A while ago I was looking for articles on cross-subcultural and cross-personality communication to post to r/erisology. I found this one about how to manage tech nerds in the workplace.
While I liked it, reading it was perplexing. It’s a description of IT people’s attitudes to work and how different they supposedly are. But it doesn’t make sense to me. It’s so obvious that it makes me think “who needs to be told this?” There’s just not a lot there besides “don’t be dysfunctional”. Sure, there is a lot of dysfunction in the workplace but nobody thinks of themselves as dysfunctional. “The secret to managing IT nerds well is to be competent manager” is advice about as useful as “to lose weight, expend more energy than you absorb”.
Clearly the article presupposed other background assumptions than mine. Assumptions this information was meant to contradict. So if I don’t need to be told this, maybe what I would need to be told is about those assumptions? But I couldn’t find any articles on the theme “how to deal with non-nerds in the workplace”, despite googling ferociously for several minutes.
Why is that? There’s a simple explanation: nerds aren’t the norm, so unless the topic in question itself is nerdy (and “interacting with people” is not such a topic) what you read won’t be from a nerdy perspective.
To be honest, I enjoyed that article mostly because it was flattering to techies and not because it told me anything I don’t already know. But that it supposedly tells others something new reminded me of a hard-won insight: I can’t trust my intuition when trying to understand other people.
I can’t rely on my own judgment of what’s interesting or boring, easy or difficult, obvious or counterintuitive, enjoyable or unpleasant, reasonable or off-putting, simple or complex — because shockingly often other people think the complete opposite. I have to make use of explicit knowledge because “putting myself in their shoes” hasn’t proven reliable (this is partly the origin of erisology as a discipline).
It would be nice not to have to do that.
It would be nice to have nerdy interests and sensibilities be the norm for once; to get to feel as if society is organized with me in mind, and not feel a bit like an anthropologist observing an alien civilization.
This all clicked when reading another article I found that day. Field Guide to the Nerd: It’s All Geek to Me on Psychology Today is actually fairly sympathetic, but also… annoying. It takes that underlying “nerds are not the norm” feeling and leans on it just enough to tick me off. Maybe I’m oversensitive but it really is tiresome.
“Field Guide” portrays nerds as oddities, as weirdos to be pitied, condescended to and reformed, rather than as facet of normality and a personality type as valid as any other. I don’t think there’s any malice. Just a certain rudeness-blindness that comes from being stuck in your own perspective.
Maybe it would be easier to notice if the relationship was reversed?
Picture a world where the nerdy was the normal and the direct opposite minority was considered weird. What would the equivalent of “Field Guide to the Nerd” sound like then?
I’ll get to that. But first, let’s flesh out that opposite minority.
What are they called? There’s really no term for those less nerd-like than the average person.
Yes, words like “jocks”, “bros”, or “chads” exist but they’re 1) narrowly defined roles, traits and tropes rather than proper personalities, and 2) strongly gendered male. For those reasons considering any of them the opposite isn’t taking the full personality variation into account. There’s “normies” but thats even worse for putting pronounced anti-nerds together with everyone in the middle (plus it smells of shoulder-chips).
This list offers 8o supposed antonyms but most of them are just varieties of “stupid” or “social” and that’s not what I’m looking for (at least wordhippo is properly Socratic on the issue).
What am I looking for, exactly? Something a bit more complex. Using the implied definition in “Field Guide”, here’s a cluster of psychological traits that in my mind make up the nerd pattern:
- an interest in things and ideas over people
- a concern for correctness over social harmony
- a preference for routine and predictability
- obliviousness to and/or disregard for social norms and expectations
- sensitivity to inconsistency, vagueness and ambiguity
- difficulty appreciating the social implications of their actions
- subdued emotional expression
- a view of conversation as information sharing
- a tendency to take statements literally and assume honesty
- preference for codified knowledge and rationality over instinct, experience and intuition
- strong appreciation for trivia, games and building things
- lack of appreciation for appearance, food and exercise
We get the hypothetical anti-nerd personality by reversing this:
- an interest in people over things and ideas
- a concern for social harmony over correctness
- a preference for spontaneity and novelty
- sensitivity to social norms and expectations
- obliviousness to inconsistency, vagueness and ambiguity
- difficulty appreciating the logical implications of their ideas
- strong emotional expression
- a view of conversation as relationship building and -negotiation
- a tendency to take statements as indications of implicit intentions
- preference for instinct, experience and intuition over codified knowledge and rationality
- strong appreciation for appearance, food and exercise
- lack of appreciation for trivia, games and building things
This isn’t just a random bag of traits. Many of them naturally go together and to my eyes these are two coherent clusters. I have no problem matching the anti-nerd pattern to the real world: it describes most people working in media and the arts and to a lesser degree those in social services, education, sales, marketing, PR and politics.
“Anti-nerd” is pretty clunky, so I made up another word. I tried to come up with one that sounds right the way “nerd” sounds nerdy (a kind of prickly tenseness). So I guess something with a gooey, shapeless feel? How about “wamb”? Does that sound good? Well, it’s what I settled on after a couple of Saturday afternoon Irish coffees and screw you if you don’t like it.
I think it’s reasonable to assume that the nerd-wamb axis is real and that there’s some underlying psychological-neurological explanation for it. I’m also going to assume that nerdiness-wambiness roughly follows a normal distribution, like complex properties tend to do.
The curve and the spectrum
Here’s the nerd-wamb bell curve:
People significantly to the right of the center are nerds, and (and this might not be scientifically accurate but I think it describes popular perception) even farther away are the Aspies and full-on autists. Ok. What’s on the left?
Well, I just had to invent the word “wamb” to describe it. As far as popular perception is concerned, that curve doesn’t have a left side. Either you’re in a shapeless blob in the dead center (“normal”) or you’re somewhere on the right side, “on the spectrum” (if “the spectrum” is interpreted as generously as it sometimes is).
What we’re dealing with here is a normal distribution viewed through a distorting filter that merges the left side with the center and artificially separates the right from the rest, making it appear qualitatively different and not a part of normal variation.
In our hypothetical “nerds are the norm” bizarro-world we’d have the opposite distortion. We get that by breaking wambs out from the central blob, extending the axis to the left side, and then fuse nerds with the center so our new idea of normality includes nerds and excludes wambs. There’d be an “allism spectrum”, named after something I found when googling “opposite of autism”, with wambs at its mild end and some formal diagnosis on the severe end.
In that world, “Field Guide to the Wamb” would describe wambs as weirdos with strange interests and personalities. Their weaknesses would be considered major flaws and their strengths maybe useful for some things but not essential to be a well-rounded human.
To see what that would look like and to show how irksome the original can be to someone who considers his moderate nerdiness perfectly normal and healthy, thank you very much, I took the liberty of rewriting it. I tried as best as I could to change as little as possible and match the tone, the connotation of words used and the underlying feel.
I give you:
Field Guide to The Wamb
One day when Erik Charles Nielsen was in seventh grade, his teacher taught a lesson on grammar. “Can you point out a mistake in your classmate’s attempt?” said the teacher, referring to an ungrammatical sentence on the classroom whiteboard. “I guess you can write it that way too…”, stammered Nielsen. “I’m sure Hannah is right.” A 15-minute argument ensued, where Nielsen refused to try to find the error for fear of upsetting his classmate. Eventually he was escorted from the room — despite being kind.
Nielsen was one of those sweet kids mystified by objective standards. It wasn’t just the teachers. Other kids patronized him relentlessly. For all his empathy and senstitivity, he couldn’t persuade his schoolmates to take anything he said seriously, let alone let him into their groups. “I didn’t have anything resembling an equal between third and 12th grade,” says Nielsen, now 26 and an actor in Los Angeles. He estimates he was sent home crying every two weeks.
Nielsen is a wamb — empathic but intellectually stunted. Wambs are good at thinking like animals, by instinct and loose association, but less able to comprehend abstractions, rules and systems. Nielsen’s ability to emote, flatter, and gain sympathy eventually helped him land some acting jobs, but it wasn’t helpful for understanding the world around him or developing healthy intellectual interests.
What causes someone to develop the wamb personality? Biology is partially responsible for creating what Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen calls an “empathizing brain,” or “E-brain” — a brain good at intuiting the emotions of people in front of them. The opposite is a systematic brain; S-brains are good at figuring out how things work, and people with S-brains develop a more detailed and informed understanding of the world. More women have E-brains than men, and more men have S-brains than women — though women and men both fall all over the spectrum.
People with allism, or related conditions like borderline personality disorder, appear biologically disposed to have extreme E-brains. Wambs stand squarely on the E-brain side of the spectrum, but not necessarily enough to have a condition. Some do, but not all. Wambiness and allism aren’t the same thing, but they have a lot in common.
“Wamb” is a vernacular label, not a scientific one, but it’s usually earned by a love for activities that are social and physical rather than intellectual — football, dancing, or socializing rather than learning, building things or playing games. The leisure activities we associate with wambs — team sports, gossiping and partying — all depend on primal instincts like competition, alliance building and mating, and tend not to involve intellectually complex exchange with others or the physical world.
Parenting can also be a major factor in creating a wamb, says Mel Levine, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina. “It’s the tastes they develop in their kids, the clothing and pursuits they pick for them,” he says. But adults shouldn’t force children to conform to intellectual standards. “There are a lot of anxious bright kids, and it’s better to be a happy wamb than an accomplished depressive,” he says. “Wambiness isn’t a pathology.”
Besides, wambs can learn thinking skills if they approach them with the same motivation they bring to social games, says Lawrence Welkowitz, a psychologist at Keene State College. He’s found that wambs can often master the intricacies of complex systems, compensating for disinclination with dedication and practice. He runs a peer-mentoring program in which smart kids take wambs under their wing and give them tips on how to learn and think. The exposure to the bright kids’ world gives wambs a taste of respect, insight and capability, which inspires them to keep working at it. But the learning process isn’t easy: At first, wambs tend to get more depressed as they start to understand more. “They realize it’s hard, and they’ve been missing out on a lot,” he says. “But eventually, they get more skilled.”
While some argue that wambs simply have low intelligence, Welkowitz says wambs can learn thinking skills just by getting more interested in ideas. “Wambs focus on physical activities and social topics, usually to the exclusion of maintaining a rich mental life. They have different agendas than others, who tend to focus more on knowledge, skills, and the productive aspects of work.” Once wambs grasp the rewards of having a fulfilling intellectual life, says Welkowitz, they can succeed at building one.
Some wambs benefit just from reading serious texts, says Daniel Rosenn, a psychiatrist in Wellesley, Massachusetts, who often works with kids with intellectual issues. “I’ve taken 50 word segments from academic seminars and said, ‘Let’s read this paragraph and figure out the content of what they’re saying.'” A favorite exercise is evaluating the skills of someone putting together a piece of IKEA furniture. “It gets the kid to think, ‘Well, he seemed to have pretty bad sense of sturdiness and balance, if you were his friend, what could you do to make it go better?'” With younger kids, Rosenn sets up chairs like seats on a space ship and pretends there’s a crisis to give them practice with problem solving and cooperative, goal-directed conversation.
Sometimes the solution is wamb community. Wamb subcultures like the ones surrounding sports and the arts can be safe places for wambs to learn to make way outside the brutal results-based hierarchies of school and work. (The Superbowl, the world’s largest wamb event, draws millions of fans every year.) “Team sports allows people with limited individuality to engage in parallel play,” says Welkowitz. “Football allows somebody whose identity is bound up in relationships to stay within that social world but carve out a distinct role for themselves.” That’s something wambs crave, he says, whether or not they can articulate it. Even the greatest social butterfly occasionally needs to withdraw and cultivate their individuality.
The Office Mascot—and Loving It
The hugest wamb can perform well, gain respect, even have a job that involves knowledge and thinking. The trick is to apply motivation and will to the disciplines bright kids master without trying.
Understand the human motivations driving intellectual discourse. Problem solving in teams, formal debate, and job interviews all require social acumen. Natural empathy won’t get you the whole way, but if you think in terms of goals and motivations you’ll find they’re not as difficult as highest-level diplomacy.
Take control of your thoughts and compare them to others’. Wambs have trouble analyzing and distancing themselves from their emotions and take their relevance for granted. Instead of expecting others to respond to displays of emotion like animals do, figure out what they’re thinking. If you make an effort to rationally engage with others’ thoughts, they respond better.
Stand up for yourself, but remain calm. If people sneer at you, don’t respond with histrionics. Act composed, engaging them instead of hoping for sympathy. Nobody is going to respect you for having feelings.
Ok, so it doesn’t quite work, but I tried my best.
It could never happen, of course. There are structural reasons why nerds are much more likely to be considered “not normal” than wambs, even when equally far from the statistical center. Like with extraverts and introverts (who are about equally numerous), wambs by virtue of being wambs — and therefore more focused on other people — are going to have a greater influence on social consensus, including what personalities are considered normal. Social normality doesn’t reflect statistical normality because the construction of normality is a social process and not a statistical one.
There are different structural reasons, I think, for why nerds aren’t considered social. In my experience, nerds aren’t particularly “unsociable” at all around people they already know and have a lot in common with. Now note that this has been the normal social situation for most of human history. We evolved to live in small tribes with people we’ve known all our lives and have everything in common with, and the dicey issue of interacting with strangers was up until quite recently dealt with by way of formal scripts, roles and rules (there’s a reason nerds like to roleplay old-fashioned politeness).
Large modern societies where we constantly meet new people and our interactions with them are expected to be informal and “natural” right away, requires a level of people-reading proficiency I suspect is historically unprecedented. That’s going to be tough for many, and the less you have in common with the average person the tougher it’s going to be — unless the way you’re different is by being more attuned to other people’s feelings. That is, unless you’re a wamb. Nerds get isolated.
In short: Part of nerdy asociality could be due to people being poorly adapted to an unnatural environment, not unlike how widespread obesity is a result of poor adaptation to an unnaturally wealthy, food-rich environment.
Some things I said may have been a tad harsh. I mean, “thinking like animals” is pretty mean. Is it meaner than the original’s “thinking like machines”? It feels like it might be, but the more I think about it the more reasonable I think it is. Humans have some things in common with computers, and some things in common with other animals. Calling someone an animal is insulting, to be sure, but so is calling someone a machine. And the original made seemingly no effort at all to portray “machine like” thinking as the valuable or quintessentially human thing that it is — computers were built to ape human rational thought processes after all.
While “Field Guide to the Wamb” is kind of a joke, I’m serious about pushing back against pathologization and “exoticization” of nerdy traits. The original does say “nerdiness isn’t a pathology”, but the fact that this actually has to be said reflects badly on the rest of the article. I see no moral reason (but, as mentioned above, perfectly understandable structural reasons) for one side of the nerd-wamb spectrum to be privileged over the other. Both sides have strengths and weaknesses and could probably stand to learn a thing or two from each other.
Ideally I wouldn’t have us think of nerdiness and wambiness as the characteristics of two separate kinds of people at all. We should think of them as two modes of thinking and being, both of which are valuable when used appropriately, and both of which everyone is capable of to varying degrees. Some rely more on one than the other, and that’s fine (although it does inevitably create some disagreements about what the social norms should be). Construing the difference as healthy vs. faulty, however, is not fine.
• • •
Another type that immediately comes to mind are those describing themselves as “spiritual but not religious” or as “believing in Something” while likely spending not a lot of effort on figuring out what that Something is. Which is precisely what “obliviousness to vagueness and ambiguity” would predict.
Which comes off as just a little bit insulting, like saying that short people are “on the dwarfism spectrum”, the not-so-smart “on the retarded spectrum” and every social drinker “on the alcoholism spectrum”.
There are some candidates for “extreme anti-autistic” disorders I’m now going to butcher with one sentence reductions: William’s Syndrome is a rare chromosomal disorder that makes people charming, empathetic and verbally skilled but bad at reasoning and visuospatial cognition; borderline personality disorder makes people emotionally unstable, impulsive, heavily dependent on relationships and constantly fearing abandonment and saddled with a weak sense of individual personal identity; finally there’s (according to Simon Baron-Cohen) paranoid schizophrenia, where sufferers perceive hidden intentions where there are none and mistake their own thoughts for the voices of other people.
22-year-old me would throw a fit I he saw me use a phrase like “the construction of normality” unironically. Times have changed. While sounding like pretentious jargon, it simply means the social process by which the meaning of the concept “normal” is established and maintained. Crucially, the concept in turn affects how people think and behave and therefore actually reshapes people in its own image.
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44 thoughts on “The Nerd as the Norm”
(Warning: massive comment ahead.) I have some contrasting feelings about this post. On one hand, I think I agree with your overarching point about “wambs” being the default and nerds being treated as exceptional in a sometimes rather condescending way. (Although in Slate Star Codex and its comments sections I sometimes feel there is a little too much of a persecution complex regarding this — I expanded on this here.) And your “rewritten” article was an entertaining and effective way to get the point across.
However, I disagree strongly (at least, I think) with your more object-level view of how to characterize a nerd (and thus how to characterize an anti-nerd). Your description seems to involve a list of traits that, according to your observation, tend to cluster and are frequently associated with nerdiness. I’m a little uncomfortable with some of the specific choices of traits, because I’m not sure they’re as closely correlated as you seem to think (I’m glad, though, that you didn’t include “intelligence” as one of the traits, as so many people seem to). In particular, I’ve been getting frustrated lately at how often people seem to carry an implicit “nerdy = abstract-thing-oriented = introverted (or not people-oriented) = autistic” assumption, when according to my experience, the correlation is not that strong and I don’t particularly care for the stereotype.
For me, “nerd” has quite a simple definition: a nerd is someone who is passionate about intellectual pursuits. This usually doesn’t extend to extremely physical activities like sports or dance, but it can include many other disciplines, including ones that you characterize as anti-nerd: the study or creation of music, cooking (chemistry experiments that you can eat!), certainly politics. Also many professionals in disciplines classified as humanities, some of which of course require a deep understanding of human interactions. Which is not to say that all politicians, chefs, psychologists, etc. are nerds, but there is certainly a “nerdy” way to go about getting good at those jobs (or related hobbies), and I’m pretty sure a lot of the most capable practitioners are pretty far along the “nerd” side of the spectrum. (Sidenote: I get that obviously on average nerds tend to be too occupied with using their brains to care much about exercising the rest of their bodies, but it’s hard for me to believe in the physically-unfit nerd stereotype too strongly when at one time it seemed that most of us math PhD students in my graduate department were running into each other at the gym on a daily basis. Some of my grad student colleagues were intent on researching healthy eating from scholarly sources and putting their findings into practice as well.)
One of the next posts on my to-do list for a while has been a defense of why I prefer to use prescriptive (rather than descriptive) definitions for categories of people a lot of the time, and now I’m inspired to include a section analyzing how best to define “nerd” (and linking to your article, if you don’t mind).
Finally, it so happens that I’ve done a lot of thinking of what exactly is an anti-nerd myself recently and was waiting for a good opportunity to write brief but concrete description of one. This is because it so happens that in the last couple of years I developed a (highly unlikely!) close friendship with someone who I gradually came to decide is the most polar opposite of a nerd (by my above definition) that it’s possible to be. We started to hang out because we wanted to practice each other’s language, and I have since gained the strong impression that learning languages is the only intellectual skill she has ever put effort into throughout her life — that said, she has no background in grammar or abstract linguistics and prefers to learn by practicing. In fact, she never bothered to get a high school degree, or to go to high school at all. Despite being bright (at least she seems that way to me), she has apparently never had the slightest interest in anything intellectual whatsoever and put no effort into any subject as a schoolchild except for English classes. As far as I know, she has no pastimes that could be considered hobbies. She enjoys food a lot, but doesn’t appear interested in cooking or learning anything about it. The only movie coming out during the period that I’ve known her which she expressed an interest in seeing was Baywatch. It’s difficult to get her interested in consuming any form of media (movie, TV show, etc.) that demands much mental energy, although I’ve had the one major victory of introducing her to Black Mirror, which she enjoyed a lot of. Any kind of intellectual question or puzzle feels pointless to her. She has zero interest in politics, not understanding why anyone would enjoy talking about something so inescapably boring, and she identifies as an atheist only “by default” because thinking about religion is equally dull for her. At the same time, I see a difference between her attitude and anti-intellectualism, but I’m not going to go into the latter now.
My friend is, to me, the quintessential anti-nerd. I don’t mean to portray her in a judgmental or negative light, and I admire her happiness and tranquility in who she is; she is just very different from me. It has been enriching for me to get to know someone at the polar opposite end of the “nerdiness” spectrum so closely. Normally I feel uncomfortable very specifically describing people I know IRL even under a pseudonym, but in this case, I’m pretty sure that (1) she would unapologetically agree with pretty much everything I said; and (2) even if I told her about this pseudonym and showed her these blogs, it would all seem like a pointless abstraction to her that she couldn’t care less about anyway.
Well, I should have been in bed a while ago, sorry for going on so long.
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Massive comment indeed! Some loose thoughts:
I do understand your concern and I did have a paragraph about how nerd has more and more often come to refer to someone who has interests (interests being things you like learning about, not just things you like to do) but it got cut during editing. Maybe I should have kept it. Still, even though the word is often used in this sense, in general it includes more, I think. If it didn’t I doubt it’d have the social significance that is has. Someone passionate about some topic but not nerdy in other ways might sometimes jokingly be referred to as a nerd but I think that’s partly metaphorical use (like calling someone big and strong a gorilla). Considering the stigma I wonder if people are in fact *less* likely to call very nerdy nerds “nerd” to their face because it’s clearly not “haha you’re like a nerd” but “you’re a nerd” (in the “traditional” sense referenced by “Field Guide”)
Not all of these traits go together all the time, sure, but do you disagree that they form something of a cluster? Maybe you think it should be called something else? Perhaps you’re right.
I made sure not to equate nerdiness with intelligence because they very clearly are not the same. I used to think so, but spending some time at an elite business school made it clear that I was wrong.
Btw: the point isn’t that wambs are the default but that they are *part* of the default instead of being separated from it like nerds.
I’m predisposed to disagreeing with the “prescriptive over descriptive” approach but I’m looking forward to reading your justification. Link all you want.
Is your description of your friend meant to indicate disagreement? She sounds very much like a wamb to my ears (not an insult, of course). And maybe a-intellectualism is more accurate than anti-intellectualism?
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Some loose thoughts in response to your loose thoughts (in no particular order):
Yeah, I understood that but was a little sloppy with wording in my response. Wambs are supposed to be the mirror image of nerds.
I was wondering this morning whether the definition I proposed may imply too broad of a subset of the population. It’s possible that I am going off of a more recent and more liberal usage of the word “nerd” than you are (and as far as I know we grew up in different countries at slightly different times; also, throughout my grad student years nerdiness was so normalized in my space that I forgot to even consider the meaning of that identity). Maybe it was originally used only in cases of, for instance, social awkwardness.
I don’t deny that the characteristics you listed tend to cluster, but as I said above from my experience I don’t think most of them correlate nearly as strongly as you and others seem to imply (except perhaps a couple, like appreciation for trivia and games, and information-sharing in conversation). High-functioning autism traits clearly do imply a significant degree of nerdiness, to be sure, but I don’t believe the converse holds and in particular don’t endorse a scale where autism shows up as the extreme form of nerdiness and wambiness is partially defined by anti-autistic traits. (Looking back, though, I see you mention that this is based on “popular perception”, so hmm.) I think if you had walked into a gathering of my graduate department a few years back, it would go without saying that we were all huge nerds; this would be obvious within half an hour from our conversation topics and evident geeky hobbies. However, after spending a little more time it would become clear that many of us were into a whole range of physical activities; a few of us (including me) were involved in theater and the arts as well; there was a wide range represented on the introvert/extrovert scale (I was very outgoing); a few of us were probably mildly on the autism spectrum but most were probably not (and the most autistic of us weren’t perceived as “more nerdy” or anything); some of us (definitely not me) wore our hearts on our sleeves and tended to use emotional rhetoric when it came to social issues despite being inclined towards mathematical logic; a good number of us were passionate about adventure and spontaneous travel and preferred novelty over “routine and predictability” any day; etc. Most traits in your list just don’t ring all that true to me when I think about the groups of nerds I’ve known. But perhaps I’ve spent such a great proportion of my adult life around fellow nerds that I’m unable to evaluate how they compare to the rest of society.
I guess in the end it comes down to my seeing your list of traits as rather mildly correlated but often perceived to be more correlated because of stereotyping, and one of my arguments against descriptive definitions of this sort is that they enforce stereotypes. (Also, I’m almost equally wary of group stereotypes perpetuated from the inside which are intended to be neutral or even positive.)
Yes, I like the word a-intellectualism and think it’s an appropriate one here. My example of my friend was meant to express neither agreement nor disagreement; a single data point doesn’t make for much of an argument anyway. It was mainly for the purpose of more closely illustrating what “nerd” means to me. As a data point, in some ways she supports your conception of “wamb”, in other ways not so much. On the one hand, I’ll admit she’s easily the most people-oriented person I’ve ever known (though in her case that’s quite different from having a “cocktail personality”). On the other hand, I’d say and she’d agree that she scores very low on the “spontaneity and novelty” scale; she cares quite a bit about correctness and believes in verbal bluntness; she has zero interest in any spectator sport; and though able-bodied, she actively hates almost all forms of physical activity. I’d place her maybe in the center-left of your spectrum.
Wow, another comment much lengthier than I intended. Clearly I find your perspective (and the question in general) very engaging.
It seems to me like you object to the fundamental premise of the piece, which is fine but not something I can do much about 🙂
It’s a complicated concept and I guess the I construct it the way I do because I took “care more about process and results than social propriety” and “corrects people” from the articles referenced and spun it out from there, filling in with stereotypes (that I think tend to communicate actual information in most cases and I’m seemingly not as weary about them as you).
That doesn’t give a full account of a multifaceted word with strong family-resemblance structures, sure.
Not all applies to everybody (not me either, especially not routine and dislike of food and sports) but there is something here and I think it’s closely related to what makes this kind of nerd “stand out” socially. Novelty and exercise is perhaps the least central parts. Maybe should have chucked those.
Part of it is also influenced by hanging around the rationalist community, I imagine, where substance over rapport in conversation and explicitness in argumentation is so important.
“Dork” is somewhat different as I see it. More aloof and dumb, like halfway between nerd and stoner. But it’s a classic issue with lots of discussion: Nerd, geek, dork
As stated previously, I agree with your overarching point modulo differences in the actual way we each go about defining “nerd”. But maybe your descriptive “clustering” approach is tied fairly closely to the premise of the piece in a way I didn’t quite appreciate: you started by presenting articles on how to deal with nerds which treat nerdiness in terms of a couple of correlated traits (perhaps reading them is what first prompted you to write this essay), and in order to make a point you adopted a lot of their background framework but flipped everything the other way around. Meanwhile, I had been developing strong opinions about views (from both inside and outside) of nerd culture over the last few years since I began to see it hashed out on the rationalist internet, but those discussions generally had different premises, and perhaps I didn’t fully switch gears when addressing your post. As a meta-observation, I think this probably happens pretty often, where two or more people get into a discussion but they each formed their opinions in a different context and there’s some subtle disconnect.
I think each of our approaches have merits and disadvantages that are good to keep in mind. My definition may be a little too broad to be ideally useful. I do think it still naturally implies some degree of social “standing out” and isolation, though of course this is magnified in the presence of most of the other traits you mentioned.
As for the rationalist community, I view them as a narrow subset of nerds which correlates with some very particular traits (extreme intelligence along with mental illness, almost universally non-neurotypical and probably mostly autistic, dislike of or difficulty with traditional social conventions, a propensity for analyzing even very emotional issues dispassionately). I’ve known dozens of overtly super nerdy people IRL but almost none of them have come across as very rationalist-y, and even if I may be identified as a rationalist, I’m probably a fairly non-central example.
Your idea of “dork” is quite different from mine, but that’s probably again a product of regional variation.
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Another small point I forgot to mention. We already have the word “dork” to describe the flavor of social awkwardness / lack of concern for appearance which is often associated with nerds.
“Aurit had once espoused a system of categorizing people that he found useful. She said some people were horizontally oriented, while others were vertical. Horizontally oriented people were concerned exclusively with what others think, with fitting in or impressing their peers. Vertically oriented people were obsessed only with some higher ‘truth,’ which they believed in wholeheartedly and wanted to trumpet no matter who was listening. People who are horizontally oriented are phonies and sycophants, while those who are entirely vertically oriented lack all social skill; they’re the ones on the street shouting about the apocalypse. Normal people are in the middle, but veer one way or the other. Nate was tempted to tell Aurit that she had been sliding into tone-deaf vertical territory.”
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I like vertical vs. horizontal, where is this from?
A short little insightful novel called “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”
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A friend linked me to this piece, and first I just gotta say that the concept of “wamb” is super useful. It’s also really interesting to compare this to an existing model of neuro(a)typicality in my general internet circle, which is that everyone has a special interest, and for most people that special interest is other people and social interactions. Still digesting but it’s fair to say I think that both models capture some things well and others less well. Thanks for writing this.
Thanks for your input! Yes, part of my point was that gossip/other people’s lives/socializing about nothing than the socializing itself can be seen as a special interest, and certainly feels that way to those who don’t share that interest.
I could be wrong about this, obviously, but nerdiness seems to me to be the result of a lack, of something broken, some sort of genetic deficit. (and I’m a big nerd myself, so please don’t take this as a slam against nerds). Caring more about something being true than how it makes other people in your social group feel can be seem as a relative lack of concern about other people’s feelings, other people’s feelings about you, about your standing in the group, about your commitment to the group.
In other words, that ‘ideas more important than people’ isn’t due to an increased interest in ideas, so much as a decreased interest in people. Difficulty in socialization (absorbing the mores and customs of your tribe) are and were no doubt strongly evolutionarily disadvantageous. The only time this even occasionally wouldn’t be true would be where the individual received some strong immediate pay off for abandoning his tribal loyalty. Which of course is the exact opposite situation of someone who loves truth for its own sake. Which points me towards the ‘something is broken’ theory.
‘Pro-socialization’ is no doubt made up of many components, ie, a large number of different genes) and not all of them seem to be equally affected by the ‘nerd deficit’ whatever it is. Nerds aren’t hostile to other people, for instance, and they tend to be helpful, or even extremely helpful when asked for help. So, ‘cooperativeness’ is high. The deficit is in ‘desire to conform’. I’d say that many (non-nerds) would rather believe something untrue than separate themselves in any of their beliefs from their group. This trait was no doubt extremely advantageous historically for the individual from an evolutionary standpoint. Most people survive and thrive depending on how well they are integrated into their group, and males mostly gain mating opportunities by achieving higher status within their group.
The fact that our tribe (aka western civilization) has spread and prospered partially, maybe mostly, due to the scientific and technical results obtained from nerd-like behavior doesn’t negate the fact that for the individual nerd, their nerdiness does not lead to lots of additional mating opportunities. Very much the contrary of course — (and that’s true for female nerds as well as male nerds).
So, if nerdiness is spreading at all, it is spreading via group selectionism, since it isn’t advantageous to the individual.
So, I’m seeing nerdiness as one or more genetic defects, in any of a cluster of genes, all having something to do with increasing the desire to be deeply integrated into your group. It no doubt exists on a continuum, with people who are nuts about their local sports team, or who are strongly patriotic, or who have very strongly internalized existing group mores, on the opposite end of the continuum.
This reads like you think social status is only gained through conformity to tribal customs and your survival is solely determined by that status. I believe this premise to be false and will explain why.
Consider that anatomically modern humans have been around for 300,000 years or so. That takes us well into the time when humans lived in tribes. So, a good way to study how tribal people thought and behaved is to simply look at modern humans. Systems in the brain that control our wants/needs have not changed since tribal times. Although this is more hand wavey than I’d like to be, my point stems from a counter example. The ‘bad boy’ image of someone who doesn’t respect established social hierarchy and norms is not just popular now but has been throughout recorded history. Remember, we haven’t changed physically or psychologically from our tribal ancestors. ‘Bad boys’ would more than likely have been popular in tribal settings too.
Is it even possible for technological or cultural progression if fitness for survival were only determined by conformity to existing culture? The person who uses fire to cook is rejected by the group for not conforming to their established history of eating raw?
An important note is that I do believe status is one of the most important factors for survival – not being rejected from your tribe and being able to find mates is fully determined by status. The point I firmly disagree on is that status is gained through conformity (and thus people who express non-conformity therefore possess a genetic deficit). So let me explain what actually determines status and how this ties into ‘bad boys’.
Status is actually gained through simply being competent and useful. Whether you improve the chances of survival for the tribe. If you are ensuring a group’s survival but you hold a different set of beliefs, it can be seen historically that the group won’t reject you, they will in fact adopt your beliefs. See the many examples of this behaviour with missionaries interacting with effectively tribal groups in Africa and Asia.
Also remember that there was not just one tribe. Is it enough for survival to conform within your own group if there are other competing groups?
The winners in history are always the more technologically advanced groups not the ones with most conformity. How do you make technological progress, you do it through some members (often nerds) not conforming and trying new behaviours. If the behaviours are beneficial, they get adopted and the pioneers are rewarded with status and money.
So now for tying back to the ‘bad boy’ image and how people gain status through non-conformity. The reason the ‘bad boy’ image is popular is because it is a symbol of raw competence. They disregard social conformity to their detriment but still persevere or thrive due to their own ability. In a way ‘bad boys’ link to peacocks. The fittest peacock is the one that stands out the most. It is a way of showing to others that it will still survive despite their disadvantaged position (using resources on ornamental feathers, standing out to predators). This is sort of like an evolutionary game theory play. So to ‘bad boys’ who disregard social norms must know that they don’t need the tribe as much as the tribe needs them. This elevates their status. On a similar note, world leaders and CEOs have been shown to measure the lowest on agreeableness traits. How could they have come to their positions of power if they were measured by conformity and not ability.
So non-conformity is not always detrimental and in cases needed. There is no such thing as genetic deficit. All traits that exist today are all equally valid (not in a progressive, inclusivity sense) but in a sense that evolution is very lean and non-conformity genes would be wiped out if it was truly detrimental. All genes that exist are equally fit until they get wiped out.
I realize this is a half a year old post, but I want to mention that the opposite lament about wambs being dysfunctional and difficult to deal with has at least in the past been quite common, I think. I have a vague feeling that in the 19th-to-early-20th century or thereabouts, men used to accuse women of these hyper-social and irrational mental traits that describe wambs. See Henry Higgins – why can’t women be more like men? Maybe it’s some kind of a spirit of the time that determines how normality is, er, socially constructed in a given cultural context?
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That’s a very interesting point. I avoided the male-female dimension in this piece because if you mention it it tends to take over everything, but yeah there’s such a tendency (nothing absolute). It’s not entirely the same thing though – within masculinity there’s also a stereotype opposite to the nerd (the “manly man”) that’s also in contrast to women. Female stereotypes are set up differently though and there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent pair.
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There are words that already exist for the personality traits you describe; they are ‘male’ and ‘female.’ Nerd males are permitted to be quite unpleasant because we find their knowledge useful; in real life a woman who had all of your nerd traits would be unemployable and alone.
I loved the article for the most part. I’d even thought to make a similarly-themed article, and am pleased that it’s already been done (better than I could have) and I needn’t bother.
“Football allows somebody who’s identity is bound up in relationships…”
“…and compare them to other’s”
“…is kind of a joke I’m serious…”
It would flow better with a comma after “joke.”
Regarding liskantope’s mentioning the word “dork,” I once made this clarification:
“I think a nerd is a brainy person who thinks things like math, science, and computers are fun and exciting. And a geek is someone who gets obsessive about nerdy things but doesn’t necessarily directly participate in nerdiness. And a dork is someone who doesn’t fit in with other people and looks weird in a sore-thumb way and sort of has their own private culture.”
Also to jarenjo: I am neither unemployable nor alone.
Great job. I guess what we can learn from it is that putting labels on human beings is rarely a good idea. It is also rarely necessary, as you can refer to behaviors rather than the people enacting them. This way, the same person can do something nerdy, then something wamby. Not having a label floating on top of your head means people have no prior on what you do, and life becomes a bit easier, with fewer misunderstandings and even misery.
Aavikkorotta, I too am neither unemployable or alone. High five for female nerds.
I’m still not sure one way or another on the evolutionary (dis)advantage of nerdiness. Perhaps it makes sense to think more in terms of vertical/horizontal orientation as described above. Vertical orientation probably reduces your chances to reproduce and pass on your genes, but it would also likely increase your chance of memetic success. Socrates is the quintessential example of a vertically oriented person. He actively alienated those around him, to the point where his opponents agitated for him to be executed. Yet we still talk about him today, and not typically to chastise him for asociality.
Someone who comes up with a truly profound idea will influence many more people than someone who merely has a lot of descendents (sorry Ghenghis.) Ideas do get modified over time, but there is no obligate recombination to dilute them down each generation. Thus I think the memes associated with nerdiness would be well suited to persist through millenia, even if the associated genes were selected against.
Extreme opposite of autism is ordinary low IQ, according to the antiinnatia theory.
To make a very nerd like point: you’re mistaken that professional football is a canonical high-social/low-cognitive activity. A better fill-in would be professional baseball and replace ‘Superbowl’ with ‘MLB All Star game’.
– Just play a football vs. baseball video game and tell me the former it isn’t the most complex board game ever invented with 20 different specialized positions, filled with 20 different types of players that each have a develop a unique physical comparative advantage.
– Take the most successful coach of all time, Bill Belichick. Belichick is a anti-social, results-oriented nerd who studies the game obsessively, likely ~ 100 hours/ week during active play. His team is always built out of players who are able to understand his complicated instructions, not those who are most athletically gifted, nor those who are fan favorites.
– Observe a baseball player vs football player during stoppage of play: football players will be involved in communicating, advocating, and adjusting on the fly different personnel packages and tactics which all have special code words or code numbers. Baseball players mainly spit, adjust their crotch, and touch their hat. Or as we do in normal social circumstances, take a drink from your cup, look at your phone/watch, and adjust your hair.
– The MLB All Star game is actually a meaningless game where the winner doesn’t actually get any benefit but it’s arguably more important than the World Series (the championship game) because it creates a social history of baseball greats / “legends” that we are forced to honor and always compare the current players to. To some degree, players with the best stats will be invited to this game, but very often they will be passed over due to a more senior player being deemed more deserving by the fans and sportswriters. It is the ultimate “prom king” type status activity – filled with ceremony, devoid of responsibility.
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Indeed a very nerdy point 🙂
> But I couldn’t find any articles on the theme “how to deal with non-nerds in the workplace”, despite googling ferociously for several minutes.
Have you seen this one?
I hadn’t, but I enjoyed it! Didn’t exactly match my own experience, but then again I’ve never worked in a large corporation.
Old post, I know, but:
I’m not in IT, but I did see myself to a great extent in some of the “managing nerds” description: I am definitely task-oriented, as opposed to relationship-oriented. The article talked about how “likability” of the boss doesn’t make a difference to nerds: in my experience, it’s more that things that are generally thought to make you more likable might make you less likable *to me*. For instance, in college I had that professor who really wanted to be everyone’s pal, and the one who kept making pronouncements during his lectures like “I am committed to helping you succeed!” (and essentially negging us to demonstrate how we needed his mentorship). Generally beloved by students, but I tended to distrust these types. (On the other hand, the somewhat shy guy who the older students said was a “boring teacher” turned out to know the heck out of his stuff and be one of the most incisive thinkers and intellectually honest and humble people I’ve ever met.)
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The “spiritual but not religious” wamb meme reminds me of the God-of-the-Gaps mindset. Wambs of this streak are not just *uninterested* in coherence, mechanism, or internal consistency — they’re actually *attracted* to notions that lack any of these, and feel threatened when anyone tries to fill in the gaps.
I told a wamb once that much evidence suggests the “feeling that someone behind you is staring” is just unconscious perception of environmental cues. The wambs face sank. For a moment, the magic was ruined, but — have no fear! — quickly it struck her: “They just studied the wrong people!”
In grade school school I heard said from the pulpit that “Science will NEVER show how bumblebees can fly, because God makes it happen”. I began to realize how very differently I thought about reality than some people, to say nothing of its effect on my then faith.
Separate (half-baked, at best) notion: A good chunk of successful psychopaths (say, Politicians or CEOs; not struggling wife-beaters or recidivist inmates) are nerds who masquerade as wambs well.
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I imagine another chunk are wambs who masquerade well as nerds.
This mentality of labelling people who are interested in intellectual pursuits “nerds” is just the result of America’s culture of ignorance: in American society, ignorance is regarded as a virtue. Other countries do not have this kind of culture so there is no such concept.
Also, there are people who are socially skilled and intellectually driven, people who are social but are not skilled in both social interaction and intellectual endeavours. Also, most people who are into things regarded as “nerdy” like comic books are not really intellectual people, “nerds” by this definition. Individual people tend to defy any kind of label.
I don’t think John’s from the States, Rafael.
Since I suppose your first language is Swedish (though one would never guess from the quality of your English) what is the Swedish for “wamb”? Or, for that matter, “nerd”? It would be interesting to see the Swedish equivalents for a lot of your terminology.
It’d be nothing too exotic, I’m afraid 🙂 It’s “nörd” (pronounced ~the same way) and, I guess, “vamb”.
I’m clearly late to this party, but wanted to say your rewrite of the Field Guide was cathartic. Thanks for that.
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