Information Technology Dark Side

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Being a Geek is a Good Thing?

May 31st, 2006 · 4 Comments

Is there a difference between geeks and nerds? Let me tell you what Webster says:

Geek: 1 : a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake 2 : a person often of an intellectual bent who is disapproved of.

What the heck? A wild man who bites off snake heads? How did that evolve into a dude with a pda on his belt?

Nerd: perhaps from nerd, a creature in the children’s book If I Ran the Zoo (1950) by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) : an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially : one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.

Sweet. The next time someone calls you a nerd, thank Dr. Seuss.

I think there is a difference between geeks and nerds, and I think it’s important. Why? Because nearly everyone in IT is a geek or a nerd! Including you. But not me. I’m normal. Right.

Let’s start with nerds. It never occurred to me until I attended a training course taught by Scott Rosenke, who offered a definition for nerds that had never really sunk in before. The dominant trait of a nerd is his or her social ineptitude. A nerd does a very poor job of reading social cues that other people tend to take for granted. For instance:

  • A nerd can’t tell when other people are angry
  • A nerd can’t dance, and possibly doesn’t know he can’t dance (except formal dance, nerds sometimes excel at this)
  • A nerd is easily made fun of because he is initially unaware of mockery
  • A nerd can’t tell when it’s time to go home, in spite of significant cues (like a yawning host who has changed into his pajamas)

  • It occurred to me that being a nerd really doesn’t have anything to do with personal interests and hobbies. Cool people and nerdy people can share the same interests. They can both love movies, rollerblading, and martial arts. It’s the way they relate to other people that makes them nerds. When a nerd talks about martial arts, he’s completely unaware of his audience’s complete lack of interest in it and rambles on about the fifth step in the seventh kata of Shotokan karate in spite of eyes rolling, yawns spilling, and dates falling asleep in their soup. A normal person can read his audience, take their cues into account, and move on to more engaging topics. Nerds can’t.

    Very few people are true nerds (i.e. exhibiting nerdy behavior in every situation we encounter). Most of us lapse into social ineptitude on occasion and walk away feeling like nerds. IT people should make every effort to identify their nerdy tendencies and limit them as much as possible. Here are some nerdy behaviors that I see frequently in IT people that can and should be eliminated.

  • One-upmanship: Every IT shop has a one-upper, someone who always has a better story than every one else, regardless of the topic. If you wrote an application with six layers of abstraction, the one-upper wrote one with seven. This is just stupid. Don’t do it. Just keep your lid shut when this tendency arises. It only marks you as a nerd, desperate to prove his worthiness to be accepted as cool.
  • Interrupting: I have sat in hourlong meetings where not a single sentence was completed before someone else barged in with their opinion, sadly destined to be incomplete as well. Interrupting, used sparingly, is a useful tool, but to be so it must be used conciously and deliberately. Otherwise, you’re just another inconsiderate nerd who can be ignored.
  • Overtalking: This is the interruption gone bad. You barged in, in the middle of someone else’s thought, and they didn’t have the courtesy to stop talking. So you just keep on talking, oblivious to the fact that you’ve just reduced the meeting to a useless cacophony. If you don’t interrupt, you won’t overtalk.
  • What’s your favorite nerdy behavior? Drop it in the comments section.

    Now for geeks. I’m going to characterize geeks as people with fairly normal social skills but with a fascination for technology that is puzzling to non-geeks. Here are some examples of “geeky” behavior:

  • Programming a VCR
  • Carrying a PDA, Blackberry, and cell phone
  • Writing a blog about technology
  • Sending Mark Cuban emails
  • Contributing to open source software projects on your own time
  • Playing Zelda, the Ocarina of Time for 72 hours straight
  • Geekish behavior often seems strange to non-geeks, not because of social ineptitude but because non-geeks don’t have enough common interests with geeks to relate to the things geeks do. They’ve never programmed a VCR, played Zelda, or written a line of code, and therefore feel completely lost when geeks talk about these subjects. A geek who is not a nerd recognizes this discomfort and either finds a way to help non-geeks relate to the topic or changes the subject altogether.

    Geeks can get along with non-geeks much more easily than nerds can get along with non-nerds, because geeks can have social skills. Also, geeks can usually find geeky circles to run in where they’re interests are shared and no one ever asks for help programming a VCR. Nerds on the other hand, generally hate other nerds for the same reasons that they themselves are disliked.

    So, what to do about geeky behavior in corporate IT? NOTHING! It’s a key trait. Love technology. Strap that PDA to your belt, buy another book on Ruby on Rails, and write a nice long post about web services security. If you keep your nerdish behaviors in check, your geeky behaviors will be an asset.

    Smother the nerd in you. Set the geek free.

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    4 responses so far ↓

    • 1 thirdshift // Jun 1, 2006 at 10:12 am

      Two thoughts:

      My wife is a speech therapist and many of the social characteristics you associate with nerds sound similar to Asperger Syndrome, a milder form of autism, to me.

      I am probably an Interruptor. It is a defense mechanism against Overtalkers. If it were only socially acceptable to smack people when they say, “…and again”, or “…as I said”. I heard them the first time and now I’ll be interrupting because we are going to talk about what I think matters and might have a chance of moving this meeting forward or, heaven forbid, wrapping it up.

    • 2 Rohit Sood // Jun 6, 2006 at 6:57 pm

      I argue that the difference between a Geek versus Nerd is the same difference that separates the eccentrics from the uncouths. Also, most often the nerds are the ones that are geeks, the geeks are often nerds, some nerds are not geeks, and some geeks are not nerds. A nerd is an uncouth person a geek is an eccentric. I think geeks are odd, and are not really the talented few who run the show in corporate America. The genius may be a nerd, a geek, neither, or both. The leader in corporate America may not be nerdy nor geeky, unless the leader is a perceived genius.

      I respond in more detail here:


    • 3 Christy Nicol // Aug 4, 2006 at 7:10 pm

      This thread is dead beyond dead, but I had to chime in anyway. You’re leaving out a very important type of geek – the hip geek, formerly the Mac geek. This geek owns an iPod and a VW, has a website that looks awesome and is always color-coordinated. If he’s in IT he’s on the creative side (new media), but he’s probably not in IT at all. He is just as into tech as the typical geek, but is somehow way more cool.

      There aren’t too many hip geeks in corporate America, though, as corporate America does not put much value on creativity, and almost no value on hipness at all.

      It also worth noting that we are talking about tech geeks exclusively, but the term extends to many other interests. There are drama geeks, band geeks, comic book geeks, anime geeks, board game geeks and many, many others. Geekiness is really about two things – a passion for a subject and a depth of knowledge about it. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that!

    • 4 Allen // Sep 5, 2006 at 1:42 am

      The thing that seems missing off of the above definitions of “Geek” is “…to the exclusion of what others consider normal social interaction”. Geeks still pay a social stigma for their dedication to their subject. But really we only have so much time in life. So where are you going to choose to spend your heart beats?

      Here is a spectacular piece on the subject:

      A good way for a geek to cover up their dedication is to also spend some time keeping up with current popular subjects of the mainstream…. for example following a reality tv series. It allows one to quickly shift to that topic if you run into someone that doesn’t “get it”.

      I first noticed the problem in about 4th grade when the other kids didn’t like me answering all the teachers questions. I wasn’t hogging the bandwidth, but noone else was stepping up to the plate (ie they hadn’t done the homework). I quickly learned to play dumb with the rest of them. Though usually there came a point where I could no longer stand the crickets chirping and I had to raise my hand. That’s where I learned I didn’t care much anymore… because the world (or class in this case) needed to progress.

      Most all advice I ever distilled from life (and I see the theme here on this blog) are various forms of “keep your mouth shut”. It’s sad to me. But I suppose balance in all things is key.

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