After my rant on The Big Bang's nerdy ol' Sheldon Cooper yesterday, a couple of people wondered: If nerds can master such arbitrarily complex things as the Linux operating and the complete rules of D&D, why can't they learn the rules of social norms?
Let me try and give you the answer from a nerd's perspective.
Imagine, if you will, you have just joined a company where showing your fingernails to someone was a grave offense. Like most polite societies, acquaintances usually wouldn't tell you that you'd just done the equivalent of walking out of the bathroom with toilet paper on your heels - they'd just snigger, and think less of you.
When told, you'd probably nod at first and go, "Oh, yeah, got it." But it's unnatural to walk around with your hands bunched in fists all the time, pressed against your chest. The amount of time you'd spend orchestrating how to reach for your soda during a meeting without flashing those impolite nails would seem unreal to you. And you'd have years of habit where you'd just reach out to type something without hunching over to hide it, and wham. People are insulted.
You'd probably forget a lot, because - as noted - only your good friends would tell you when you'd screwed up. You could nail-flash nine times out of ten and have people just quietly walk away, shaking their heads. You don't have a consistent mechanism to punish failure.
Furthermore, it seems so arbitrary. You'd look at your fingernails for hours, thinking, this? This is what people are mad about? That's so tiny a thing, it can't be. It would slide off your mind because it just makes no sense. You might think that there were other things you could do to make up for it, or conclude that the people who told you about the nails had to be overreacting to the seriousness of it.
But no. It's nails. It makes no sense, but they fuckin' hate fingernails here. And internalizing that would take years, if you just didn't decide that the whole thing was stupid and you just didn't want to play.
That's what it's like for nerds. I mean, it's crazy to me that people will think you're less intelligent if you have a stain on your shirt. In a sane world, I think, people would listen to what's coming out of your mouth and decide based on that, because cleanliness and grooming habits are a very separate thing from intelligence. But poor dress marks you as a yokel to many.
Likewise, to cite a more recent and subtler example, I'm continually amazed by how much better people react if I remember to arbitrarily throw "I think" before I state an opinion. I mean, it's coming out of my mouth, and it's not like there's some external arbiter of which sitcom is funniest, so of course it's an "I think." That's assumed. But, apparently, if I go out of my way to remind people that it's my opinion with a marker that makes little sense to me, they relax. So I do it.
Society makes no logical sense. And nerds? Nerds crave logical sense, to the point where they seek out hobbies that they can fuck up with their logical sense. If nerds become the dominant consumer of any given entertainment, it's fucking doomed.
Nerds want every question answered with a reason, even if that question shouldn't have one. Why is Superman strong? He gets his powers from the sun. Why does he get powers from the sun? Because his skin is a solar battery. Well, why is he still strong at night? Well, he's charged up for years as an adolescent, he has a lot of stored power. Ah ha! Well, in issue #626, the Parasite drained him of all energy before Batman saved him - shouldn't he be back to zero and weak by dawn? No, they say, because of...
Nerds want a Unifying Theory to everything. If Mulder said he grew up in Albany in one episode and in Long Island in another, it just won't do to say, "Well, it's a continuity error." Nerds will spend hours in forums, devising an some elaborate explanation to explain the Albany/Long Island error - an explanation so complex that it puts JFK assassination theorists to shame.
Once nerds infiltrate the creating sector of entertainment, they will destroy it by writing episodes that a) answer every question ever posed, and b) are so incomprehensible and dense that outsiders have no chance of enjoying it, ever.
There's no Unifying Theory to society. "Why is messy hair considered unsightly?" "Well, because it looks messy." "But... that model's hair is also uncombed, and yet you think he looks hot." "That's a styled messiness. That works on him." "Is there a rule that explains why some tousled hairs are messy and others are sexy?" "Not really. But you can memorize it, I guess."
So nerds? It often takes them years to fathom that a complex, inconsistent, and arbitrary system is in fact the way the world works. They'll often spend years trying out other hypotheses, certain that there's some other hidden mechanism that really makes things tick. And some, frustrated by the lack of coherency, will default to the "do unto others" rule - and be a royal pain in the ass, because many nerds actually like being interrupted in mid-sentence when they're wrong.
Which is not to say that there aren't a lot of nerds who have learned to read people correctly. You just don't notice them, because they have successfully passed in your world. I suspect a lot of the readers of this journal have internalized these crazy rules, even if they don't understand them, and as such you may not mark them as a terminal case.
Deep down, though, even though you may think of them as "normal," they're secretly baffled and often irritated by the way things are. Yet unlike the lost nerd segments, they've shrugged and knuckled under as a necessity. Then they go to favorite forums or cons, where they can, for a weekend or an evening, interact in the way that they feel is sane.