Covering up for being a nerd

by phil on Monday Sep 13, 2010 4:05 PM

10-year High School reunion notes

I had my 10-year High School reunion recently. What was most interesting was not answers to that oh-so FAQ, "Were people the same or different?" (My answer to that is that the girls who hadn't changed showed up, and the guys who had respectable jobs showed up). But what didn't change was the distance I had with everyone. Every dyad between me and someone else had nearly the same distance as it had back in High School. I felt like I had changed as a person, and yet the mutual chemistry, or lack thereof, was the same. I guess I was hoping to find a newfound spark with some girls I had ignored (or who had ignored me), but instead I just felt blah. The cheerleaders back then were the same ones shaking their booty to lame Top20 hits on the reunion dance floor, and the football players were the same ones rar-rarring about chugging beer. I was still more interested in heady-conversation than I was in shared "yo, what's up"-ism that is the predominant social way at parties. Some people, who never cared about me back then, did approach me about mobile development, but beyond exchanging business cards and talking shop, we were just as bored with each other now as we were back then.

Initially I was happy with this conclusion because it reaffirmed my belief in the immutability of chemistry between two people. On the other hand, its slightly unfortunate that my inability to relate to the mainstream has persisted. I somehow thought that the years of going to bars and clubs that I've put in Austin would help bridge the gap between nerdy-Phil and the general population.

But then again, I was reminded how in High School I had the same mentality, and tried to dabble in the trappings of what "everybody was doing," by dressing like them and acting like them. Nobody at reunion said, "Hey Phil, you really changed." To which I was initially disappointed, but then ultimately reassured that in High School I wasn't quite as nerdy as I imagined I was.

So much of our self-concept depends on what we imagine we were like growing up. And 10 years is a lot of time for mental revisionism to take hold. Over the years, I've blamed various neuroses on injustices in High School, but the reunion reminded me that I had a great school experience, and that I actually balanced being a nerd with blending-in.

Survivor strategy

I've been watching Survivor lately (And BTW, I found a great article called The Case for Reality TV). I saw the historic first season of Survivor, which had the finale that was watched by 51 million people. And I'm now watching Survivor: All-Stars, which includes some people who were in Survivor season one.

I believe that Survivor has metaphorical value for interpersonal relations. If you look at Survivor, there are three phases through which the season progresses, each phase with a different reason for why people are voted off.

The point of the first phase is to simply not be a deadweight to the team. Early voting isn't based on alliances, but rather on negative meritocracy: if your contribution to the team is obviously deficient you'll be voted off. Likewise, in the real-life example of a corporate environment, the company weeds out those who shouldn't be working there in the first place. The slackers and the under-qualified are immediately complained about and therefore fired or reshuffled.

Phase II, which is the longest of the three, involves voting off the most threatening contestants. All the contestants who stand out for being too clever or too strong, get knocked out. Likewise, in real-life, a lot of socializing is a delicate balance between contributing without being threatening.

The last phase comes down to fortunate positioning in the various game theory situations (if I vote for him, but he votes for her, then X, Y, Z, etc.), and winning the immunity challenges. Likewise, using the corporate world as an example, to obtain those coveted VP promotions, you need strategic alliances and a few big wins that make you a shoe-in for that position.

Do nerdy people play-up their social awkwardness?

When I watch Survivor, I always think about what I would do in the same situation. I mentioned a three-phase strategy for winning the game above, with the middle-phase being about trying to be as non-threatening as possible. To do that, you have to become aware of what it is about you that naturally makes you threatening. And you then have to somehow mask or justify that. For me, I'd imagine that I'd be a target for seeming too much like a know-it-all or a smart-ass. And so, I'd have to spin that into me being geeky or weird. I'd play up my lack of social skills or I'd play up my wild thoughts, so as to make people think I'm weak or out-there.

Now, if I step back and analyze my internal Survivor simulation, I wonder if a certain segment of nerds try to appear non-threatening on purpose. They fall into a role because its within that role that they make sense to other people. It also provides them a natural cover. If they look nerdy, they think, then nobody will expect them to be in charge or to be responsible for anything.

I wonder if nearly everybody does that to some extent; they take some outstanding trait they have and compensate with weakness in other areas. For example, I wonder if jocks play up being dumb, so as to not threaten everybody with seeming like Superman. In my limited experience with Survivor, I've already seen two contestants get the negative label of "Captain America" or "Mr. All-American." They don't seem to last very long.


SarahQB said on September 15, 2010 3:48 PM:

Great post. My reunion was scheduled for next weekend, but, after a funny/costly sequence of events, it's been canceled.

I say don't change.

In the past year or so I've really started to like and embrace my nerdy awkwardness and discomfort with superficial social interactions. I think showing this more openly helps people know me better, and that leads to good things.

Debrah said on September 15, 2010 4:40 PM:

Such an insightful post.

Particularly with regard to your school reunion.

So true that the basic sensibilities and personalities of those you knew back then remain the same as years go by.

You will find, as even more time passes, that this inevitable phenomenon will become even more pronounced.

Max said on September 24, 2010 3:52 AM:

In my limited experience it has also been the same - I have also had a 10-year school reunion and it was just as you have described - people and chemistry haven't changed a bit. Really, I felt ambiguous... Like you write. Perhaps, this is inevitable and we are not prone to change much)))

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