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If Nerds Can Learn Linux, Why Can't They Learn Not To Interrupt People? - The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal
March 5th, 2010
11:04 am

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If Nerds Can Learn Linux, Why Can't They Learn Not To Interrupt People?
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.

(247 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

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From:jcfiala
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:10 pm (UTC)
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Oh, _yes_.
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From:redstapler
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:13 pm (UTC)
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As a kid, I was really poorly socialized. It was seriously A Thing, and an oft-discussed issue with my parents.

Suddenly, around age 13 or 14, it was like the fog lifted, and I got it. I suddenly knew how to make friends, how to be part of a group conversation, all of it.

I still don't know what exactly the shift was, and lord knows I stumble once in a while, but...man, I know how to be social.

I wish I knew how to share the data, but even I don't know what it was.

So maybe I just downloaded the right update or something? Who knows.

ETA: I did think of something. I read Ender's Game in the eighth grade. While that's a horrible guide to socialization, it *did* emphasize observing and understanding your surroundings and the customs of the "tribe" you were living with, even if you weren't a native member. That was what I took from it at the time, anyway.

Edited at 2010-03-05 04:17 pm (UTC)
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From:wrendragon
Date:March 5th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
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The same thing happened to me! I was a social outcast right up until high school, and then suddenly *ding* I had friends amongst the cool artsy kids. No idea why it changed so suddenly. I always assumed it was because I suddenly had boobs right around then, and everyone became more forgiving. And then once people are friendly with you it's a lot less scary to be social.
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From:wdomburg
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:19 pm (UTC)
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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.

That's not hard to understand. Adding "I think" shows that you realize it's an opinion and not hard fact.
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From:andrewducker
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC)
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But of course it's not hard fact! You can't have hard facts about "funniest"!

(Or, at least, that's what my inner pedant says. I try to keep it under control though)
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From:andrewducker
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:21 pm (UTC)
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I was helped a lot by learning that complete logically coherent systems are impossible, that complexity can take simple starting points and produce counterintuitive results, and that most things in the human brain are hacks designed to make it easy to deal with situations vastly different situations from modern life (like spotting hidden tigers and associating in close-knit tribes).

Once I'd realised that looking for perfect answers wasn't going to get me anywhere I was a lot happier and able to deal with the world pragmatically, which then helped me get to know it a lot better :->
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From:bart_calendar
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:23 pm (UTC)
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But here's the thing, Mystery, Lovedrop, Matador and Orbital are four of the biggest nerds in the world and they manage to get laid by creating complex dungeons and dragons type nerd formulas to get laid.

So, the answer is that nerds can learn to break down social shit into nerd speak, they just tend to not do so as often.
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From:redstapler
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:27 pm (UTC)
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I was in a directing class in college, and one of my "actors" (other students in the class) had asperger's.

I didn't grok it fast enough, nor did I have the time to do it, but to direct him effectively, I would have had to break everything down into simple blocking, including nuance and inflection.

I wouldn't have been so cranky about it if the teacher of the class hadn't been a dick and didn't like me, so took off points for it.
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From:funwithrage
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
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Yep--which is why I don't tend to participate as actively in fandom as I might. I don't have that Need to Understand: things just are, because they are, going to get a soda now. And I've internalized most of the rules decently well by now.* (I'm no James Bond, but I can deal with people okay and I don't go out in stained t-shirts or anything.) People who haven't and have that obsessive need to know whyyyy? Bug me. I'd rather not be around them, and I'd really rather not be around them when they're "expressing themselves."


*Also a very poorly socialized kid until twelve or thirteen, but I doubt it was for quite the same reasons, since I've never really cared about continuity etc.
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From:ccr1138
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:25 pm (UTC)
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Good observations.

This is what I have learned: The key to etiquette is doing whatever you can to avoid making other people uncomfortable.

A lot of nerds score very low on empathy tests (I score at 5% or something horribly low). This means 1) we don't pick up on social cues and 2) even if we do realize what we're doing is offensive, sometimes we don't care. You will never be good at socializing if you refuse to participate in society's rituals because you think they are stupid.

For the longest time, I would avoid the whole rote conversation thing -- hi how are you fine how are you good how was your trip fine nice weather we're having -- because I thought it was horribly awkward, stilted and dumb. BUT. Normal people find this sort of thing comforting, and if you try to change the script, it confuses them. I had to LEARN to do this simple thing. It takes practice, but now I'm fairly good at it. Even so, I have this internal conversation that says, "Okay, smile, make eye contact, listen, follow the script." It's never going to be natural to me, but because I don't want to deliberately make people uncomfortable, I keep trying.
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From:jarodrussell
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:30 pm (UTC)
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The key to etiquette is doing whatever you can to avoid making other people uncomfortable.

The appearance of normalcy is functional normalcy. Perception is everything.
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From:jarodrussell
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:28 pm (UTC)
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If nerds become the dominant consumer of any given entertainment, it's fucking doomed.

Yes, thank goodness for geeks who can come in and emo-angst media back to life with pointless murders, rape, and nostalgia porn.
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From:fallconsmate
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:30 pm (UTC)
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you know...that's the perfect icon for this conversation. :D
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From:gravityslave
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:37 pm (UTC)
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I went out looking for myself this morning and never suspected I'd stumble over myself in your blog. :)

My husband could have done with this primer - I suck at explaining things to someone who doesn't speak my language (so... anyone except me, I guess) and now, due in part to perpetual miscommunication, we're divorcing.

Thanks for clarifying something for me: next time I should limit my dating pool to nerds. I have a thing for musicians, so... theremin rather than guitar, I think.

This bonus puzzle piece is appreciated.
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From:dylia
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC)
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"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.

Or, you know, you could just wear gloves.
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From:theferrett
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC)
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You kidding? That's even RUDER.
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From:meyerweb.com
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:44 pm (UTC)
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Fingernail solution: always wear gloves. Or modify a pair of gloves so they expose all of the hand but the fingertips.

That's how I would think a nerd who wants to conform would solve that one. So I suspect the real problem is that nerds decide the rules are stupid and they aren't going to play.


(ReCAPTCHA: "nippiest committee". Tee hee.)
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From:theferrett
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC)
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Again, you'll discover that in true arbitrary fashion, gloves are even ruder. So you can't do that, either.
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From:charis_zoi
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:44 pm (UTC)
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THIS. This is why I like Sheldon Cooper. Because I have so many problems understanding the arbitrary rules, but I feel horrible because I screw up so much. Sheldon doesn't give a damn. He likes himself and has said "fuck you and your arbitrary rule system". He'll play along if he wants to, or if he doesn't care enough about his way of doing things. I like Sheldon because it would be kind of nice - freeing, really - to have the self confidence to say "fuck you" and not feel horrible.

(I know, I know, it isn't healthy. I know I have to learn the script. I know.)

I also like Temperance Brennan from Bones because she'll point out instance when the rules are illogical and sort of odd. Or she'll admit to not understanding the rules, but not be upset or bothered by the fact that she doesn't get it.
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From:sacramentalist
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:51 pm (UTC)
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He also has the skill of transcending (his word) an inadequacy, like his inability to drive, or finding pride in a restraining order.
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From:dimethirwen
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:45 pm (UTC)
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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.

I had this problem with an ex-boyfriend of mine. He used to INSIST that I preface every opinion statement with "I think" (yeah, there's a reason we don't date anymore). It only seemed to bother him if the aforementioned opinion was something he didn't agree with, which happened quite a bit in our relationship. It was weird.
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From:sacramentalist
Date:March 5th, 2010 04:49 pm (UTC)
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Gossip and shame have a lot to do with developing social interactions. If someone is either not exposed, or uninterested, or preternaturally unable to bother with arbitrary opinion, then they don't learn things like politeness.

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