Social tips for geeks
September 2009 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
This article provides actionable tips for geeks who find themselves in social situations where the majority of people are not geeks. They might be there accompanying their spouse, family members, friends, or colleagues. I strongly discourage geeks from being themselves in such situations; the time to be yourself is when you're amongst like-minded friends, not when you are at a superficial social gathering.
I added this section because some readers misinterpreted the intent of this article, thinking that these tips are supposed to be applied when one is trying to make new friends. Under such an interpretation, they have told me that these are horrible tips! I totally agree with them, that these tips are NOT for when you are trying to make new friends or to productively socialize. So in what situations do I think these tips are applicable?
These tips are for when you are in a situation where you (and your associates) stand to lose more by 'geeking out' than you can possibly gain through your openly geeky behavior. In these settings, I favor a conservative strategy to err on the side of being perceived as shy and boring rather than being perceived as an eccentric and pompous geek. That's why the following tips sound overly conservative and, if taken at face value, will make you appear to be a bore. I think it's better to start at that baseline and then gradually 'turn up' your true geekiness level while gauging audience reactions than starting at the other extreme of 'full geek' and then trying to tone down.
There are many geeks who don't see any shame in displaying their full-fledged geekiness all the time; if you are one of them, then you probably won't agree with these tips or their premise.
1. Recognize that people will know you are a geek from the moment they meet you
From the moment you are introduced at a social gathering, people will immediately recognize you as a geek. There's no way to hide it. People will know either by your appearance (slightly unkempt) or by the way you're introduced ("Joe here graduated from Caltech and is now working at NASA").
Recognize that they will immediately associate you with all of the usual negative geek stereotypes: socially awkward, aloof, elitist, pedantic, etc. They will be subconsciously looking for confirmation of these preconceived notions in all that you say and do. It's not that people are maliciously out to ostracize you; even the most kind-hearted of people can't help but harbor these prejudices.
2. Don't try to change people's preconceived notions of geeks
Don't try to make people think that geeks are cool. Any attempt will end up backfiring; people will immediately recognize what you are trying to do and be turned off by it. As noble as your intentions might be (I'm gonna try to dispel these myths about geeks being un-cool!), the damage you will do to your own image far outweighs any possible benefits you might be able to provide.
Well, if you're a geek, then you probably won't care what normal people think of you. But still, trying to pull such a stunt is not only pathetic ... it's also selfish and irresponsible—you will tarnish the image of your spouse, family member, friend, or whomever brought you to this social gathering. After all, they probably care more about their image than you care about yours.
3. Don't get too comfortable and start being yourself
You know that feeling of comfort you get when you're hanging out with your geeky friends, cracking dorky jokes and throwing around technical jargon? Being in your comfort zone, feeling at one with your buddies, genuinely having a blast without a care in the world ... it's a great feeling, huh?
Well, make certain that you absolutely never even come close to getting that feeling when you're in a social situation where most people aren't geeks. Because as soon as you start feeling comfortable being yourself, you're going to inevitably say something overly geeky, drawing jeers from people and killing the (superficial and proper) mood of your surroundings.
You're not supposed to feel comfortable in these sorts of social situations, so it's okay if you're on edge the entire time. If you were at ease in these situations, then this article is not for you :)
4. Try to talk as little as possible, and when you do speak, only ask superficial questions
If you don't feel comfortable making small-talk in a social gathering, the best thing to do is to say nothing. Err on the side of shyness. It's better for people to think of you as quiet rather than as overtly awkward. Don't underestimate the level of skill involved in making fluent small-talk; if you don't feel comfortable doing it, then chances are that you're bad at it, so don't try anything creative!
If being silent isn't an option, then the next best thing is to ask questions: very superficial and polite questions. Nothing too deep or meaningful or probing. Nothing that people can't simply answer off the top of their heads. Nothing that requires purposeful thought or analysis. Just simple, polite questions that are situationally-appropriate. Err on the side of shallowness.
5. But don't ask questions about things that normal people should know
However, if you suspect that someone is talking about something that most normal people should know (e.g., popular culture references), don't risk ostracism by asking a question about it. Don't ask who Brad Pitt is, or else you'll get mocked (albeit silently).
Of course, if you already knew who Brad Pitt was, then you wouldn't need to ask. So when you hear a celebrity's name or band or movie that you don't recognize, how do you know if it's okay to ask about it? The best way to tell is to judge whether everyone else seems to know. If they do, then asking about it will only make you stand out in a negative way. "Ha, that dweeb doesn't even know about Nirvana!"
Even if nobody else knows and are themselves too self-conscious to ask, you still don't want to be the one to ask such a question, so it's best to remain quiet regardless. Remember, as the geek, you are not going to get the benefit of the doubt. If the hotshot cool guy next to you asks, "Oh I don't know much about rock music, I'm more of a hip-hop guy. Who's Nirvana again?", people know that he's cool and will helpfully answer his question. But if you—the geek—ask the same question, then people will think, "Ha, what a loser, he doesn't know anything about pop culture!"
6. Temporarily let go of the urge to achieve absolute precision in speaking
As I've detailed in a related article, Geek behaviors present during conversations, geeks are obsessed with precision. Geeks will recite exact numbers rather than rounding, like telling people that their DVD player cost $297.89 with a $49.95 mail-in rebate rather than simply saying $250. Or if you ask a geek whether he had lunch at IHOP, he'll retort, "No, I didn't, I had brunch at IHOP"
Normal people find such a level of precision to be pedantic and tiresome. So when you're conversing in social settings, try to be a bit sloppy and imprecise in your speaking, and by all means don't expect others to pay nearly as much attention to precision as you do. Just take it easy on the details, or else people will think that you're too uptight.
7. Don't correct anyone even when they're incorrect or imprecise
Your job at a social gathering is not to educate anyone. It's okay if someone has a mistaken impression of some concept; it's his loss, not yours. You know the correct and precise answer, but now is not the time nor place to make sure that other people understand what you do.
Don't interrupt anyone to offer corrections or even clarifications. You will only make yourself appear more elitist and snobbish, the person you are correcting will feel defensive and maybe react antagonistically, and everyone else around will perceive you as the curmudgeon who broke up a perfectly good conversation (not as an enlightened savior who opened their minds).
8. Don't use words that an 8th grader doesn't understand
The easiest way not to sound like an elitist is by not using words that could possibly be construed as elitist. If you speak at an 8th grade level, then you will minimize the chances of accidentally spewing words like correlation, orthogonal, or juxtaposition. It can be frustrating to re-phrase your thoughts when one of these so-called 'big words' precisely captures the crux of what you are trying to convey, but people aren't going to listen to you anyhow if you trigger their 'elitist detector' with your fancy language.
I'm definitely not trying to say that normal people are dumb so that you need to somehow 'dumb down' your language. This rule applies even when you are talking with smart or well-educated people. In a casual social gathering, it's inappropriate to use 'big words', even if other people can comprehend them. If you're making casual small-talk or chatting about other non-technical things, there is no need for fancy-schmancy words.
9. If somebody asks you about your job or hobbies, answer in one sentence
If somebody at a social gathering asks you about your job or hobbies, remember that they're not actually in the least interested; they're just making polite conversation! Don't make the mistake of jumping into an impassioned speech about your astrophysics research, your master digital hardware hacking skills, or your love for Battlestar Galactica re-runs.
Give a short one-sentence reply and then gauge for your audience's response. If they give you a polite (fake) smile and then move onto other small-talk, then you've done your job well—at least you didn't royally screw up by giving a 5-minute treatise on the metaphysical revelations in your Civil War re-enactment experiences while people around you just stared at you and (fake) smiled.
10. If everyone around is enjoying the ambient music, background live performance, etc., don't jump in with any analysis
If there's music playing that you're familiar with, you might be tempted to make some insightful or analytical comment. Don't do it! You will just end up sounding pompous and pedantic. The more insightful you think your comment is, the more you should resist saying it. People want to enjoy the moment, not have it be spoiled by some geek who appears over-eager to impress and to cover up awkward silences.
11. Never start a sentence with "Did you know that ..."
You will sound like a pedantic, know-it-all smart-ass if you do. People will respond with "No, I didn't, that's really interesting!" but actually be thinking "Boooooring—who gives a crap?"
Especially don't say this when you want to break an awkward silence.
12. Never start a sentence with "You should really ..."
Lines like the following will make you sound like a preachy geek evangelist: "You should really switch to Linux. It's much more stable than Windows!" Nobody likes being told what to do, especially not by someone they regard as a geek.
(In January 2010, a blogger translated this article into Polish ... cool!)