Last time, I talked about Michael Suileabhain-Wilson’s five geek social fallacies, giving brief descriptions and some of my brief thoughts on them. In short, while I think that recognizing faults in the nerd persona are important, the five GSFs listed both overstretch certain parts of nerd personalities while completely ignoring others. It’s really hard to boil down nerd psychology into a simple list, but the GSFs are a good place to start figuring out how we nerds and geeks operate. Bear with me while I navel-gaze for a bit.
A common theme in the GSFs is that friendship is a binary relationship. Either you are a friend, or you are an enemy. Friendship, under this definition, entails complete commonality of interests, absolute loyalty, and as much presence as possible. Friends like each other, like the same things, will do anything for each other, and will spend as much time with each other as possible. Friendship is always equal among friends. Any slight on these points is a personal attack and moves that person from friend to enemy. I’m obviously caricaturing here, but the reality is often not too far from the extreme.
GSFs 1, 2, 4, and 5 can be combined into a single statement: all my friends are all friends themselves, and everyone is welcome. It stems from a common idea that those who exclude are enemies, and the idea that a friend may not want to be around another friend, whatever the reason, moves them into the enemy zone. Nerds hate exclusion, usually stemming from school social circles and being burned by people they thought were friends. We don’t want to be hurt by excluders again, and we don’t want to hurt someone else by excluding them. Because we accept this premise, our friends of friends must be our friends, as excluding them makes us enemies in their eyes. And because these are my friends, they will accept me regardless of who I am and what I do.
GSFs 1, 3, and 5 share a common thread of “loyalty over everything because we are friends.” The act of excluding is a betrayal of the loyalty of friends, and any act that goes against friends is seen as such a betrayal. Need a ride to the airport? Done. Want some of the dinner I cooked? Of course. Come to the hockey game tonight? I have work tomorrow, but okay. We’re going to Florida for spring break, are you coming? Well, I had plans already, but…. You can see where this is going. This stems from a strong desire to keep the friends we have, and always being present is how nerds think people will like them. It makes it very hard to say “no” to anyone, even when the nerd is not in a position to live up to the promises they make.
Conversely, when people say “no” reasonably, the breach of loyalty is often blown out of proportion. What do you mean you can’t drive me to the airport? I’ve had a long week, I’m tired. Why can’t I have some of your dinner? I spent a long time making it, and I’d really like to keep it for leftovers. I thought you were going to the hockey game? I’m going to the bar with other friends tonight. Can I join you? Well, I haven’t seen them for a while, and I’d really like to catch up with them again. What about spring break? I already made plans to go to Chicago. You made plans to go to Chicago and didn’t ask me? It is often hard for nerds to accept when one of their friends has a part of their life incongruous with their perception of that friend; if they don’t act in the way that nerds expect them to act, the betrayal instinct kicks in.
This leads into another thread among nerds: all of my friends are willing to put in as much into the friendship as I am, and I’m willing to put in a lot. This is very dangerous, as it completely ignores one of the fundamental truths of friendship: friends often do not share the same level of commitment. Friendship is always a balancing act, and knowing how much social capital you’ve built up with your friends is crucial when interacting for them. It can mean the difference between them dropping everything for a major project of yours and them blowing up at you for asking for a small favor. Nerds, who think of friendships in binary, have a hard time grasping that the person they call friend may not get the same benefits from the friendship as the nerd does. It’s easy to feel betrayed when you put in a lot of work into a friendship only to realize that they don’t take it as seriously as you, but understanding what your friend gets out of the friendship can make both of your lives easier. You save your energy for other friends, and your friend gets what they want without feeling awkward that you are doting on them so much.
One major nerd social fallacy that was completely ignored in the original article (though hinted at) is that all friends share the same interests. If I like fighting games, shooters, basketball, anime, and 80s movies, then clearly all of my friends like fighting games, shooters, basketball, anime, and 80s movies. If they like RPGs, then either (1) why the hell are they my friend? or (2) crap, I have to like RPGs now. I have found this to be especially troubling, notably in that nerds feel that the way to engage your friends is by doing things you like in common, and since we are friends, we share those things in common. Thus, when we’re together, the way we engage each other is through those things we share in common. Now, this is the basis for most social interactions, nerd or otherwise, but where the fallacy comes into play is when we cannot recognize when we like something more than our friends and try to base our social interactions such that we favor our interest over theirs.
For example, I like video games, food, TV, anime, and movies, in roughly that order. One of my best friends likes movies, food, TV, video games, and anime, roughly in that order. We share common interests, there’s no question about that, but because they’re not in the same order, our level of engagement in any of these is going to be vastly different. To me, a great way to spend a night is with a couple bottles of wine and some great conversation about video games, food, TV, etc. My friend like to spend a night with a couple bottles of wine watching movies and playing video games. And there’s a very big distinction between the two. I get bored watching movies, and I hate playing video games drunk. My friend likes to show me some new Youtube clip or parody anime or classic movie or make me play a game they really like in the hope that I will have the same reaction. I inevitably don’t, and while we’re both old enough not to be offended by this, I can see how confused they get when I don’t have their same reaction. Another example that bleeds into other tendencies mentioned supra is that they like to go see movies in theaters, whereas I’d rather stay at home. They get almost offended that I don’t want to see a movie in the theater because it is jarring that something that means so much to them cannot have the same effect on someone they care so much about. It is this nascent jarring that I think leads to the vitriol we see on the Internet when someone writes an article we don’t agree with, but that analysis is for another post.
Recognizing that friends can have different tastes and finding ways to engage those tastes is something that nerds actually do rather well at times. Because nerd culture is so broad, we’ve come to accept that not everyone is going to share our tastes, so we can accept when, say, my friend goes to the theater to see the latest movies while I stay at home and play JRPGs. We always want to find people who share our interests, but because our own interests are so well defined, we can learn to appreciate the reasons why other like the things that we may not. Knowing what attracts our friends to their interests is the key to engaging them and building friendships, and having friends who will act reciprocally is a rare treasure. I realize that the last sentence may seem painfully obvious, but I am always surprised at how many people (usually nerds) try to engage people without finding out what motivates them.
I am way more verbose than I intended to be in this post, so let’s wrap this up. While the 5 GSFs bring up some interesting points, I think they evince a general theme in nerd culture that is reactionary to prior exclusion and depends on a binary view of friendship. It ignores the common nerd view that all friends must share the same tastes and merely touches on the differences in social capital that define most friendships. What it mostly shows is that nerd psychology is incredibly complex and cannot be canonized into a few generalizations. I’ve already written over 2500 words on the subject, and I’m just scratching the surface. But the conversation has to start somewhere, and it gives a good shorthand for identifying behaviors that we want to change and see changed in our friends. As nerds, we have to deal with nerds, and being able to recognize our own faults and helping our friends to overcome theirs will ease social tensions we already have to deal with.