September 11, 2006

Nerd-Off Follow-up

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at September 11, 2006 2:18 PM

Sean Carroll has an interesting take on this subject, which I more-or-less agree with.

Tags: Life

I'll go with partially disagree, myself. Let's face it, a lot of us (including myself) fit both sides of the definition. I would agree with Sean that it would be bad for people to actively try to be socially inept, but I know of no such examples. Apparently Sean does. Anyway, I personally do "pursue academic and intellectual interests at the expense of social skills such as: interpersonal communication, fashion, and physical fitness" so I will happily acknowledge my nerdliness/geekiness and that of others. Except that Rob Knop seems to be the supreme overlord of all things nerdy/geeky, so I kind of tuned out when I saw how out-of-my-league this whole nerd-off was. :-D

Picking up the previous comments, I've always thought of nerd and geek as interchangeable, with the latter as the preferred usage. If there's a reason for that preference, it's probably something simple and pop-cultural like geeks not being eaten as candy or being featured in silly movies. Heh, that appears to be the PHD comics rationale - "80s term we'd all like to forget". Since I don't distinguish between nerd and geek, obviously IMHO both can get married if they have the desire and opportunity. :-)

Posted by: Justin | September 11, 2006 5:24 PM

I'm also not with Sean on this.

Nearly all of my favorite people are nerds and a large part of it has to do with certain nerd characteristics they have. So while it's true that I'm better at interacting with a certain kind of person than others (and bad at social interactions in general), those are also predominantly the people with whom I want to spend me time.

Also, it's strange how fashion would be considered a social "skill." In large part, it's a social choice, as are many aspects of nerdiness. Now, I would like to improve my communication skills---i.e., things that are actually skills---but I would certainly not trade geekdom for the lack thereof.

Posted by: Mason | September 11, 2006 7:26 PM

It does seem as if we have very different perspectives on this. Many of my friends are nerdy in some way, but this seems to be just a selection effect after spending four years at Caltech and five more in a physics department. When I meet non-nerdy people I seem to make friends with them at an equal rate, and it doesn't seem to be nerdy characteristics that draw me to other people. (However, I'd be hard pressed to identify what does draw me to other people--it's not at all clear to me what personality characteristics make some people more compatible with me than others.)

My comments on this subject may partially be an outgrowth of concerns I've had recently about my own social skills. Specifically I feel like I'm too inaccessible, in that I meet people but rarely connect with them in any significant way. Obviously the "right" level of accessibility will differ from person to person, so hopefully I'm not unconsciously universalizing my own goals in these anti-nerd remarks, but it's a possibility.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | September 11, 2006 10:03 PM

I know I have a tendency to come across as inaccessible, and in theory I'd like to fix that.

I don't connect with very many people, and just about everybody with whom I do connect is either a nerd or a nerd groupie.

There is no question that nerdy characteristics help draw me to other people. Among other things, I am far more comfortable around "my own kind." This relates essentially to common interests and world views. I did a far better job of making friends as a Caltech student than I did before or have since. It is partly a matter of being less comfortable elsewhere and partly a matter of finding fewer people with whom I even want to become friends. I just didn't have much in common with most of these people, and the probability of my having stuff in common with a nerd than a non-nerd is simply much higher.

If I were not at Caltech, I suspect my friends would be comparably nerdy. I'd just have a lot fewer of them. :)

Posted by: Mason | September 11, 2006 11:09 PM

Nerd groupie... thats a term I had never heard before. Is that the same as a nerd wantabe?

I think I am lucky although many of my friend are either nerdy or otherwise not the social norm (normally in a good way) (the luntics from high school certainly count here) I have found I also am capable of relating at least in work and light social situations to "normal" people (I was lucky and inhertied enough of my dads lawyer genes to be able to make small talk easily enough).

Posted by: shellock | September 12, 2006 7:25 AM

A nerd groupie is someone who is not a nerd but likes to hang around them. One of my friends is a self-described nerd groupie. I am not aware of this being a standard term, but it's one I like very much.

Oh yeah... I don't particularly believe in small talk. There seem to be actually degrees of smallness in such talk, so my statement above really needs to be refined, but it's more or less accurate.

Posted by: Mason | September 12, 2006 10:16 AM

Mason, I think the inclusion of fashion has to do with the skill of knowing what's considered appropriate for various settings. As you say, there's also the choice of whether to act on that knowledge. This topic may be one that applies more to female geeks than males, cultural expectations being what they are.

AG, do you find as much geekiness in grad school as undergrad? I sure didn't. My most immediate negative impression of Columbia was how depressingly normal the other astro grads were. The same was true of UCSC, though since it's a larger department there were a few fellow geeks over the years.

Regarding personality characteristics, I highly recommend "Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence" by David Keirsey. It basically groups Myers-Briggs personality types into four broad categories, which have varying levels of compatibility with each other. I found that very helpful (I was deliberately looking for *NF* when I met Lesleigh, for example). Most likely what draws you to some people over others would be the N vs. S axis of Myers-Briggs space, I'd think.

Posted by: Justin | September 12, 2006 12:07 PM

Justin: I did find more geekiness as an undergrad, but while Berkeley physics grads are normal compared to Techer undergrads, they are still pretty geeky compared to the general Berkeley population.

Keirsey's books on personality have been recommended to me before; I've read someone else on Myers-Briggs but I can't remember the author or title (this was quite a while ago). I tend to get classified INT[J/P] but I don't know what that implies for compatibility.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | September 12, 2006 3:23 PM

I have an easier time making friends with fellow nerds, mainly because of having an easier time finding shared interests. Of course, in the past year or two I've actually (gasp!) made friends completely independently of tech for the first time... well, the first time since I got to tech. A little strange.

For my 2c on personality tests, I'll toss it out that I usually come up as INFP--the *NF* comes up rock solid, and the rest comes up a bit wishy-washy and will sometimes flip. Somehow I doubt that's enough for me to be Justin's kind of man-bitch, though.

Pride in social ineptitude, or pride in freedom from arbitrary social constraints? It's a really fuzzy line.

Some nerds are proud simply to differ from accepted social norms--I expect typically stemming from a disdain for society at large (at least I can speak for feelings I have personally held). Some, instead, take pride in not forcing themselves to adhere to arbitrary constraints on their behavior--if they so desire, they'll damn well wear white after Labor Day (again, I've felt this way myself). Some might take pride specifically in the ineptitude itself--at this point we're straying from rationality, but the psychological effect is not at all uncommon (guilty myself as well, though with different subject matter).

On the subject of arbitrary social constraints, often nerds (or us, or just myself if people don't want me generalizing about them) forget the value they do hold, or at least *why* they hold value.

Language makes a good example here--the fact that the sequence of letters that makes you think of one of those woody-leafy-things is "T-R-E-E" is fairly arbitrary, but holds value because that same arbitrary association is shared by anyone who speaks english. Social norms have a similar shared benefit, though it's less obvious. It's more a function of familiarity. The more two people share in common, even if it's just arbitrary social norms, the more likely they are to be comfortable conversing and relating to one another--making the notions of "self" and "other" more similar. A useful social device, even if it's built on completely arbitrary (well, historically usually not so arbitrary) constructs.

That being said, nerds develop plenty of their own social devices and rules, just like any other social group. Talking about Picard wielding a light saber is as much of a faux pas as talking about Rice catching the ball for a home run...

I do think there's a valuable distinction between knowing what's acceptable and having the personal freedom to choose whether or not to adhere to such rules. Put the stupid-ass social norms to work for you when they're to your advantage, but also have freedom from them when they'd only cramp your style--more power to you if wear a starfleet uniform to, say, a ren faire, as a completely random *coughcough* example.

I think I should STFU, dunno why... Back to workwork!

Posted by: Lemming | September 12, 2006 4:00 PM

The two-second summary of Keirsey is that N-S is the dominant dimension. Within Ns, T-F is the other important dimension, while within Ss, it's P-J that matters. I'm also an INT* (slightly more P than J, I think, but it's close). NTs generally get along with each other and find NFs complementary. SPs and SJs are pretty alien - probably not worth the effort.

Then there are the weirdos who are in the middle of the N-S axis. A couple like that recommended Keirsey to me and credited the book with saving their marriage. IIRC one functions as an INTJ at work and ISTJ at home. I suppose that's a very socially adaptable and capable personality, if used intelligently.

What's this white clothing and Labor Day thing? Never heard of that one.

Posted by: Justin | September 12, 2006 4:46 PM

It's just about the canonical example of a seemingly senseless fashion rule. Read all about it.

Posted by: Lemming | September 12, 2006 5:19 PM

I think I came out as INTP, though I haven't taken the test in a while. And I'm not currently going to bother thinking about whether that result makes sense because I'm tired.

By the way, 'here here' to much of what Lemming wrote.

Of course, common ground to ease things along can be as simple as having attended the same school at some point, even if there was no overlap or anything else. It's a shared experience, just like many other things (and in the case of Caltech, more powerful for me than other things). I find out somebody went to Caltech, and I immediately become more comfortable because there is (1) the common experiences at Tech (like pain and suffering) and (2) the implication that we probably have many additional things in common.

Posted by: Mason | September 13, 2006 12:28 AM

I knew there was a relevant Dinosaur Comics episode on the subject of social norms, but it took me a while to find it.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | September 15, 2006 12:36 PM
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