Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Geek Awkwardness - It's All in the Context

Here are some definitions I found of the word geek from the magically wise Intertubes:

"part of what makes someone a geek/nerd is having poor social skills..."*

"It's kind of the defining characteristic - being into a particular thing to the exclusion of social intercourse."*

"a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, especially one who is perceived to be overly intellectual."**

"The people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult"***

The cliche of the socially awkward gamer is well known and old by now. In my own experiences with geeks (which is quite a bit) some of the stereotypes are truer than others for some people and not so for others. In my experiences with "normal" people or non-geeks, however, it is the same. Some people are just socially awkward and others are not. Is there a higher proportion of this phenomenon with geeks? Maybe, but maybe not. The issue is really about context.

Let's look at the contexts in which such judgments get made. America suffers from a strong anti-intellectual modern culture. In recent memory I can think of some of the attacks made on Obama as an "elitist" due to his level of education/intellect, or on a broader scope, the worship of sports at institutions of higher learning. This has a strong influence on small kids who don't yet realize that they are much more likely to be successful in life outside of professional sports and Hollywood than inside. As a bullied child I got the lesson loud and clear that geeks are bad and deserving of being bullied because they are so. Thankfully, I was so disgusted by the bullies that I decided in adolescence that I had no desire to be a part of mainstream culture. At a time when kids are learning sociality, these geeks are being pushed to the outside where they can't learn these skills. I was not immune. I am probably still missing a few common social skills, but I still don't care. For some this has a lasting effect, others are more resilient and get over it as adults.

To ensure this post doesn't become tldr, I'll leave this simplistic explanation of childhood at this, but do understand it is very simplistic - so much so there is even a whole book written on it, Nerds by Dr. David Anderegg. I highly recommend it.

Jumping to adulthood - I decided to pay attention to this at one of my favorite hangouts, which happens to be - surprise surprise - a geek bar. I've been hanging out here fairly regularly over the past year, since it opened, so I have had the chance to get to know a few of the regulars and employees. All of the employees are geeks, none of them awkward. I would also say the same for most of the customers I have met, not all of them mind you, but most. I've brought a few of my geeky friends in, within minutes they fit right in. Why wouldn't they? It's a geek bar filled with geeks. They can talk about the things they find interesting without clearing the room. It's context. Take these same people and stick them in a sports bar or trendy night club and you are likely to see a very different story. Why wouldn't you? It's a barely familiar atmosphere filled with people that share few if any interests with the wallflower.

The issue here is context. Different people fit in better with different groups and environments. The same person maybe look, act, and feel awkward in one situation, then turn around and be the life of the party somewhere else. For the same reason insults also change with venue. While "geek" and "nerd" maybe used derogatorily at a night club, at a geek bar/convention/gaming group etc. its a compliment, and vice versa with calling someone a "bro" or a jock. Here's an example from Facebook. The following comments were posted in response to the following picture:

"Best shirt in the 'verse."
"cool as ice"
"A term of pride, ... A term of pride."
*Each line is a different person*

What a great note end on: Geek, a term of pride.

*The Student Room
***Urban Dictionary
****I don't like to discriminate so my FB friends consist of both geeks and non-geeks - it is both hilarious and scary when members of each faction decide to respond to the same post.

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