Geek behaviors present during conversations
December 2008 (Ph.D. student)
This article presents some common behaviors I've observed from my past few years of interactions with geeks, nerds, and other highly-smart technical people. For brevity, I will simply use the term "geek" throughout this article as a catch-all term for such people. I don't mean to pass any value judgments on people who exhibit such behaviors; these are simply my observations and personal theories for why these behaviors occur.
Struggling with turn-taking
It's a cliche that geeks are known to be bad at maintaining rapport in conversations with non-geeks, so I will begin with this topic. Non-geeks often report having awkward silences when talking with geeks. I think that one root cause of such awkwardness is the geek's inability to fluently perform turn-taking during conversations.
Normal turn-taking behavior occurs when both participants in a conversation transition smoothly from listening to talking, and then back again. When a socially-adept person talks, he is constantly monitoring the other person's facial gestures and body language, and when he senses that the other person wants to chime in, he dials down his own talking and allows the other person to begin speaking.
When a non-geek is talking to a geek, awkward silences often arise because the geek doesn't pay enough attention to his partner's attention level and doesn't know the appropriate way and time to naturally pause. This frequently occurs when the geek is 'in the zone' proudly explaining some technical concept without realizing that his audience might be growing bored. Worse still, when there is already a silence, the geek doesn't know how to properly break it in order to continue the conversation.
[A reader commented: "You are presuming us geeks would pick up if only we paid enough attention. What's missing is that many geeks couldn't pick up the interest level no matter HOW HARD they pay attention. Why? Because they don't know how to read the person's body language. Even if they read a body language book, they wouldn't know how to apply the advice according to context."]
On a related note, geeks are more afraid of making telephone calls than non-geeks are, since the visual cues that facilitate turn-taking aren't available when talking over the phone. Instead, they prefer to use IM, email, or text messaging.
Obsessing over correctness and completeness
Geeks feel bothered when they hear people saying something incorrect or incomplete during a conversation. They also have a tendency to interrupt to mention the correct or complete answer. By incorrect I mean factually inaccurate ("Toronto is the capital of Canada"), and by incomplete I mean omitting certain elements of a set ("the seven dwarfs: Dopey, Sleepy, Happy, Doc, Grumpy, and two others I forget"). If the inaccuracies are not crucial to the story that the speaker is trying to tell, then non-geeks will usually 'let it slide' and let the speaker continue to talk. However, geeks have a tendency to interrupt the speaker mid-sentence to point out and correct the mistake (however minor), at the expense of interrupting the natural flow of the conversation.
Non-geeks might perceive such behavior as rude and arrogant, like the geek is trying to show his smartness and be a know-it-all. In fact, the opposite might be true: Many geeks are motivated more by an altruistic desire to educate their audience rather than a selfish desire to promote their own intelligence. They really want you to know that Jupiter is closer to the sun than Saturn is, even though you might not really care at all and just made a factual blunder in passing in the middle of re-telling a story.
Preferring exact numerical responses
Geeks favor accuracy and correctness over ease-of-comprehension for their listeners. If you ask a geek a question requiring a numerical answer and he knows the exact number, then he will likely repeat it verbatim rather than rounding to present an easier-to-remember response (e.g., "that camera is 4.2 megapixels" rather than "that camera is around 4 megapixels").
While this behavior is rather benign, it imposes a tiny bit more of a mental burden on the listener: The listener (rather than the speaker) needs to perform the appropriate rounding. If someone tells me that the DVD player they recommend costs $297.89 at Costco but I can get a $49.95 mail-in rebate, then I need to spend some time rounding that to $250 before committing it to memory.
Using technical terms without checking for understanding
When geeks try to teach non-geeks about technical matters, they often make heavy use of technical terminology because it's the most concise and accurate way to convey their thoughts. Unfortunately, many non-geeks cannot understand such jargon and thus grow confused or frustrated.
Non-geeks might perceive geeks as being snooty and elitist by talking to them using cryptic 'geek-speak', but in fact, I suspect that their intentions are more innocent: Geeks often don't remember what it was like not to have an understanding of technical concepts, especially related to their area of expertise such as computers or electronic gadgets. Thus, when communicating with non-geeks, they often throw around technical terms without first tactfully checking to see whether listeners know what these terms mean. In the geek's mind, technical jargon (e.g., router, dongle) and especially acronyms (e.g., DVI, TCP/IP, SQL) sound as natural and colloquial as regular English words. "How could anyone NOT know what these words mean?"
Focusing on the how rather than the what or the why
Geeks like understanding how things work 'under the hood' and enjoy explaining technical details to others. Whereas most non-geeks want to know the 'big picture' of what something is and why it is innovative or significant, geeks are more obsessed with how it was built.
When prompted to talk about a technical matter, a geek might enthusiastically launch into a detailed monologue, usually employing highly technical language and not pausing to check for understanding. This emphasis on implementation details rather than high-level descriptions is especially evident when a geek is describing a project that he personally built, such as a piece of computer software or a mechanical contraption.
Favoring complexity and detail over simplicity in descriptions
When a geek is describing his latest pet project, he often tries to make his descriptions sound complicated and detailed, in order to convey the sophistication of his technical prowess. Geeks take pride in being able to grasp complexity and utilize it to build elaborate contraptions that do cool things, so naturally they want their audience to understand just how much ingenuity it took for them to create their latest gizmo.
When geeks share project details with one another, they can appreciate and admire such details ("whoa, that's a totally sweet hack you pulled off using eval'ing that parsed string in Python!"), but non-geeks would probably rather hear the simplified high-level explanation without the gory details.
Rapidly enumerating long lists of items
Ask a geek a question that he could potentially answer by listing off a series of items, and chances are that he will rattle off a list of items with pride. For example, when asked "which programming languages do you know?", a programmer geek might respond, "C, C++, Java, Basic, QBasic, Microsoft Visual Basic, Perl, Python, Ruby, x86 assembly, PowerPC assembly, Scheme, Common Lisp", delivering his list in a surefire rapid-fire manner so as to emphasize the sheer number of items in it. (A more humble answer might be "I've worked in both low-level systems programming languages like C as well as some high-level scripting languages like Python. What further details would you like to know?")
I suspect that this behavior arises from a combination of geeks' obsession with correctness/completeness and their desire to emphasize complexity over simplicity in explanations. Providing a complete laundry list is technically the most correct answer, even though it might not be nearly the most easy-to-comprehend for listeners.
Showing a lack of interest in outward appearances
Geeks tend to regard appearances and aesthetics as less important than the technical 'meat' of an object or environment. Thus, it's not surprising that websites, pamphlets, and products designed by geeks are often quite ugly when viewed from the outside, even though their internal contents might be respectable. Of course, the best technical designers know that the outside appearances and user interface are integral parts of the product itself.
Thus, when topics of outward appearances, presentation, or aesthetics come up in conversations (even when discussing non-technical matters such as family gatherings or weddings), geeks tend to lose interest or become overly critical. For instance, they might complain about whether all of the fuss and 'fluff' are necessary and opine that people should just focus on the 'heart of the matter' and forgo the so-called frivolities.
Evangelizing their favorite technologies
Geeks love to offer technical advice and opinions, even when people don't solicit it (e.g., "You should really switch to Firefox"). Geeks often don't realize how set people are in their own habits and how unwilling they are to try new things, especially when it comes to computer or electronic technologies. Non-geeks use technology as merely a tool, while geeks often view technology as a passion.
The geeks' intentions are usually earnest and altruistic: They really do want their friends to have the best technology available and not to have to settle for sub-par alternatives. However, non-geeks can feel annoyed or even belittled when their geek friends evangelize or push technologies, telling them that what they are currently using is inadequate or inefficient and offering alternatives which they've never heard of.
Mentioning their girlfriend or wife at every possible opportunity
As this xkcd comic poetically conveys, WE GET IT, yes you have a girlfriend:
Geeks have a tendency to point out the fact that they have a girlfriend or wife at every possible opportunity. They will try to slip in some mention of their girlfriend or wife, even if it is not relevant to the conversation. e.g., "Oh I see that you're a photographer ... my GIRLFRIEND took a photography class back in high school."
Perhaps this behavior is caused by the fact that it was harder for geeks to get dates as a teenager, so having a significant other is somehow a great accomplishment.
(I've only seen this happen with male geeks; I don't know whether female geeks take the opportunity to gush over their boyfriends/husbands.)
Whoa, someone from the internetz volunteered to translate my article into Belarusian! Click here to read it if you're into that sort of stuff.
And someone else also translated it into German!
Last modified: 2012-03-18