Monday, July 30, 2007

 

Notes on Nerds

According to this article in the New York Times, the question of nerd-dom is finally starting to receive a tiny fraction of the attention it deserves.

A linguist at UCSB has identified the essence of nerdiness as “hyperwhiteness,” or a refusal to engage in the cherry-picking of African-American culture that cooler white kids do to bond. Of course, Weird Al Yankovic figured this out already and set it to music; his “White and Nerdy” became an instant classic by encapsulating white nerddom in a series of painfully accurate vignettes. (“My rims don't spin/to the contrary/I think you'll find that they're quite stationary”)

As shorthand, it's recognizable, but there's so much more to it than that. (For that matter, the paradigmatic nerd is the Asian math whiz, not the white kid. Do your research, people!)

Back in the early 80's, when my nerdiness could actually be seen from space, the cool white kids didn't know from rap. The whole 'acting black' thing didn't catch on until the late 80's at the very earliest. Depending on income, the cool white kids listened to either Future Lite Rock (Hall and Oates, Huey Lewis, Phil Collins) or Burnout Metal (Rush, Pink Floyd, Ozzy). When trying to attract girls, they'd fuse the two into the unholy musical synthesis of the Power Ballad. (“Every rose has its thorn/Just as every night has its dawrn/Just as every cowboy sings the same sad sorng...”) As Butthead explained to Beavis ten years later, “sometimes cool bands have to do wuss songs to get chicks.”

Meanwhile, my nerd friends and I quoted Tom Lehrer tunes (a kid singing “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” would probably trigger a lockdown now) and entire Monty Python sketches. The girls were, mysteriously, unimpressed, and therefore mostly absent.

Looking back, my nerd posse was a gumbo of late bloomers (hi!), closeted gays, and conservative Christians. (Those categories weren't mutually exclusive.) What we all shared was a discomfort with the dominant social scene, if for different reasons. So we cobbled together what we could, often in idiosyncratic ways. And if there's one thing that the teenage shock troops of gender conformity can't abide, it's genuine idiosyncracy. (This is not to be confused with Approved Idiosyncracy, like getting a mohawk, or dressing Goth, or tattoos. Those are accepted as flourishes within approved categories.)

As they mature, nerds can go in different directions. Dumb nerds have a tough row to hoe; in my observation, they usually wind up as druggies or Trekkers or captives of some strange and random enthusiasm they take much too far.. (The “Worst. Episode. Ever.” guy on The Simpsons pretty much captures it.)

The closeted gay nerds often weren't really nerds at all, so once they come out, that's that. The closeted gay conservative Christians deserve a study of their own.

Some of the smarter nerds become relatively high-functioning over time (hi!). We tend to age with relative equanimity, since we don't experience aging as the loss of coolness, never having been cool in the first place. With kids and a mortgage, certain topics that would have been unforgivably nerdly at earlier ages become, if not cool, at least relevant. With a little effort, we can pass ourselves off as “on the quiet end of normal,” rather than as the repulsive pariahs we once were and never quite forget being. With age and experience, some of the sharper edges get sanded down, and some of us manage to fill in some of the personality gaps with life wisdom that we once filled in with brittle bluster.

The Wife has advised her single friends to seek out the high-functioning nerds, since we tend to treat our wives better. Besides, there are times in life when a guy who hasn't been anybody's babydaddy can hold a certain appeal. I once posted an essay on the “nice guy syndrome,” or the rejection of high-functioning nerds in favor of blustery assholes, only to be soundly flamed by women readers who suggested that self-proclaimed 'nice guys' are creepy narcissists with overdeveloped senses of entitlement. I considered the objection off-point, since true nerds lack much sense of entitlement at all. But it may well be the case that creepy manipulators like to try to pass themselves off as high-functioning nerds. I consider this an affront to the honor of both nerds and women.

(Female nerds have very different experiences. I'll have to ask my battle-scarred readers to shed light on that.)

My Grand Theory of Nerdiness – every true nerd has at least one – is that it reflects having different parts of the personality mature at different rates. If you combine an introverted streak, a slow-growing social sense, and a fast-growing sense of risk aversion, you get a nerd. If the nerd is lucky, over time, the underdeveloped parts of the personality mostly catch up, and you wind up with a fairly functional, if chastened, adult. 'Acting black' is relevant only insofar as it's the trend at that moment for the cool kids. The UCSB study has mistaken a transitory symptom for the essence of the thing.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?



Comments:
Since you've figured out that the situation is different for femla nerd, why not write 'male nerd'? Because males are somehow the 'normal' variety of nerd and those of 'female persuation' are some weird minority?


Sorry, that was snarky. So, my contribution: Female nerds are pissed, because they are considered doubly weird: As nerds and as women within the nerd community.
 
I think there maybe needs to be a different term for the female ones, I dunno my experience matches to many male experiences. I'm not sure the "nerd" word is the right one for the female experience.

I was lucky in that the state school I went to valued academic achievement and didn't give a damn about sport, so a lot of the problems I hear others talk of just didn't happen. It also meant that I had a cohort of math geeks and library addicts to hang out with. Most of the female nerds I know went to an MLC school (Methodist Ladies College, private single sex schools with a strong feminist bent) rather than state schools. I suspect they flourish more where academics are valued and there are fewer social pressures to hide intelligence.

THe problems I had stemmed from not wanting to do the girly thing - preferring the company of boys as equals rather than boyfriends, not being interested in the female competiveness. Women compete with each other in all sorts of ways that are apparently invisible to men. It's a strong social pressure though, and can be difficult to deal with.

Being a female nerd gets you unpleasant notice from both sexes. The non-nerd boys don't Not Notice you, they actively attack you, and so do the girls.

On the other hand, the boy geeks are happy to see you as equal until they finally get around to realising they are supposed to view you differently but for those vital teenage years the girl nerds are way more interested in older men. At least they have some clue!

The big thing for me was finding, male or female, people who had the same idea of what was a good time. I moved in two worlds though - Science Fiction and D&D gamers on one side, and horse people on the other. I'm surprised I didn't strain my brain doing that.

I was happier with the nerds though, I didn't really fit with the horse people.
 
I think one of the better essays I've read on the whole nerdiness thing is by Paul Graham, although there's a bit much of the ``I was too smart to be cool'' tone to it, and the main focus is on popularity within the strange little world of schools. The essay was widely circulated on the interwebs a couple of years ago.

The basic thesis there is that the nerds were the ones who were distracted early on by other genuine but uncool interests, so when the jockeying for social position begins they're essentially oblivious; and then once it becomes obvious what's happening, they are unable or unwilling to expend the enormous amounts of time/energy it takes to `play the game', especially since they've got an enormous, and probably impossible-seeming amount of catching up to do.

I think that's probably true for some nerds, but there are likely multitudes of reasons for finding oneself on the outside and not really feeling able to or interested in fighting ones way inside. What's interesting to me is how a culture develops amongst a group of people whose only common characteristic is being excluded from another community.
 
The Wife has advised her single friends to seek out the high-functioning nerds, since we tend to treat our wives better.

Is that the way she puts it to them, "high-functioning nerds"? Pretty awesome. My husband is decidedly one of those, and I agree, it's worked out for the best.
 
This may just prove my nerdiness, but I once developed a taxonomy of the different varieties of nerds. The high-functioning nerd of which your wife speaks so highly I classified as a geek (not all geeks are techno-geeks) and I married one. I highly recommend them to all singles out there as well. They do truly appreciate having someone who loves them, and who will share in some of their geeky obsessions.
 
I've pretty much always been a geek, and I've pretty much always had a small set of good friends with similarly geeky interests. And there have always been plenty of geeky girls around, too.

So I never saw the point of trying to hit a moving target (coolness) that didn't particularly interest me in order to win the approval of people who didn't particularly care about me or about any of the things I cared about.

Besides, it always seemed to me that the coolest of the cool weren't trying to be cool, they were just really into whatever it was that tripped their triggers, and the crowd happened to follow.
 
I guess I'm a female nerd, although I tend to use the term geek instead. I don't think my experiences differ too much from male nerds (from what I observed having mostly only male nerds as friends in high school), but it may be true that being female and nerdy is even *more* of a slap in the face to the social norms in adolescence.

I'd have to agree with The Wife here; I think high functioning nerds do tend to treat women better. That's why I married one! But male nerds have the same problems with relationships as everyone else. I've had some creepy experiences and problems with possessiveness (from insecurity?). Maybe that's where the creep factor comes from? I think it probably gets better once all the hormones start dying down...
 
"I considered the objection off-point, since true nerds lack much sense of entitlement at all."

According to that statement, all my coworkers I've ever had are not true nerds, and I'm an engineer. I think they'd beg to differ with you on their nerditude.

I'm can't help laughing at you claiming in the same post that you can't define the female nerd experience, but that you can define the female experience of male nerds to such extremes that you can decide what is on-point and what isn't.

So which is it? You just contradicted yourself.
 
The experience of a female nerd. In hindsight, I would say that I was just half-baked. Not stoned. I blossomed late. It took me awhile to be comfortable in my new body, and to perfect my specific brand of femininity without sacrificing my dignity and intelligence. Add the hard driving competition among schoolgirls and the scrutiny provided by any school population, and there you have it.

I was waiting. Waiting to have a life outside a concrete prison where the labels on your clothes and your car in the parking lot determined your status.

My desperate wishes and hopes were not of popularity and acceptance. I wanted to be married, to be all grown up, to have a husband who loved me (and a given date for all social occasions). I wanted a life bigger than high school. My daydreams were made up of living a good life- the reward for paying my penance in high school. Finding something I was good at and not having to do things I didn't like or wasn't good at (oh! the naivety!).

I was lonely, even with my fellow nerd-girl friends. The loneliness, the exclusion, the abject social failure hurt very badly.

Yet, at the same time, I was focused on the future. Like getting out of my house and getting to college.

The worst thing I remember about middle and high school was having adults tell me "these are the best years of your life". That brought me to tears each and every time. I figured that if this was as good as it got, I was screwed stupid. Here I was placing all my bets on adulthood, as childhood offered me very little, and some ass-monkey comes along to tell me that when I actually do have control over more of my life, it will suck worse than this?

There should be a law against telling people that.

Give me my mortgage, my 401(k), my skyrocketing health insurance premiums, my high stress rewarding job and my half load of college classes over high school- any day of the week.

Thanks- you've inspired a post for my own blog this afternoon!
 
verybadcat,
"The worst thing I remember about middle and high school was having adults tell me "these are the best years of your life". That brought me to tears each and every time."

exactly. As a male nerd I wasn't allowed to cry, but that comment always produced a roiling mess of rage and misery, which I expressed by smiling sweetly (at least, as sweetly as a pimply gawky youth can). If this is as good as it gets, I'm going to shoot myself..
Luckily things did improve. In retrospect, probably the years 25-30, when I'd finally managed to accept my status and found a few friends, but had not accumulated the terrifying responsibilities of married-with-kids. Being older has its compensations too, as I really cannot bring myself to care anymore: it's very liberating to attain oldfart-dom, even if it does embarrass the kids. I shall wear purple..
 
Well as a huge Rush fan and nerd/geek, I don't think Rush was what the cool kids of any sort were listening to in my high school years.

I'm just back from a weekend in Vegas, which can best be described as a NerdFest. What did my 40something buddy and I do?

1. Went to the Star Trek Experience at the Hilton

2. Saw Rush at the MGM Grand Arena

3. Saw Spamalot at the Wynn.

That's like the ultimate nerd/geek trifecta.

And yes, high-functioning male nerds treat their wives well. One reason is that we're still amazed that some woman found us interesting and attractive enough to actually spend their lives with us, not to mention the whole sex thing. ;)
 
I've always thought being a nerd/geek was just a matter of not being interested in the things you're "supposed" to be interested in (like sports) in favor of things that are "uncool" (like science fiction), combined, in most cases, with an introverted personality and higher-than-average intelligence.

I know in my own case, while I would have loved to be more popular, but I loved my "nerdy" interests more, and I really didn't feel that playing the whole Game of school was worth the time or energy.

As I got older, made friends, connected with like-minded individuals over the Internet, I came to really appreciate and relish my nerd-dom. Towards the end of high school, I even found that I was respected for it. Now, today, I consider it an integral part of my identity and am quite proud of it. Nerd Power!

And though I don't think you were really trying to say as much, DD, I can ASSURE you that there ARE gay nerds/geeks. Heck, my whole blogging persona is predicated upon the combination of those two identities! Oh, and you can also be a gay Trekker and smart and not be a total pariah! *LOL*

I like to think I'm one of your high-functioning nerds. I seem to be ageing that way, anyway.
 
The thing is, does anyone actually *think* they're cool in high school? I know who we labeled the cool kids on my high school, but I have no idea what they thought of themselves. My theory is that everyone spends adolescence feeling like they don't fit in and like their love life was horrible, regardless of what it actually looks like on the outside.

(For what it's worth, my entire cohort of friends, male and female, went around quoting Monty Python. I could quote "wafer-thin" before I'd ever seen the movie.)

Anyway, how are you actually defining nerd? I'm not sure here. I don't think nerd and social pariah are automatically synonymous (and pariah to whom?). In my experience, nerdliness really was a type, a "flourish within the approved categories." In my own school system, given the class dynamics, what put you outside the social system was being poor (and not being able to fake that you weren't).

And I have to confess that I agree with Helen's comment above!
 
So, Dean Dad? You were part of my university circle and I didn't know it. Amazing coincidence, but all the guys I hung around with sounded a lot like you (right down to quoting Tom Lehrer and Monty Python).

I try to tell my daughters to embrace their geekiness from the start. They're never going to be cool. It'll be painful to try. But they should find what they enjoy and pursue that, never mind all the popularity issues that come with this.
 
I'm going to have to disagree with you here, DD, and also point out that in the study she focused almost exclusively on language and not interests or clothing (she _is_ a linguist).

Also, I think the crossover or appropriation of black language and culture to "mainstream" white language and culture has really really increased recently --- since the invention of MTV etc. To completely misparaphrase Foucault: nerdiness has a history. What you see as the "essence" I would say is a historical iteration, and I think "today's nerds" will have a different inflection of nerdiness, with only some continuity from "your generation's nerdiness." Although, if you went and watched _Revenge of the Nerds_ (which was early 80s) I think you could see some parts of her argument in there as well.

(I think your snarking of 80s rock is spot-on, however. Heh.)
 
Discussions of childhood nerdiness always make me think of the Keynesian beauty contest.

The problem comes, I think, with being too smart or earnest and actually liking things which are interesting and fun too much -- and being too far outside the norm in some fashion to play the beauty contest game well. Athletic talent can trump this, but if one's a late bloomer or not particularly talented...

All of this goes to show how f-ed up our schools -- especially our high schools -- are, since they basically have nothing to do with how one succeeds as an adult. It just doesn't matter if you're a varsity football player (if you don't go to the pros), and it matters intensely if you find something to be good at which can be turned into something to do for a living.
 
Thanks for all the comments, everyone!

For an opposing viewpoint, in which my post is described as "a bunch of crap," see Dr. Crazy's site from yesterday. Let the reader decide.

I'll plead guilty to sloppy writing on one count: I've always considered the word 'nerd' gendered male, much like 'stud' or 'bastard.' I just haven't found a consistently applicable female equivalent. "Geek" probably comes closest, but it's not quite right. I've used phrases like "nerd girl," but always with a sense that it didn't quite work.

On the 'contradiction' with which I'm charged, I don't see it. The charge conflates the experience of nerd girls with the experiences women have of nerd guys generally. Those are two different things. I've come to accept that the 'nice guy/bad boy' debate tells you as much about the participants as it does about reality, so I'll just say that I haven't read anything to change my mind. If you haven't either, let's move on.

High functioning nerds of the world, unite!
 
Hey! Wait just one second! I did NOT say that your post was a bunch of crap. What I said, and I will quote, is the following: "Dean Dad's overall theory of nerdiness seems like a good one, but the assumptions that appear to underlie it, that guys who were nerds are somehow superior in later adulthood to other guys, well, that seems like a bunch of crap to me." Perhaps I could have said that in a gentler way, but I wasn't dismissing your post as a whole even if I was a bit harsh. In fact, I sent people who read my blog over here to read your post, which I'd not have done if what you claim I thought of the post was true. I am mystified about why you bother alerting your readers to my tangential post when you don't seem to have read it.
 
OK, another confessed nerd here (although I and my friends prefer "geek", being tech-oriented.) I had a less painful high school experience than many, mostly because I spent almost all of my non-school time hanging out with people 10+ years older than me. (I had two extracurricular geeky hobbies which were tolerant of teenagers).

Wondering if you're a high-functioning nerd? Try the description in the Jargon File Portrait. Is that you? Is that all of your friends? In my case, yes and yes.
 
Hi. Perhaps you (all) might be interested to know that Mary Bucholtz has published an article about nerd girls, entitled:
"'Why be normal?' : Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls." Language in Society 28: 203-223.

Susan
 
"The charge conflates the experience of nerd girls with the experiences women have of nerd guys generally. Those are two different things."

Nice evasion, but it doesn't fly, because of course they're not two different things. You're claiming you can't define the experience of myself and the other female nerds sitting here with me (which is correct) except as relates to our experience of male nerds, on which you are the deciding authority to such an extreme that you decide what's on point and what isn't, and you decide how to compartmentalize and carve people up for the terms of debate. That's fatuous beyond belief.

If your blog is a reasonable reflection of your work experience, you're not this reactionary on the job, so what is it about this point that's got you insisting on such an absurdity?
 
"I am mystified about why you bother alerting your readers to my tangential post when you don't seem to have read it."

I'm mystified too. We're talking about a blogger who normally writes excellent posts about not falling into the kind of behavior he's displayed on this topic.
 
"see Dr. Crazy's site from yesterday. Let the reader decide."

I did. I saw that she didn't say what you claimed she said. I also saw you post a comment on her blog that:

1. Made yet another claim she said something she didn't -- she never "denied the existence" of your experience.

2. Spent a lot of time talking about how hurt you are, while not dealing with the problem of your false statements about others. The juxtaposition of the two gives the appearance of you thinking that because you've been hurt, you get to have whatever snit you want, even though I doubt you really think that.

3. This one combines both of the previous two: "Having been accused, variously, of being 'creepy,' 'self-satisfied,' and 'smug,'...". Think about it -- this bit is just thrown into the discussion for no reason, but in such a way that indicates DD assigns deep meaning to it. And yet, those words don't appear on this thread or in anything Dr. Crazy said.
 
It's hard to imagine anything quite so nerdy as a bunch of nerds getting all heated up about the definition of nerdiness!

Which is my way of saying, "Can't we all just get along?" :-)
 
Ha! I really do think I need to start picking friends based on whether they know the song Poisoning Pigeons... (sorry - I just find it hilarious and kind of freaky whenever I hear anyone else mention that song...) Anonymous blog reader who doesn't normally read your blog but wandered over here...
 
We have a theory at Swamp Valley College that you taxonomize yourself as a "low" nerd if "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" is your examplar of Tom Lehrer songs.

It is the worst, most obvious of his songs and we have a faculty member who occasionally sings the whole thing as he picks up his mail

.. gak!

/YTLMMV!

;-)
 
Meanwhile, my nerd friends and I quoted Tom Lehrer tunes (a kid singing “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” would probably trigger a lockdown now) and entire Monty Python sketches. The girls were, mysteriously, unimpressed, and therefore mostly absent.

I refuse to date men who *can't* quote Monty Python verbatim.

perhaps Python wasn't such an entrenched thing when you were in high school, though? Python for me is something I share with my Dad, and no man is worth his salt if he can't join in.

once posted an essay on the “nice guy syndrome,” or the rejection of high-functioning nerds in favor of blustery assholes, only to be soundly flamed by women readers who suggested that self-proclaimed 'nice guys' are creepy narcissists with overdeveloped senses of entitlement. I considered the objection off-point, since true nerds lack much sense of entitlement at all. But it may well be the case that creepy manipulators like to try to pass themselves off as high-functioning nerds. I consider this an affront to the honor of both nerds and women.

and why is (male)nerd-dom dependant on not having a sense of entitlement? If you mean utterly lacking in self-esteem; believing that one does not warrant the affection of women; etc etc, why would one want to date a nerd at all?
I've dated a few Doormat Nerds, and it's a strange (yes, creepy) inversion of selfishness, whereby one partner attempts to subsume themselves to the other. This opposed to the odd confident and wonderfully nerdy man who crosses my path and makes my day :)This latter category aren't hung up over women choosing the Asshat over him, because clearly such women aren't sufficently nerdy for him.

Happily, delightedly nerdy,
~Highly
 
wow, this post and especially your comment that starts with "I've always considered the word 'nerd' gendered male" just totally makes me feel excluded as a female nerd. So after not fitting in in school because I was too nerdy, you are telling me I'm not a nerd either, because I'm female?
Are you sure you haven't been one of the "cool kids" in school? That sounds like them: You are not like me, you don't belong here.
 
Yeah, that's truly the sad thing about this whole thread. I was sure DD would see all the self-contradiction and post an "oops" message, but I was wrong. Instead he prefers to try to claim to be one of the cool kids now, more cool than you.

Sadly, he even makes some feeble attempts at trying to establish moral superiority while he plays into the old junior high game of slapping labels on people and pretending he gets to pick which labels go where. He doesn't want to get out of the game by refusing to play into juvenile labeling and cooler-than-you contests -- he just wants to be the one who wins. In short, he's trying to be what he claims to despise. It's an interesting choice.
 
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