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).
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.