stranger, this is where you should go to do it.

Take no for an answer and don't pressure people to say yes. Flatly saying "no" to a stranger can come off as blunt and rude, and many people find it difficult to do. Most people in social settings use evasions like "I'm sorry, I already have other plans," "I've had a long day and I'd like to go to bed," and so on - statements that are meant as, and usually interpreted as, polite refusals. If someone says something like this to you, don't pretend not to understand, don't argue, and don't keep asking hoping they'll change their mind. Accept it with dignity, excuse yourself and find someone else to talk to.

Don't touch people without their permission. If the other person is someone you know well, this rule probably doesn't apply. And if it's someone you're meeting for the first time, a friendly handshake is unlikely to ever go wrong. But in most other circumstances, it's not a good idea to touch someone anywhere on their body if you're not absolutely sure it's OK. This particularly applies to anyone who goes out of their way to touch only people they're sexually attracted to, which is highly noticeable, and it especially applies to men who make an effort to "accidentally" touch or brush up against women. I've seen this happen, and mark my words, guys: you're not getting away with it. Women are well aware of when you're doing this on purpose, and you can be sure they'll circulate your name as someone to avoid.

Respect people's personal space. Not touching people without their permission is the bare minimum, but it's also advisable not to intrude on people's personal space too closely. When you stand excessively close to a stranger, it feels like an assertion of dominance, which makes people feel intimidated and uncomfortable. A good general rule is to leave a foot or two of space between you and the other person. If you're in a crowded elevator or at a crowded table, it may be unavoidable to come closer to a stranger than you otherwise would, but in all other circumstances, you should respect this rule if possible.

Don't think you're the exception to all these other rules. This may be repetitious, but it needs to be said. At any convention, there's a small minority of people who, whether through alcohol or simple egotism, are convinced that they have no need for codes of conduct, that they can act however they want and expect to be rewarded for it. Needless to say, this attitude falls farther from the innocent-mistake end of the scale and more towards the sociopath end, and those who most need to hear this advice are unlikely to heed it. But for completeness' sake, I wanted to mention it. It's this privileged attitude that we most need to slay to make the atheist movement a safe and welcoming place for nonbelievers of all kinds.

What other advice do you have for how people can have a good time without coming off as creepy?

Image: shutterstock.com

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

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  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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//This will actually fire event. Should be called after consent was verifed