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Geek behaviors present during conversations (stanford.edu)
183 points by ronnier on Jan 26, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 156 comments

Moreso than an altruistic desire to educate their audience, I think geeks rather desire to preserve the validity of discourse -- i.e. prevent the spread of "false" memes or concepts. It's not a patronizing focus on a peer's education, but rather a way to preserve the truth and correctness of human understanding of the world.

I agree, although I do find it funny that this comment is self reinforcing.

Let's say I'm in a meeting and the VP of Marketing says, "We all know this feature easily can be launched next week." At least in the US, my silence could be used later to claim implicit agreement. There seems to be some cultural rule to the effect of, "If someone hears another person say something incorrect and doesn't immediately state disagreement, he is implicitly agreeing or did not care enough about Thing X to bother commenting." If someone believes that others follow this rule, then he could claim that a commitment had been made. At a minimum, it would be easy to raise doubt in others of my competence should I later provide an estimate of a month. So, given these risks, how can anyone not speak up?

I understand letting some non-essential facts slide if there's little threat that they can be used against you later, but US culture (at least Midwestern business culture) dictates near immediate rebuttal -- no matter how gauche.

If you're in a formal business meeting, then you're in a social situation that has nothing to do with the focus of this article, which is informal two-way conversation.

I agree that group interaction was not the focus of the article, but the parent comment seemed more general. Also, to a lesser degree, I think this unfortunate social rule applies in person-to-person interaction. "Why did you not bother to object yesterday when I told you of our group's plans?"

In more informal social situations, I don't think this odd social rule is an issue though. After all, if I start talking to somebody at Starbucks about his laptop, it's hard for him to later claim I had an obligation to help him choose the right wireless dongle -- even if he mis-stated his needs for G vs. N connectivity.

A good comeback for this is, "You can't expect me to correct all the bullshit Gary spouts. I don't have the time or a strong enough speaking voice. I'd be hoarse within a week."

It's highly context-depended whether you can pull this comeback.

Yeah, I mean what if the guy's name is Bob?

Yes correcting someone (especially publicly) is status lowering:

Geeks can't see when they're lowering the status of the other person. In fact, they're inept at knowing when to play higher or play lower. I do improv acting. I find improv acting provides an incredibly useful lens to view social interactions.

(Cached link because the Improv Wiki is down.)

True, i have a real problem with sloppy thinking the same way a musician has a problem with noise. I don't mind being corrected, i have no emotional attachment to my positions or believes, if they are wrong, but for some reason proving someone wrong is seen as a personal attack, which confuses me. Why would anyone have such an emotional attachment to a bad idea? And they call me strange... :D

What i fear most is not that i might upset someone with my correction, but that someone might not correct me out of politeness if im talking bullshit(i tend to do that often). Thankfully i tend to avoid people pleasers and most of my friends would not hesitate to state my mistakes, even at the risk of insulting me.

I was like that for a while until I lived with 4 other people who would often accuse me of caring too much about semantics (although semantics often had nothing to do with it... had to let that slide too). I started doing the following:

1) Hear something incorrect.

2) Can I immediately tell that this incorrect fact will change the conclusion. If so, correct the fact.

3) Else, let the conversation continue but remember the incorrect fact. Keep looking out to see if it changes any conclusions.

I started doing this consciously and eventually its become fairly automatic.

It's an issue of authority. If someone says that something is true, and you prove them wrong, you've made them look like a weak thinker or out of touch with reality. This can actually damage their relationships with the people around them. If the issue is actually important, you should go to them privately and give them the information in a manner that makes it clear that you are looking to help them instead of just calling them out. If the issue is not important, often (in context) their posturing of "I know better" is more important than actually being correct, so just let it slide.

Sometimes, it can also be a issue of identity (left/right politician, Java/Lisp programmer…)[1]. If you attack an idea that someone attached to his identity, it will be like you attack his very being. Common reactions can be dismay, denial, or even violence.

[1]: http://www.paulgraham.com/identity.html

Most people aren't like you. A common joke is: Q: How can I tell if someone is smart? A: If they are smart, they agree with me.

Of course it's deeply patronizing. It carries the presumption that you and nobody else is the Educator of Audiences and the Guardian of Validity of Discourse. Even if it might have an element of truth in a particular conversation, flaunting it (or just believing it) is a sign of profound social ineptitude.

What the hell? It carries the presumption that you have something educational to say, but it certainly doesn't presume that the other person doesn't. Education can flow both ways. Indeed, it's more interesting that way.

Just look at any thread on this forum: people contribute information and correct each other and it's interesting, not patronizing.

I seriously doubt that in most social situations, HN-like discourse would be considered "interesting".

Geeks find the constant back-and-forth of corrections in dialogue to be interesting and educational. Non-geeks do not; they lose interest by about the second iteration, and will become annoyed shortly after.

Maybe the non-geeks are wrong?

Typical geek response. :-) How long would you like to debate this, and to what end?

The article is about actual conversations, not HN threads. Real life interactions have to do with whether the other party perceives you're being a patronizing git, not whether you believe you have something educational to say.

Little Edit: if you think describing 'I don't agree with you' as an 'altruistic desire to educate' and single-handedly preserving the 'validity of discourse' and the 'truth and correctness of human understanding of the world' is anything short of absurdly presumptuous, you might want to re-read the linked article very carefully.

It carries the presumption that you and nobody else is the Educator of Audiences and the Guardian of Validity of Discourse.

Not necessarily. Preserving accuracy in a complex system with a lot of data flowing all over the place requires multiple checks throughout the system.

Right. That succinctly describes something other than a 'conversation between humans'.

YES. Like XKCD said: "someone is wrong on the internet." (http://xkcd.com/386/)

Geeks are obsessed with correctness. Sometimes this is helpful, sometimes not. Witness Slashdot discussions.

Where does this obsession with correctness come from? Is it innate? Does it come from programming? Something else?

This is an interesting question, one I've been wondering about lately.

When I was a little kid, I had a very strong (and I now realize, unusual) affinity for the truth. I would feel bad if I told someone a fact which I later learned to be false. I felt that if I said something that was false, I was contaminating people's understanding of the world, and this was a wrong thing to do. I didn't frame it this way, in those words, of course, but I remember that this was my explicit thought -- that spreading inaccurate representations of the world was a bad thing to do.

I wonder if many hardcore technical people (I am getting tired of the word "geek") perhaps share this early attitude of mine.

To indulge in some evolutionary psychology, I wonder if this aversion to spreading misinformation was an adaptive trait back when proto-humans lived in small troops -- spread misinformation, and people on whom you relied would be lead astray, to your own detriment.

As a kid, I said "I don't know" when I didn't know the answer to a question, or when someone asked me to make a poorly defined prediction. Or I'd give a long answer full of qualifications. I quickly learned that although these answers were true, they really irritated people.

"I want to say true things, but apparently other people want to hear lies," I thought to myself. But I now know that it's more nuanced than that. Typical people ("non-geeks") do care about truth when it directly relates to what they're interested in: usually social status and mating, and if they're unfortunate, survival. Generally, they're not interested in more abstract subjects.

I interpreted people way too literally. If they talked or asked about X, I assumed they were curious about X. I didn't grasp that small talk is about entertainment and insecurity: the speakers reassure each other of their companionship; gauge each other's abilities, motivations, and desires; signal tribal affiliation; share gossip; and determine their places in the pecking order. It has nothing to do with X. X is just a pretence.

Even as I became conscious of this, I often acted the same way out of principle. Alas.

I now know that it's more nuanced than that.... X is just a pretence. [sic]

I think that it is even more nuanced than you propose. Often non-geeks are interested in the subject, but may not have sufficient interest or mental energy required for significant, structured thought into the subject. That is the kind of thought that geeks are accustomed to, but to non-geeks, that's what they do at work, not for pleasure (exceptions abound, though. For example, "non-geeks" often put careful thought into sports. Maybe they should be called "sports-geeks").

I regularly am asked questions about technical matters outside of my expertise. I try to draw some logic into the matter, break it down, and come up with a simple, reasonable, and probably accurate answer. If required, the asker is often intelligent enough to come up with a similar answer - or at least an equally plausible one. But they don't want to, so they ask me. And that's okay. If I don't want to think about, I'll tell them I don't know.

Yes, I was being imprecise by talking about "lack of interest". It's not only lack of interest per se; there are many reasons why someone might not think deeply about a subject. Lack of mental energy due to daily responsibilities is, I'm sure, quite common -- even for geeks.

And it's even more nuanced than that. Someone might be very interested, on an absolute scale, in some subject. But as long as he's even more interested in social reassurance, gossip, networking, status, and so on, he will prefer conversations that revolve around those instead. It's a matter of priority. Yeah, there's a latent physics geek in his brain, but when he asks you about next week's weather, his goal is imprecise small talk, not a discussion of turbulence models.

Yes, at least in my case, it is so. I was approached and asked if I had an answer. Being that at times, it was part of my job description, I would come up with the best answer based on the knowledge I had at the time. Later, more information could lead me to decide I was wrong, then I would go back and explain why I was wrong and what the new "right" answer was.

At first I felt like I was being wishy-washy (changing my tune) but I later understood it as just an attempt to be right and not give out wrong information. I felt giving out wrong information and not correcting it when I found out it was wrong was breaking the "trust" relationship I had with the people involved.

Even though I am still in that type of a position and still delivering those types of answers, I now attempt to couch said answers in language that shows "this is what I currently believe, and this may change if I get contradictory information."

Also, I notice I am much pickier about correctness if I have recently been programming. My wife likes to point this out: "Oh, you're in THAT frame of mind."

It's probably true in most scientific and engineering fields, but I can tell you from many experiences in programming that minor inaccuracies in a partner's understanding can lead to major disasters if left uncorrected. It only takes a few disasters in your life before you develop an allergic reaction to both inaccuracy and imprecision (vagueness).

Like if you were separating uranium 235 from 238 and were planning to carry around the 235 suspended in water like you did with the primarily 238 mixture...

You need some more bad luck to make it really dangerous. E.g. a pressurised container. Otherwise the water will just escape, when it gets too hot.

Oh, irony.

I guess no one got the obscure Feynman reference.

(I'm pretty sure eru got your joke.)

Case in point: we need a sarcasm tag.

I think it goes back to the mappers/packers mindset. Mappers tend to think of the world as a solvable map, given enough information. This obsession with correctness is simply a way to help correct someone's map.

The article focuses on geeks with a strong technical/computing bent. In order to understand complex systems like modern computing environments, you can't flub the details. Otherwise you end up with huge errors in your mental model at the macro level.

For example, A geek will know various properties of PI out to some number of decimal places etc. If they have to calculate with PI they'll try and use as much precision as possible in order for the results of the calculations to be as correct as possible at the end. A geek knows that if they just say "PI=3 is close enough". Then calculations using PI end up with all kinds of weird results...and cars will fail to roll and houses will fall down, and ballistic trajectories will miss their mark etc. So a pedantic fetishizing over the digits of PI becomes a necessity. It's hard to turn on and off that level of mental discipline, so by force of necessity most geeks simply set the switch to "on".

So a geek necessarily internalizes the practice of being pedantic and sweating the details.

This happens with anybody who sweats the details in a narrow field because they understand that you can reach the wrong conclusion at the macro level if you don't. Even in seemingly traditionally un-geeky fields like fashion or cooking, you find similar types of behavior patterns.

What this essay is identifying is either the lack of the ability in technical geeks to turn off the pedantic-ism or to not forcibly apply it to all aspects of life.

My guess is a highly specialized form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Tendency towards fields like programming and engineering -- where correctness is both demonstrable and required -- are just side effects of this.

Where does the typical cavalier attitude toward correctness come from? Is it innate? Does it come from religion or politics? Something else?

(To me, this is the question that needs answering.)

The cavalier attitude toward correctness comes from "relevance". Much of the truth you have to share isn't relevant to others. Even to other engineers. Presenting a simplified story is best in most situations, even if it doesn't cover the nuances. If they need to know the details, then it's time to talk.

A few quick illustrations off the top of my head:

* I speak Spanish fluently and was traveling to Honduras with a group of twenty-some other Americans, only one of which had similar competence with the language. They asked me to give them a quick "Intro to Spanish" course. I started with a simplied academic view, "I'll start with some simple vocabulary, some verbs, some conjugations of 1st/2nd/3rd-singular/plural forms to give them an idea of how to talk." I quickly abandoned that, stuck to the "where is the bathroom?" kind of sentences, names of common foods, other words, and a little human-interest history/geography. That approach worked, they could ask for bananas even if their word ordering and conjugation wasn't perfect. They would have been bored to tears after two minutes of a formal language presentation.

* I was working at a startup and a cute phone-sales rep wanted to know more about our product so she could sell it better. She enjoyed biking too. Great, we go on some great bike rides, I try to educate her about our product but went into way too much depth. Her eyes kind of glaze over, I'm really disappointed about her lack of interest in the product. "You really need to know this," I tried to explain. She probably didn't. She just needed the talking bullet points. She wasn't interested the engineering world view of things and I couldn't deal with that. I saw some disturbing rigid tendencies in myself too. The friendly relationship kind of stopped at that point.

* The best support person I've ever worked with was a master at glossing over the truth, in a good way. He'd talk to us engineers, we'd tell him exactly what was going on and how we needed to change a configuration or fix a bug or apply a patch. What he told the customer often had nothing to do with what we'd tell him. And we and the customers really were better for it. Either the explanation was too detailed for the customer to follow it, or would alarm the customer and bring up a whole bunch of questions they really didn't need to be asking. That's wisdom, of a sort, at least.

Isn't this just an ego related thing common to every human? Showing to the world that you know better?

Last week friend of mine said something stupid and I proved him wrong. I wish someone stopped me before we started arguing and reminded me the Carnegie's advice I've read few years back but was ignoring all the time.

Yeah - I have to resist this urge with my wife sometimes. Internally I'm saying "YES YOU CAN TOO MAKE A BATTERY OUT OF A POTATO! I'M GOING TO LOOK IT UP AND SHOW YOU!!"

But really, it's way more important to get along and be happy than to prove I'm right about something that doesn't matter. (I still say it, but refrain from proving it.)

Did this last night.

Wife was having trouble with a financials spreadsheet from work, and asked me to help out. I took a look, and although I didn't know the actual content, it was clear to me what the kind of error must be, and how to correctly design a spreadsheet so that such errors are easily identifiable.

She said she didn't know that the incoming data might be problematic; I replied that one must always treat all inputs as untrusted. She said that XYZ gave it to her; I said be defensive against bad data even if I give it to you.

Anyway... the whole thing turned into a conflict, when I could have just said "I'm glad I could help you this time".

This is not a case of inaccuracy. This is a case of you accusing her of being the problem and her defending herself. How could that not lead to an argument?

Because he's not accusing her of being the problem, he's accusing her current behaviour of being poor and improvable. A case of accusing the sin, not the sinner, if you like. It's not an attack on her, they can both gang up together and attack the behaviour that leads to those errors.

Well, they could if she thought of it like that.

That was pretty much it. That and the idea, mentioned elsewhere, that when something is wrong it just has to be fixed. She's my wife, I know she's a smart lady and has every potential of doing this well. If I could just show her a better way, how wonderful the world would be.

Well, that's the theory anyway.

Ummm, you just described half my married life! :-) Perhaps I should take a hint...

I feel guilty, my married life isn't like that. My unmarried life, ironically, was frequently like that. I believe my wife just came to accept certain annoying parts of my personality, like I accepted annoying parts of hers. She accepted sci-fi, I accepted chick-flicks and certain reality TV programs.

My wife now frequently turns to me when she hears "facts", I've become a sort of a content filter for facts and trivia; not to mention an encyclopaedia too. I've still got to teach her a true understanding of the universe and our solar system, but I learnt all that by being a sci-fi nerd from when my dad showed me Star Wars at like 3. I've literally got almost two decades on her on that front.

...and a week later, present her with a gift-wrapped clock/led nightlight/etc. powered by a potato.

Valentine's Day is just around the corner.

Smart phones help, but it is very regular for people to argue a point without having any citations to back themselves up. I'm guilty of this too.

What it has lead to is that I will often cede the point for the time being, I will then look up the relevant literature and either bring it up the next time I'm with the person or send them the link. I try to do this even if I'm wrong.

I'm sure it doesn't help me come off as sociable, but I like to contribute to the spread of fact-based discussion which we have so little of these days.

If I'm scathingly self-critical, sometimes I'll admit that there's also an element of showing off my knowledge.

Went to a gathering of Web developers the other night. Someone (poor fool!) actually admitted to using, and liking, Dreamweaver for certain code and HTML editing.

Boom! The jackals were on him in an instant, tearing away at any and all weak spots. It was pretty funny.

So, yeah, I've been guilty of this myself, but lately I've been trying to pay more attention to what people are saying and why. The Dreamweaver dude had plausible reason for his preference. But every time he mentioned something he liked about it, two or three people jumped in to explain how he could do that with TextMate or Vim or whatever.

While I think people were mostly trying to be helpful, a good part of this had to be the opportunity to show off specialized knowledge of this or that tool.

It's why trolling is one of the best ways to get help.

Don't ever ask how to do something; assert that something can't be done.

You'll get a flood of people wanting to show off and prove you wrong.

(Someone one has written about this behavior, and has an Internet law or rule named after him regarding this, but I can't recall who. I'm counting on everyone here to jump in and show off their knowledge by providing the name. :) )

I think Dijkstra said, but I can't find it, that computing science is the most fashion-obsessed science.

Oh, and I assert that the quote can't be found.


It's not a named law, but this quote pops up on reddit from time to time.

Every conversation has a limited bandwidth, and the participants usually have a shared understanding—an agenda—of what topics constitute an appropriate use of that bandwidth. When you say something that goes beyond that agenda, even if what you say is true, you risk annoying the other participants, not just because you’re injecting noise into the communications channel, but because you’re asserting a right to change the agenda of the conversation. If you do this often enough, they are more likely to come away with the impression that you’re arrogant and rude than remember your corrections to their false understandings of the world.

Furthermore, I do it myself to prevent complications down the road. I've found that it's all to easy for one piece of misinformation slipped into a conversation to snowball into something much bigger, and based on a false premise.

Perhaps it's an anxiety disorder? They would feel anxiety when less than perfect information is communicated?

I'd say less a "disorder" and more a point of view. The spread of false information hurts everybody.

I mean real physical discomfort that would only go away when they correct less than perfect information.

I had never thought of it in those terms. It took me a few years, but I consciously desensitized myself to that feeling. I still get it, but it's easier to ignore.

I don't think this article describes geeks: it describes the borderline autistic behavior of people that fail to evaluate their own peculiarities. I have the impression there's some serious confirmation bias at work if you become convinced this stereotypical behavior is actually typical geek behavior.

I have to admit that I recognize all of the points he makes, but I recognize them because I have become aware of them. Some I had already remedied subconsciously, long before I became aware of them; others required some effort to change. I don't doubt it is exactly the same for other geeks.

One of the main things this brought me is the guideline: don't obsess over perceived differences between you and others, because they are smaller than you think.

For instance, (awkward) silences are normal things that occur in many conversations. After forcing myself to pay attention to people's faces and body language, the first thing that struck me is how little 'regular' people actually seem to be doing that. They look away and fiddle with their papers all the time.

While it's possible to find exceptions, there are some strong indicators of mild (or high-functioning) autism among the geek crowd, and several of the points in the article could be described as autistic traits.

Probably the best example is the stereotypical geek's inability to read facial expressions. Some geeks -- like me, and, it sounds like, you -- teach themselves how to do it, but this is still a trait which comes more naturally to most people. This, combined with the geek's active "inner world", causes awkward conversations and social behavior.

Above average numeracy and a tendency to mentally model problems and situations visually are a couple of other indicators, as well as tendencies towards emotional irregularities.

While you might be able to act as though the differences between you and others is not great, the fact is, their brain probably doesn't work very much like yours does.

I knew someone for a while that was working on his thesis in psychology; according to him, the field of psychology had a certain reluctance to measure various disorders in degrees. Although psychologists might say, "this person is autistic, and can function somewhat in society", and, "this other person is autistic and cannot function in society", they're reluctant to say, "this person is only a little autistic". (This was the subject of his thesis.)

Based on what I've read in the DSM and publications like SciAm:Mind, as well as what I've observed of people, I'd tend to agree with him, and I'd say that it's a pretty safe bet that the majority of stereotypical geeks are "a little autistic".

I agree with your friend, it's my observation that all human behaviors are somewhere on a spectrum. People have different abilities or cultural ability to discern the resolution. Some see in black and white and some see greyscale.

Probably the best example is the stereotypical geek's inability to read facial expressions. Some geeks -- like me, and, it sounds like, you -- teach themselves how to do it, but this is still a trait which comes more naturally to most people.

I've always wondered if it comes naturally to most people or whether they just learned it at a younger age while we were busy learning other things.

Very young in fact -- I think I remember reading an article that claimed that very young babies could "read" facial expressions, at least in the happy-versus-sad sense.

I can't find any references to it online in the thirty seconds or so I'm willing to spend on it, but I did find:


...which says that babies start learning facial expressions at 6 months of age.

Autism is different though; it's not just a lack of ability, but a lack of interest. I distinctly remember reading that, for example, during a movie where the scene is primarily depicting two people talking, a "normal" person will watch the faces of the actors, while the "autistic" subject would tend to focus on the light switch in the background. I doubt this is universal, and the article may have even been about one person in particular, but at this point correlations between autism and difficulty with interpersonal emotional interpretation are accepted as generally true.

...I think this has an interesting, though probably coincidental, consequence: sci-fi shows and movies tend to focus much more heavily on objects and technology than faces and acting.

A spectrum approach is one of the advantages of the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual.

I must be a geek, this article is pushing all the right buttons.

A quick summary might be: "When talking, geeks need to understand that the listener doesn't know anything and doesn't want to learn, doesn't care whether what you say makes sense or is accurate, isn't trying to understand, doesn't even want the answer to the question they asked but rather an answer to the question they were thinking of, and is often simply waiting for you to shut up so they can speak. Also, everyone else has a massive inferiority complex so stop suggesting things to improve their lives as they'll take it as a belittling insult and somehow that's now your problem."

People with an IQ of 100 ("Normal or average intelligence") are two standard deviations from people with an IQ of 70 ("Definite feeble-mindedness").

People with an IQ of 130 ("Very superior intelligence") are two standard deviations from people with an IQ of 100.

A normal person will have to change basic communication skills to be found engaging by a feeble-minded person.

Likewise, an intelligent person will need to accommodate a normal person.

The term condescension has come to have a pejorative connotation[1] but is actually fitting in this context.

[1] Compare Webster's 1828 Dictionary: condescension, n. Voluntary descent from rank, dignity or just claims; relinquishment of strict right; submission to inferiors in granting requests or performing acts which strict justice does not require. Hence, courtesy.

- “It forbids pride and commands humility, modesty and condescension to others.” - “Raphael, amidst his tenderness, shows such a dignity and condescension in all his behavior, as are suitable to a superior nature.”

With Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, 11th Edition: condescension, n. 1. act or instance of condescending 2. a patronizing manner or behavior

I deal with a lot of different people in a given day, academics, trades people, sales people, students, parents, bankers, employees....you name it.

I do all of the context switching, or condescending, up or down because I long ago realized it was the most effective way to the job done. Most people can't or just suck at it.

End result? It's exhausting,I get incredibly sick of talking to people and start to feel incredibly alienated. It's like I have to speak a hundred different dialects of English to get through the day.

I understand exactly what you mean and I started doing it at a very young age. The end result as you described is the alienation effect you described.

The other interesting thing I found is that if I deal with somebody whom I don't need to switch too much, I find it relaxing and refreshing in some sense. But sadly it doesn't happen very often.

A friend who can switch with you is the best.

A spouse that can context switch with you is even better!

I'm still looking :(

Hum to be honest i really think this is a gross mixup of intelligence and capacity to adapt socially. Somebody very intelligent can communicate at very different levels without having to adapt. I see lots of very clever people doing this without even realizing it. That's because engaging someone vary much more on other criterias than on the mere intelligence of your interlocutor, like social context, aim of the conversation, etc ..

So the pejorative connotation of condescension fits in this context, the context of people thinking they have to adapt because their interlocutor is dumber than they are, when in fact it is they that lacks the social intelligence that would make adaptation natural.

FWIW, I pissed off a whole entire mailing list of self-described INTJs once by suggesting the same thing, but for differing personality types: that INTJs, being one of the few types that was so self-analytical as to know what type it was, had the ability and need to talk and act in a way that could be better understood by other types.

I'm an INFJ; as such take my this post as me 'counseling' all Myers-Briggs personality types that have an IQ > ~120 to observe genuinely kind people of an average intellect interacting with the cognitively impaired.

Think uncomplaining, long-suffering, enduring, tolerant...

"... FWIW, I pissed off a whole entire mailing list of self-described INTJs once by suggesting the same thing, but for differing personality types: that INTJs, being one of the few types that was so self-analytical as to know what type it was ..."

Myers Brigg illustrates "self-validation" and is dangerous when used to define careers ~ http://www.skepdic.com/myersb.html

Don't agree. Being truly engaging to, say, a child, requires an applied kind of intelligence. Having more of this intelligence would not hamper one's degree of engagement with the child.

Similarly, take Feynman; probably smarter than most of us. Note how he analysed and described many everyday phenomena in ways that seem very interesting, and not at all out of intellectual reach, and didn't seem to be bored doing so.

In fact, I'd rather say that an excess of intelligence should be no limit to how fascinating one is to the listener. The most interesting conversations often involve talking about the other person and sharing life experiences; but the most visceral of those experiences don't seem to have any obvious connection to intelligence. If anything, intelligence will enhance one's descriptive abilities.

Feynman, incidentally, had a famously low IQ of 125.

Even leaving aside intelligence, on geek to non-geek conversation, there's often a knowledge gap in at least one area. I'd bet that Joe Geek's knowledge of web browsers is way more than two standard deviations higher than Joe Interlocutor.

If you weren't a geek you wouldn't be here, right?

And if I move to the point.

<rant> I wholeheartedly agree with your summary. But there is one more point about "geeks don't have social skills" myth I would like to address. Myself being a very extrovert person, I have never had problems in mingling with people. But while wearing an engineer hat, I constantly get patronized by people who SHOULD listen to me for their own good. Yet, due to their willful ignorance and intellectual laziness, I get to clear the mess in the end. And it doesn't really matter how I try to present it. If I explain on simple terms - they don't believe me, but when I try to elaborate they just shut down. But! They do like listening to themselves, talking of lies. Yes Sir! They do! </rant>

And perhaps a shorter summary.

People chat for information exchange and entertainment. To geeks, these are the same. To many people, they are not.

Amen to that.

I think the propensity for geeks to prefer IM, Email and Texting has more to do with a lot of them being introverts and preferring to have time to consider their responses, than with a lack of social graces.

The lack of context for phones frustrates me because it means you can be "accidentally invasive." If you approach someone in real life, you can use your senses to gauge what they're doing, thinking, and feeling at the moment of contact, and make an social gesture that is appropriate. It helps with first impressions, which are always important. And with email the asychronity is high so your risk of reaching someone at a bad time is low, so again, you can make a good first impression.

But if you're going over phone, there is some expectation of real-time availability - nobody really likes voice mail. Phone calls have a dreadful suddenness to them. Thank goodness we're moving past the days when almost everything had to be done by cold-calling a number.

IM and texting can be even worse in some ways as the expectations of timeliness are fluid so communication may get frustrating when one person is moving way faster than the other, but I think they actually work really well when used for short-term "business update" types of communication: "I will meet you at 5pm." "Do you have a link for <x>?" "We changed our plans for the meeting." etc.


I have a strong aversion to intruding on someone else's consciousness -- breaking their concentration, or interrupting a task in progress with non-critical communication. Over the phone, I have no way to see what you're doing, so I cannot determine the degree to which I am intruding in your intellectual space. Hence I view the phone as an inherently high priority medium and use it sparingly. I will only call you if I have something so important to say that I would have been willing to interrupt whatever you might be doing. And I will be brief.

This behavior is forced on me by my notions of courtesy. But I am aware that it sends all kinds of incorrect signals to my mother . . .

I regularly find myself having two separate conversation threads in a text message exchange with one person. I don't know if that confuses people or not.

I often have two threads of conversation going in a face-to-face exchange. It's not very confusing.

That and the asynchronous nature of exchange -- i hate blocking on you formulating an answer, and all the rediculous connection setup/teardown required.

This is definitely it for me. I wish I could operate with a 90 second delay like they have for live television.

This is a great article, but I don't notice the "awkward silences" aspect of turn-taking to be as much of a problem as interruption and waiting to say something.

That is, as soon as you get an idea you immediately begin plotting to share it with everyone, and you either blurt it out or you stop listening until you get a chance to talk (thereby causing you to say things that don't seem to fit in the conversation or make it seem like you aren't keeping up)

Not yielding the floor when appropriate is definitely a problem too, but doesn't always result in awkward silences.

The commentary on "awkward silence" is interesting. Personally, I think it's kind of impossible to have an awkward silence; never do I find silence to be an uncomfortable thing, especially if there's the "comforting" sound of keyboard typing as background noise. "Thinking" noise, as it may be.

Maybe the main differentiating factor between geeks and non-geeks (as the author calls them) is ability to deal with silence. Most geeks I get along with best tend to listen with their eyes and speak with their hands.

Perhaps you have an inability to notice when a silence has become awkward?

There's great value in online communication, but sometimes you have to talk IRL.

Pretend like you're a noob learning netiquette.

> Non-geeks might perceive such behavior as rude and arrogant, like the geek is trying to show his smartness and be a 'know-it-all'.

It's only perceived as rude when it comes across as rude. For example, if you interrupt someone mid-sentence to correct something insignificant, then that's rude. Waiting for the person to finish talking and then immediately correcting something they said earlier gives the other person the impression that you weren't listening to what they were saying. There are better ways of dealing with this in conversation. One of them is simply to ignore irrelevant inaccuracies.

Calling it "altruistic behaviour to educate" is also disingenuous. I've met many geeks who thrive on expounding minutiae about irrelevant or insignificant topics at the most inappropriate moments, all for the sake of recognition. It's the same as when jocks try to impress others by being macho. Obviously not all geeks are like that, but they definitely exist. My dad is geek who is like this but for him it's also about self-affirmation.

Finally, I often see articles on the net trying to explain "geeky" social interaction, but I rarely read articles specifically targeted at people with these tendencies describing how to improve their social skills. That's because, IMO, people who have these skills recognize that intelligence has little to do with it.

hi everyone: this is the author here. i'm pleasantly surprised to see this pop up on HN.

please reply to my comment if you have any suggestions for improving this article. thanks!

Your observation about geeks fearing phone conversations is spot on, but I think it has to do with more than just turn-taking. I think it's a general social anxiety that manifests more strongly with phone calls because they're easier to avoid or procrastinate and because they often intrude social anxiety into a very safe, non-challenging social environment. I would guess that face-to-face conversations that are easy to avoid or postpone are just as anxiety-provoking as phone calls.

Anyhow, I am certainly a phone-phobic geek. When I was a young child, I was terrified of talking on the phone. I was too geeky to understand the social aspects of a phone call, but I was smart enough to know I didn't understand most of what happened during a phone conversation. When my parents called somebody to ask a question or invite them somewhere, it would take fifteen minutes. Typically, I had one goal in mind, such as asking my friend Jon if he wanted to play. That was all I understood, but I also understood a phone conversation was supposed to be more complicated than that, and that I had to be polite to whoever answered the phone. I had terrible performance anxiety.

Strangely, I still have an aversion to making phone calls to people I don't know well. Even simple, low-risk, impersonal tasks like calling to ask a restaurant's hours or calling the dentist to make an appointment produce a significant amount of anxiety. The more often I talk to someone on the phone, the more the anxiety decreases, though. Talking on the phone to my family and close friends generates no anxiety.

I'm kind of appalled at the negative tone and unpleasant assumptions behind most of the comments. Let me suggest an alternative view:

Most geeks have been "weird" their entire lives. From kindergarten on, they didn't quite fit in with the other kids. The teachers actively made their social lives worse by setting them up as an object of scorn: The kid to hate because they get the answers right while the teacher acts like a) you, too, could get the answer right if only you studied more (never mind that is not why the geek kid knew the answer) and b) see, this kid is proof I am a wonderful teacher and your failures are on your own head for being lazy (never mind that she or he isn't responsible for the geek kid's stellar performance either).

They have had scorn heaped upon them until even the ones who started out as extroverts have probably become gun-shy. The vast majority of people around them were also inculcated in this sick, twisted social system so even when you are in your 40's, you run into this "5-year-olds-on-the-playground"-style bullshit harassment and get abused by it no matter how hard you try to "behave" the way other people try to dictate you "should".

Someday, after you have twisted yourself all out of shape trying to do what other people claim would make you "socially acceptable", you eventually figure out that just knowing more than other people or just thinking differently about problems is inherently verboten and there is no social disguise that will make you "acceptable" to most people. It doesn't matter one iota that you are sharing information out of genuine enthusiasm for a topic or out of a genuine desire to make the lives of other people better, you will still be treated like an egomaniac, a threat, a bitch/bastard...etc.

So maybe if the more "normal" folks who think "social skills" are vastly more important than "hard"/technical skills would exercise some genuine compassion, refrain from being too quick to judge and other types of social wisdom that they like to brag they have more of than the "geeks", they would find that geeks aren't so dreadful after all. They can be coaxed out of their shells if you don't start off by automatically labeling them and being openly hostile. And if you don't hate them on sight for simply existing and are kind and patient with their foibles, they may not need to act like know-it-alls in self-defense, which is probably the only ego defense they had in many ugly social situations.

This pretty much describes my life until college. It took a lot of work from a bunch of friends in college for me to develop enough social skills to handle non-geeks.

I used to be more extroverted. Recent years have left scars that have turned me more gun shy. I am still trying to find a balance. My innate wiring is to just be warm and friendly to everyone. But I have found that there are often unexpected and harsh consequences to doing so. It's rather counter-intuitive.

The line "awkward silences often arise because the geek doesn't pay enough attention to his partner's attention level" struck me as a misunderstanding. Often when in a group, I'm doing nothing but focus on everyone else's rhythm because following it doesn't come naturally to me. I find everyone else trading off speaking and often just interrupting or talking over each other without issue. But before I've phrased my thought and found a place for it, the topic has moved on.

It's terrifying to consider that you wrote this article without knowing me and in fact without living inside my head. Anything in your list that I don't do I avoid only by conscious effort.

Of course many of these behaviors are not bad so much as different, but my "best" categories are:

* Most of the time I actively analyze conversations for signs that people are talking past each other, so I usually catch myself if I'm using jargon without adequate explanation. (Of course this is fed by the commitment to accuracy and desire to educate, though.)

* I don't think I often evangelize technology, but that's mostly because I discovered some time ago that if I recommend it I'm going to end up supporting it.

Thing I'd most like to improve on in myself is struggling with turn taking in conversation. Like many of these categories, I can behave more normally, but it's amazing to me how much effort and attention this one requires.

Most cognitive dissonance for me is the whole issue of caring about the "how" more than other people do. I think I appropriately focus on what and why when making decisions, and on one level I know that most people do not in fact care about the how. But on another level I can't quite believe that (e.g.) anyone who watches American football wouldn't want to know how they make the yellow first down line show up.

You might find this interesting: http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.sf.fandom/msg/1e5a95...

It's a report from a speech therapist who attended a Science-Fiction convention on the way that fannish speech is different to "normal" speech.

As the father of a geeky seven-year-old, the “struggling with turn-taking” section really hits me where I live. (Not that I ever exhibited such maladjusted behavior when I was seven, or seventeen, or thirty-seven. No, never! Well... hardly ever.)

A special-needs teacher at my son’s school has suggested that he get training in what’s called “social pragmatics”; this is an actual subfield of speech-language pathology that focuses on the social use of language as distinct from pronounciation, syntax, etc. We’re not convinced that he needs to spend 45 minutes a week focused on this subject, but other people might be interested in knowing that this kind of training exists.

"I've worked in both low-level systems programming languages like C as well as some high-level scripting languages like Python. What further details would you like to know?" ~= "I've worked with COM-PU-TERS. I type using a KEY-BOARD. What further details would you like to know?"

Another annoying geek habit is assuming everyone else is a drooling imbecile.

I completely suck at turn-talking, even when actively trying to anticipate when my 'antagonist' wants to say something. Does anyone have actual tips for improving this?

A sharp intake of breath is a pretty solid indicator. The more pronounced it is, the more agitated they are that you're still talking. (Unless they're just yawning.)

Looking away for a while and suddenly looking back with their mouth open slightly can also be an indicator. If they have their mouths closed tightly, they're deciding whether to interject, so you might want to check a sentence or two later to see if they've made up their minds.

I have the opposite problem: I'm bad at knowing when I can take a turn (so I end up being very quiet) and when it obviously is my turn to talk, I often can't think of anything to say.

I love your comment, it's really informative and just what I need. Do you have any suggestions of references (online or offline) where a layman can learn more about social queues? :)

Unfortuately, I don't. I learned these from years of frustration when I was a kid. I had hoped that my comment would get other people to post, but :-/

And it's cues, not queues :-)

In true geek form, of all the posts to which I wanted to reply, I couldn't resist pointing out that "queues" could technically be correct in this context, as in message queuing in a conversation.

Don't think of the person you're having a conversation with as an antagonist.

One confusing thing it usually a long mmm-hmmm sound, especially one that goes down in tone from high to low, indicates that the person is interested and wants you to keep speaking- however, a short, sharp "mmm" that rises in tone can mean "Oh, I just thought of something I'd like to say".

Also, consider where in a conversation you are- you should be taking shorter turns when you are just beginning to talk to someone. If a person asks you "How are you doing" or "What have you been up to lately?" you should give them a quick summary and then ask them the same question. This is assuming that it's a social situation where you expect a conversation- don't return the question if your boss asks you what you've been doing, and don't answer at length if the question is just a social nicety. The cashier in the grocery store doesn't want a detailed answer to "How are you today?", you should just say "I'm fine, how are you?" Hope that makes sense.

Oh, and on a related note- the "quick summary and then return the question" method works for more than just introductions. A lot of times people will ask you a question as a way of introducing a topic they want to talk about- "How was your weekend?" can mean "Something really exciting happened to me this past weekend and I want to talk about it". If they actually want to hear about your weekend then they will give a quick summary and then prompt you to elaborate on your answer, in which case you can go into more detail.


I think I used do more of those. Being at college has exposed me to far more people and social situations than high school and rubbed off many of my sharper social edges.

A behavior in a similar vein that I see on Twitter a lot:

  some_twitter_person: I went to the park tday.
  some_twitter_person: In the last tweet, I meant "today" and not "tday."
Unnecessary overcorrection. I've seen it on HN a lot too. It's as if making a mere typo will make everyone think they're an uneducated idiot.

I don't remember seeing that kind of post on HN. If you mean people editing their posts, I blame/credit the ease of editing. I tend to post before proofreading and then clean up any mistakes. It just seems like the natural way to do it.

I would be interested in a database conveying this article's information in tabular form. Then it would be useful to record the traits of other population strata, each in its own row (or with one row per observer/observed combo, to allow capture of multiple points of view). I would enjoy reading, searching, updating and sorting that.

- self-centered

- blind to the relative importance of issues

These are also characteristics of children. I note them in myself. I think every human being has these characteristics to some extent, but they are especially prevalent in geeks/nerds.

As a result, if you can overcome them enough, and you have some technical competence, you can be absurdly successful.

"they often make heavy use of technical terminology because it's the most concise and accurate way to convey their thoughts."

If you get your point across by using terms no one understands, you're not getting your point across. It's not efficient at all, since you'll have to explain yourself further. But we all do this, not just "geeks". We're inferentially distance from each other. Who doesn't compress their understand of the world into their own specialist jargon?

The comments of this article are so great. I can see myself in so many of them and I love how the topic can be seen from so many angles. I've always wondered over the telephone phobia that I've seen from time to time with my geek friends. I'm also a geek, but intro+extrovert. I feel more comfortable around geeks than noisy people though. My father was extreme introvert and my mother extreme extrovert.

I think most geeks misunderstand the nature of the problem. They look for the kind of precision and completeness necessary in technical fields in all areas of life. When really they should understand that there are different kinds of precision and completeness present in many different milieus.

A good geek might recognize this and seek to understand various types of complex systems and seek the type of precision and completeness necessary to model and work with that kind of system...a party is nothing more than a complex system that has a complex and complete set of rules that have to be adhered to with high precision in order to get invited to another party.

To play on this example, a geek might realize that he is failing in social interactions. Thus she/he might look at socialization as a complex system akin to a technical field and look to operate successfully at socialization by understanding it in detail. For example, learning how to take turns in a conversation, how to participate in small talk or tell an entertaining story to somebody from a different, non-technical background. They'll learn precision in using pop-culture references and completeness regarding the social situations to use them in. They'll learn about the social graphs of the people in the party, and when and how to reference other people ("don't talk mean about Suzy to Greg, they broke up, but he still digs her").

In programming a geek may test their knowledge by writing a program and seeing if it works "correctly". In electrical engineering they may build some useful gadget. If a geek is trying to "hack" socialization, they might test their knowledge by navigating a party without causing uncomfortable silences in conversations they participate in.

A party thus can be thought of as a particular kind of social "application" like a software application on a computer. Given time a geek might learn several different kinds of "social applications" like "giving a toast at a wedding", "having a 1-on-1 conversation with a cute girl", "going on a date", "selling software" etc.

i like the article and the main theme of the post.

one thing i'd point out that tends to be forgotten is that these "traits" are merely results of having not practiced (unless of course there is a condition such as OCD, autism, etc preventing development of certain social norms.)

Someone who does not practice verbal communication will suck at it. Someone who does not practice understanding others' interests will suck at it. Put these together and they will suck at teaching. Someone who doesn't practicing noticing others' clothes will not notice their own clothes.

"geek" is a choice, not a condition.

So a quick summary would be: "Geeks" are mostly interested in technical details, rather than touchy-feely stuff, and (often incorrectly) assume their conversation partner is as well.

A better quick summary is that there are many socially awkward people who excel in technical fields.

There are likely as many who do just as well and have no shortage of basic social skills. One just doesn't notice the awkward silences so there's nothing to write broad generalizing blog posts about.

If you were self-conscious about your geekdom, and wanted to adjust it so you could better interact with the slows, that summary would be pointless, but the article would be useful.

This seems tautological in the mainstream thought? Degrees of these behaviors are often used to identify geeks in the first place.

It is a strange premise, from my point of view, to characterise rather militant anti-intellectualism and hostility to the achievements of science, culture, scholarship, etc. as merely a trait of the majority of "ordinary" (non-"geeky") people.

I hope the author is wrong about that, or, alternately, that my understanding of what exactly is meant by "geek" is a bit off.

Being from another continent, i don't even get why is even necessary to catalog people (and sometimes how it could be done) either in the geek or non-geek category. Each one of us should have a multi-faceted personality that makes hardly possible to confine ourself in whatever definition we apparently seems to adhere to.

Geeks have really got to spend at least as much time with people as in front of the keyboard, which is something they can only partially influence by themselves. Employers have to realize that too and redesign jobs so that no-one should be spending more than 50% of their time in front of a keyboard.

I'd choke you if you dragged me out of deep thought just for the sake of it.

If someone tells me that the DVD player they recommend costs $297.89 at Costco but I can get a $49.95 mail-in rebate, then I need to spend some time rounding that to $250 before committing it to memory.

Did anyone else file that as 'less than $250' in their brains?

No mention of the "geeksnort"?

Now that you've mentioned it, somebody should explain what it is.

Yes, what is this snort of which you speak?

It bothers me when people use the word "many" when single digit numbers will do. For example someone might say, "I read many books," when it would be more informative to say, "I read about 5 books a week."

I think from a non-geek perspective, "I read a lot of books" might mean "I enjoy reading, perhaps we can talk about books we've read?"

Whereas "I read about 5 books a week" sounds more like "I count how many books I read so that I can one-up anyone who thinks they are as smart as I am."

A non-geek who reads 5 books a week might admit the exact figure if probed, but would be more likely to look slightly embarrassed, to imply "yes I know that makes me odd" and "don't dislike me; I'm not trying to seem superior but you asked."


I definitely suck at turn taking, but I love phone calls. I'd much rather talk than email/SMS/IM/whatever. In my mind those have even fewer social cues.

I think it's an advantage of the phone that there are less visual cues, so you can concentrate on auditive cues. A non-geek on the phone is somewhat in the situation of a geek, because he is aware of less non-verbal signals. He will tend to compensate with more auditive signals and clearer indications in the content of what is said. Fewer signals with more significance are easier to see for the geek.

At least that's what I used to think when face o face conversations were still a big problem for me, but phone conversations felt easier.

It seems I have become much less of a geek over the years.

I am utterly afraid of phone calls. I act like it's no problem though.

Likewise. I don't think I've ever had a phone conversation where I wasn't constantly feeling intensely awkward, even with friends who I have no problem talking with in person.

I really dislike making phone calls. I don't have time to perfect my thoughts as I do when writing them out. I forget questions I wanted to ask. And I often talk too fast and thus stumble over my words. Email is so much better.

I often make a list of things I want to talk about in my head, before making a phone call; often I also think of a nice introduction and phrase the first question - after that it just gets easier. Singing or making music, especially jam sessions, helps a lot in finding the right rhythm in speaking.

I just use IM for quick arranging or linking stuff around. Can't understand how people can chitchat on IM with each other for hours. You never now if that last message was supposed to be funny or serious or maybe even ironic? Then you don't know if your conversation partner thought your last message was serious, while you meant it to be funny...and it goes on an on and on... just can't do it.

Don't have any problems with normal conversations and phone calls though.

That's what emoticons are for: text-based representation of vocal tone.

True, but I feel that using emoticons in business is seen unprofessional, which is a shame because they can be very useful.

I find that a lot of what is seen as "professional" or "unprofessional" is dumb. I'd much rather do business with a human being who doesn't mind being a little silly sometimes than not.

I do think it's unprofessional to say things that could offend people, because its inconsiderate. But emoticons? Loosen up, I say.

A good way to end or reduces these geek mannerisms: Dale Carnegie's "How to Make Friends and Influence People"

GeeksDoItRarely.com - true, true (no site exists here as yet)

I think this article, while raising some valid points in some valid contexts, is very stereotypical. I'd very much prefer watching The big bang theory for a fun explanation of these stereotypes to be honest

Interesting Article

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