The Nerd as the Norm

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.

The anti-nerd

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[1].

“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:

normal1

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)[2].

normalnot.png

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[3].

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 who’s 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 other’s. 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[4] 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.

 

• • •

 

[1]
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.

[2]
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”.

[3]
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.

[4]
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.

12 thoughts on “The Nerd as the Norm

  1. (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.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 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?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Some loose thoughts in response to your loose thoughts (in no particular order):

        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.

        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.

        Like

        1. 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

          Like

          1. 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.

            Liked by 1 person

      2. 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.

        Like

  2. “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.”

    Like

  3. 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.

    Like

    1. 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.

      Like

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s