January 18, 2011

Geeks, Nerds, and Mundanes

This letter was prompted by a high schooler attending our session at ScienceOnline2011. I think, however, that it's worth saying to an awful lot more kids.

Dear Stacy Baker's students:

First of all, thank you for so many of you attending the It's All Geek to Me session. You added a multi-generational perspective that's hard to achieve in a conference setting, and you cracked us all up more than once. You also asked good questions.

Now, please let me apologize for how I handled one of those questions. I should have been ready to answer the nerd-vs.-geek question, but I wasn't, and I mangled it badly. My joke about "I hang out with geeks with social skills" was only a joke, but it's not remotely funny outside a group of people who know what I actually think about the subject. To anybody else who's been called a nerd, it's just hurtful. I'm very sorry about that.

"Nerd" is a stereotype, of course. A nerd is that person who can't make conversation, can't ever think of the right thing to say, can't dress the way everybody else does (clothes being another form of communication), has awkward body language. A nerd is a person defined by their inabilities. A nerd has no social skills. And since humans are pretty much defined as the social animal, a nerd is somehow impaired in his or her humanity.

It's an ugly stereotype. This is what I meant when I said I don't use the word because it's exclusionary.

What I didn't get around to saying was that it is also nonsense. Social interaction is critical to humanity, but it is our capacity for abstract thought that sets us apart much more. Geeks who don't fit in socially among non-geeks tend to do very well in the realm of abstract reasoning. There's absolutely no basis look down on these geeks and plenty of reasons to look up to them.

That's not the only reason it's nonsense, either. It isn't that people classed as nerds have no social skills (despite my stupid joke). Everybody, even the most developmentally delayed person, has some social skills. If you have the ability to make someone laugh on purpose--not everyone all the time, just someone even once--you have advanced social skills. Humor is hard. It requires empathy, understanding others' expectations, coordinating timing, negotiating taboos, and a host of other joke-specific considerations. You can't be purposely funny without social skills.

So why do people say nerds don't have social skills? Well, largely because they're not using that empathy. Also because they're looking at the question from the limited perspective of their own culture.

One of the things we talked about in the session is how valuing information very highly shapes social interaction. If you get enough people together who value information to that degree, eventually those ways of interacting become their own set of agreed-upon social rules. At that point, you've got a culture.

In this case, you've got a geek culture, or a geek subculture, since geeks aren't in the majority. It doesn't look like the mainstream culture, but that doesn't make it any less valid--just different. Being able to successfully navigate the geek subculture isn't any harder or easier in terms of requiring social skills than navigating mainstream culture. It's also just different.

While someone from the geek culture may have a difficult time navigating the mainstream culture, it's not the case that geek culture is easier. Someone from the mainstream culture won't be able to easily navigate the social expectations of geek culture either. There are really only two differences. The first is that people in geek culture feel more pressure, as the minority, to accommodate someone from mainstream culture.

Second, there are different words for people who "invade" each culture from the other unsuccessfully. Those who are strangers in the mainstream culture are called "nerds." Those who are strangers in the geek culture are sometimes called "mundanes." It's not any nicer or less judgmental a word than "nerd." It's just coming from a different source.

So the real answer to "What's the difference between geeks and nerds?" is that a nerd is a geek outside of her or his culture. And that's why I don't use "nerd." It's just one more word that says, "Your kind isn't welcome here."

Now, as for the reason I made the joke I did. To understand, you have to know a certain amount about my past.

I really did grow up with limited social skills. I was very shy, and I grew up in a house where getting things wrong had consequences that no kid should have to deal with. Since developing good social skills requires a lot of trial and error, I was pretty backward in that respect.

A little later, I spent a lot of time as a poor geek in an area where the geeks were mostly well-off. If geek and non-geek are different cultures, so are poor and rich, or even poor and comfortably middle class. This was a disadvantage for me in that I moved between cultures where I never quite fit in. If I was with the geeks, I was behaving "wrong" for their socioeconomic culture. If I hung out with my class, my interests (and thus I) bored them to tears. I didn't meet their cultural expectations for entertainment.

I was always under pressure to conform to a culture that was a major mismatch to my identity. On the other hand, that situation taught me so much more about cultures, acceptance and exclusion, and the variability of what is "right" than being comfortable could ever have done. I learned a huge repertoire of social skills adaptable to most situations. And I became the kind of communication geek who could and would propose a session about navigating the cultural expectations of geeks and non-geeks.

Ironically, that joke came out in that session at ScienceOnline because I was as close to being in a room of my peers as I ever am in a group of more than about ten people. My mistake was in assuming that shared geekhood would provide enough shared background for everyone to understand what I would mean by "geeks with social skills."

I apologize for taking that for granted, and I hope this post helps.

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