Why Nerds are Unpopular
February 17, 2003 9:37 AM   Subscribe

"Why Nerds are Unpopular" is an essay by Paul Graham that looks at how being smarter than the average bear -- usually an advantage in "the real world" -- is a liability in the Lord of the Flies world of adolescence. It's a long read, but an engaging writeup of the high school pecking order, how the school structure encourages this behaviour, the freak/geek alliance and gives some hope to the current crop of high school nerds (my fellow dweebs, it does get better). Even though high school is something like twenty years in my past, I still winced when I read the essay. Were you one of the high school geeks? Are you one now?
posted by AccordionGuy (61 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Stan Chin at 9:50 AM on February 17, 2003

I agree with the article - really smart kids aren't willing to dumb down in order to be popular. However, I've witnessed plenty of pretty intelligent people dumb down in order to associate with the average - I recall losing friends that way which seemed pretty important at the time.
posted by nthdegx at 9:51 AM on February 17, 2003

Lord of the Files
posted by Pretty_Generic at 9:56 AM on February 17, 2003

From what I could tell, the smartest kids in school were also generally athletic, attractive, and sociable. Though many "nerds" did seem pretty smart they didn't seem to be a group based around intelligence, so much as low attractiveness and social skills.
posted by dgaicun at 10:02 AM on February 17, 2003

This guy's recollection of high school/junior high doesn't map to my experience at all. Maybe he was bullied by the entire school, but it seems more like revisionist history sprung out of John Hughes films.

I don't think anybody feels like they truly belong in high school - even the "popular" kids. But, most people seem to establish a group of people they hang out with and you intentionally or unintentionally take on their looks and actions. It sounds like he had that just like everybody else.

I wonder how much of his persecution was imagined. He suggests and discards the idea that the other kids were jealous of his intelligence and that caused them to act in a certain way. I suspect it's the other way around. He was jealous of the other kids and that caused him and his group to imagine or invite slights where they wouldn't have been otherwise.
posted by willnot at 10:17 AM on February 17, 2003

From what I could tell, the smartest kids in school were also generally athletic, attractive, and sociable.

You're sorta right, there dgaicun. The kids who were genuinely well like, the top rank of popular kids in my school were usually OK people since flat-out assholes are rarely popular. It's the kids who are trying to claw their way higher who tended to be the meanest. In an odd twist, since our school was not an athletic powerhouse, the jocks themselves were kind of an out group. The rich party crowd and the pretty people tended to rule things.

Were you one of the high school geeks?

For the record, I was a former dork turned hoodlum/waste product by high school, way the hell out the social periphery. I have two sisters, one 3 years younger who was a social butterfly type who ran with the fast future fratboy crowd and is married to a doctor and very upwardly mobile, another 15 years younger who's an academic supergrind who's yet to be in any trouble of any sort. I wish I could tell you why were all so different, but I honestly don't know.

It's the age old questions. Is psychology destiny? Biology? Sociology? Who knows?

Are you one now?

I'm a guy in his thirties with a spotty employment and personal history, who's been called an underachiever more than a few times. Was I a misfit in high school because of this or am I this way because I was a misfit? Who knows?

Actually it's only in the last couple generations that high school's gained such importance, and even then mainly among middle class white suburbanites. You ask my Grandparents about high school and it barely registered on them. People of that generation are morelikely to talk about the War or the Depression and how that shaped them than sitting at the wrong cafeteria table. Better? Worse? Who knows?
posted by jonmc at 10:20 AM on February 17, 2003

What a ridiculous bit of intellectual masturbation.

I was smart, and a nerd. But the fact is there are plenty of smart people who *are* popular. I seriously doubt that there is an actual correlation between intelligence and popularity. It's just that nerdy kids tell themselves they're smarter so they can feel better.
posted by delmoi at 10:26 AM on February 17, 2003

I haven't had the article but here's why nerds are unpopular:
It's that simple.
posted by 111 at 10:31 AM on February 17, 2003

Actually it's only in the last couple generations that high school's gained such importance

Has this got anything to do with it increasingly being viewed as one big talent pool by adults? The downward trend in superstar ages, whether it be in pop music or sport, means that it is more and more viable to pluck some kid straight out of high school and push them to fame and fortune.
posted by MUD at 10:36 AM on February 17, 2003


But I knew a lot of nerds who were above-average or even very attractive, and some of the popular kids - even girls - were downright ugly. That's why some nerds come back to reunions looking stunning - they were never ugly in the first place. High school popularity has a lot more to do with being outgoing and athletic. In my experience, looks matter a lot more in the real world.
posted by transona5 at 10:37 AM on February 17, 2003

This guy's recollection of high school/junior high doesn't map to my experience at all. Maybe he was bullied by the entire school, but it seems more like revisionist history sprung out of John Hughes films.

Depends where you went to high school. I went to a public high school in Dallas, Texas, and my experience was pretty much what John described. (I wasn't nearly so unpopular, but the sort of social hierarchy that existed was painful to deal with every day. And anti-intellectualism was certainly prevanlent, too)
posted by jare2003 at 10:45 AM on February 17, 2003

I was smart AND popular in high school.

Now, I'm married, and it was all for naught. *sigh*
posted by badzen at 10:47 AM on February 17, 2003

In Portugal, it's precisely the opposite: the athletes are the nerds and are cruelly ostracized and laughed at.

Popularity is mainly based on how funny, disobedient, insolent, intelligent and (believe it!) nice you are.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:50 AM on February 17, 2003

I was a theater nerd... of course you know that they are different than regular nerds. The nerdy people in my high school were nerds because they were devoted to something, not just frittering away their days in high school with an especially bad attitude (I was in HS in the late 80's, early 90's, prime dissatisfied Gen X time). Anyone who wanted to do or be something was immediately cast off as a nerd, while those who wanted to blow everything off as inconsequential to their own existence were cool. Oh, and we also had this weird Young Republicans-kind of group that was a precursor to the Bush twins. All they did was drink and have sex, but espoused really conservative political views. It was mostly 'run' by men, true, but there were plenty of women, too, and this was considered a cool group.
posted by oflinkey at 10:52 AM on February 17, 2003

A great deal of the true hostility came, I think, from the sneaking suspicion of they bully types that you (as a smart kid who was good at more than just sports) were probably going to end up having a better life than they were. Pointing this out, or even hinting at it, was the quickest route to a severe beating you can take.

Another severe nono was actually knowing how to work the system so taht the bullies didn't get away with it. Ambushes, tipping off authority figures about future incidents, that sort of thing, was what really put the bully types off-balance.

Being smarter than them in the abstract didn't bother them too much because they didn't care a wit about success in school. Demonstrating that you could use your intelligence to gain an advantage over them, on the other hand, seemed to really bother them.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:53 AM on February 17, 2003

Personally, I thought the description was right on the money. His ideas about social hierarchies were particularly interesting.

In sum, social hierarchies are natural to any group of humans. However, in most adult contexts, there is some measure of worth used to establish each person's rank that is outside the hierarchy itself. For instance, at work our social hierarchy is nominally ranked based on job knowledge and skill. To climb the hierarchy, I must improve myself by getting better or knowing more than my co-workers.

High school, and limited other institutions like a Royal Court, lack any outside measure. As a result, one's ranking is primarily dependent on perception, and one's future rank is primarily dependent on the movement of others in this hierarchy. Thus, the only way to climb this hierarchy is to push others down.

This is exactly what I observed in my own time in school, and what I observe in my kids' school as well.

Interestingly, take the same sample of kids so ruthlessly competing for status in this closed-loop system in school and place them in a hierarchy that provides an external, objective measure of worth and they will compete as adults do in similar hierarchies-- they will seek to improve by measuring themselves against the external metric, not by demoting those around them.

This, again, is exactly what I observe as a Scout leader.
posted by Cerebus at 10:56 AM on February 17, 2003 [1 favorite]

I was a total nerd in middle school and high school. Really into punk rock and escapism. Then I started getting into going to Rocky Horror on the weekends, drinking, and taking acid in the park.

Round about the middle of tenth grade, Nirvana broke REAL big, suddenly making it cool to be a sloppily dressed smartass misfit. So I've more or less been riding that wave ever since. Now I'm a tattooed digital artist with messy hair, so I guess I either learned how to be cool or cool caught up to me.

posted by chinese_fashion at 10:58 AM on February 17, 2003

Nerds/Geeks/Jocks/Popular Kids, they were but a tiny, tiny minority in my high school. A vast majority of us were just middle of the road kids trying to get through as quickly and painlessly as possible (either that or i'm in some sort of 12-year denial that i was, in fact, the freaky tall girl).
posted by jodic at 10:59 AM on February 17, 2003

chinese_fashion, you have proven my suspicion that adults where teen-nerdhood as a badge of honor-- kind of like an indie-cred card or something.
posted by jodic at 11:03 AM on February 17, 2003

I think something that's being missed here is that becoming popular is difficult. Not merely from having to spend a lot of time at it, but cognitively, the ability to socialise and empathise with other people, to know what they're thinking and respond appropriately - it's different from the ability to do your times tables and know how photosynthesis works.

That's not to say that these two abilities (named by some psychologists as empathising and systemising) are necessarily mutually exclusive. Probably there are a lot of people who are good at both. But they do appear to be qualitatively different ways of thinking (ways that are apparently gender-dependent, as well). It's just difficult for some people to figure out how to become popular. It doesn't explain why we have unpopular nerds, but it might help.
posted by adrianhon at 11:15 AM on February 17, 2003 [1 favorite]



FRIEND #1: Dude, who the fuck is that guy?
FISHFUCKER: That's C.W. -- that kid's really smart.
FRIEND #1 (WITH DISDAIN): If he's so fucking smart you'd think he could spare a brain cell or two for fucking fashion.


posted by fishfucker at 11:15 AM on February 17, 2003

Fishfucker: It's Clint Walker, isn't it?
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 11:22 AM on February 17, 2003

Yes, jodic, I have yet to hear someone brag about being popular in high school! It seems that everyone felt awkward and dorky and out-of-place, and certainly none of us remember being the ones who were bullying others.

I myself felt very put upon throughout my teen years. I was a triple threat: funny looking, nonathletic, and, although smart, not too much for the studying. However, with the virtue of hindsight, fewer pimples, and a better haircut, I've begun to feel that most of my social problems were self-created.

This is not to discount the troubles of people who experience real bullying, of course. That's a whole different story.
posted by hilatron at 11:24 AM on February 17, 2003


     We see Bender walking towards us as Brian's monologue

                          BRIAN (VO)
               But what we found out is that each
               one of us is a brain...

                        ANDREW (VO)
               ...and an athlete...

                         ALLISON (VO)
               ...and a basket case...

                         CLAIRE (VO)
               ...a princess...

                         BENDER (VO)
               ...and a criminal...

                          BRIAN (VO)
               Does that answer your question?
               Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.

posted by signal at 11:37 AM on February 17, 2003

delmoi: I seriously doubt that there is an actual correlation between intelligence and popularity.

While this doesn’t speak directly to the popularity point, intellectually gifted children are generally credited with higher social sensitivity & maturity, which you’d think would improve popularity, but they also lack conformity [the rundown].

As dgaicun notes: From what I could tell, the smartest kids in school were also generally athletic, attractive, and sociable. Though many "nerds" did seem pretty smart they didn't seem to be a group based around intelligence, so much as low attractiveness and social skills.

I wonder if this varies by high school and community, though. At my rural-suburban high school, there were no super-smart kids whose popularly rose above what Graham would call “D,” and the rather-smart kids didn’t make it above “B.” I definitely had the feeling in high school that I was singled out for being a common enemy because I was smart. I’m sure my funny name factored into it, but I remember being mocked specifically because I had skipped a grade, read a lot, answered questions in class, and had a certain IQ (shoulda kept my mouth shut when I was asked—my dubious 13-year-old social skills at work). However, I’m pretty sure my later friends from communities where intelligence was also prized among adults had a different experience. That kind of supports Cerebus’s external metric idea.
posted by win_k at 11:41 AM on February 17, 2003

I suspect that the social world Graham describes depends very much on the school and the demographics of the parents. His description matches the large public junior high I went to in the midwest, but doesn't match the mid-sized private high school I went to on the East coast. In simple terms, given a choice between watching a football game and a PBS special, the two groups of parents would have chosen very differently. And that reflected in the students.
posted by dws at 11:45 AM on February 17, 2003

Re "what makes a nerd": the article's almost got it, but not quite.

I don't think it's that nerds "don't work hard enough on popularity" because they spend too much time working on other things. The jocks make a decent counterexample -- they generally work just as hard on sports (team practices, etc) -- and are if anything more popular for it.

What the nerds haven't developed by the onset of teenagehood that the other groups have is social skills. In elementary school, their pursuits are usually solitary -- books, experiments, computers, etc. There's a vicious circle at work here: smart kids who are uncomfortable socially can easily retreat into the above, avoiding social interaction and thus becoming worse at it. And this is where the persecution begins. I don't think that a smart kid with normal or better social skills is an obvious target; a smart kid who makes a variety of blatant social goofs is. And once the teasing starts, the only social skill these kids are going to learn is avoidance -- making it likely that they'll keep being teased, and bringing another vicious circle into being.

Smart kids who are of normal or greater than normal sociability don't get negative attention for their smarts. Some channel their intelligence into projects that are more social in nature -- drama geeks, say -- and while they may not be "popular", they're usually not the kids so persecuted that they're suicidally-ideated.

At any rate, this was my experience. YMMV.
posted by sesquipedalia at 11:51 AM on February 17, 2003

I used to be convinced that Heathers was based off of my small upstate NY high school.

In response to some of the earlier comments, I'd believe that everyone felt awkward in middle / high school. However, there were plenty of popular kids who were charming and popular, and no one ever had a problem with that. For others though, the treading water analogy that the author provides rings true - some people dealt with their awkwardness by being abnormally cruel. That's why they're hated, and rightly so. If they kicked puppies, a feeling of "frustrated awkwardness" wouldn't absolve them of their cruelty.
posted by synapse at 12:03 PM on February 17, 2003

I wouldn't know about this, because I've always lived in a geek's paradise.

And yes, even geek schools have their nerds (aka the socially inept), but they weren't physically bullied or psychologically tortured. They were mainly ignored. However, it seemed =everybody= found some social circle.
posted by meep at 12:23 PM on February 17, 2003

As a military brat who went to at least 13 different public schools, I believe I have a unique perspective on this. From my experience, what made the most difference in wether or not a kid fits in comes down to just a few basic things, though there were exceptions. First was MONEY. The popular kids can tell which kids are one of them simply by the clothes that they wear or the car they drove. If you didn't wear whatever the going trend was you were ostracized. You were seen as "not one of us". Second behind money was attractiveness. If you didn't fit the social norm of good looks..no matter how much money, you were OUT. Finally if you were athletically talented you would generally be allowed to travel in popular circles. There were smart kids in the popular crowd but they had to fit the other categories. If you were smart and did not have the right car or had a bad case of acne forget about it
posted by SweetIceT at 12:25 PM on February 17, 2003

hilatron said:
Yes, jodic, I have yet to hear someone brag about being popular in high school!

I was popular in high school. I got invited to the good parties, threw some parties of my own, and was generally welcomed by a hell of a lot of people.

It seems that everyone felt awkward and dorky and out-of-place, and certainly none of us remember being the ones who were bullying others.

Yep. You see, I wasn't popular because I was some uber-cool guy who all the ladies loved. I was popular, oddly enough, because I was popular. Invite me to your party, and I'll show up with twenty other "popular" people, some of whom will have alcohol, marijuana or attractive breasts.

Despite being welcomed by many, I never felt that I had more than a few friends, and time has shown that I was right. There are only four or five people from high school with whom I still have a friendship, and they're the ones that I thought were my friends way back when, as well.

We were actually just talking about this at our weekly pub night last week, and how screwed up the whole high school scene was. Thank god it got easier once we got into the real world.
posted by mosch at 12:35 PM on February 17, 2003

One answer to the set of problems the essay (and thread comments) raises is smaller schools. They keep on building these suburban behemoths for various "practical" reasons, even though research everywhere points to the efficacy of smaller schools.

The smaller schools I've visited don't seem to have these vicious social stratification problems, since everyone knows each other to some extent.

The small school I work in is an arts school, and the "one big family" vibe is wonderful. I wish I'd had a school like this to go to instead of the huge high school I went to (where, for the record, I was in the group of misfits who jumped on the drug bandwagon in 1967...three years later, even the football players were doing acid...).
posted by kozad at 12:56 PM on February 17, 2003

What the nerds haven't developed by the onset of teenagehood that the other groups have is social skills.

Agreed. I was unpopular at school, and find the Paul Graham piece excruciating in its similarity to what I thought was wrong at the time.
posted by raygirvan at 1:00 PM on February 17, 2003

As I see it, part of being "smart" is not only having a high IQ, but also having necessary social and interactive skills. Generally, in my experience, "nerds" have plenty of the former, but are definately lacking the latter. So how smart are they really? How will they really succeed in the "real world" with no friends?
posted by cyberbry at 1:01 PM on February 17, 2003

The author's premise that "nerds want to be smart more than popular" sounds very specific, an ancedotal experience that he is trying to generalize to fit the situation.

sesquipedalia's comments provide a better explanation, although you have to add variables such as appearance, wealth, and psychology (kids who think like the author does) to the mix to have a really accurate theory.
posted by moonbiter at 1:07 PM on February 17, 2003

How will they really succeed in the "real world" with no friends?

As sesquipedalia pointed out, nerds learn the social non-skill of avoidance from the moment they're first made fun of. So someone who's only a bit behind the other kids in "emotional intelligence" at first will end up being way, way behind after a few years of abuse.

But after a little while in the non-high-school world, where if people have something nasty to say about you they'll say it behind your back like mature adults, nerds tend to blossom socially pretty fast.

So how do we do in the real world? Just fine.
posted by transona5 at 1:10 PM on February 17, 2003 [1 favorite]

Anyone who found that article interesting should pick up a copy of My War With Brian, by Ted Rall. I read it recently and was flabbergasted by the levels of brutality he depicts in his recollection of being bullied in high school. It made me wonder if I was just lucky to go to a school that wasn't like that, or if he was an exceptionally unlucky high schooler.
posted by jcruelty at 1:14 PM on February 17, 2003

I spent the first nine years of my education at a tiny Jewish private school where the competition for who was smartest was our most engaging passtime...so I was a huge hit w/the blond athletic southern Baptists that populated my large public high school; kids who had "Abortion Kills" stickers on their English notebooks; who noted with genuine sorrow over cafeteria french fries that it was a shame I was going to hell, because I seemed like a nice girl; who wore black armbands when Clinton won the 1992 election. Being smart was only the tip of the iceberg for this geek. In response to the "smart misfit" cliques, however, I did find one my senior year and had lots of fun. By then I had breasts, though, so that probably helped.
posted by anyasar at 1:15 PM on February 17, 2003

jodic, I think your right on in the nerd pride thing, most of the people i've worked with (engineers mostly) have always looked at thier past nerd histories with much pride.

For me personally, middle school was both horrific and extremely necessary because it let me come to the eventual decision that the whole system sucked and i was just going to be what i was (a big freakin dork). I think my acceptance of my statis and flaunting of it made my life easier and actually ended up working to lessen any taunting i was faced with (kids are weirded out when they make fun of you and you joyously accept it).

As for the big school/small school thing i would say that after a certain size the bigger school can be better. I went to a 3000 person high school and that allowed for enough variation that everyone could find a niche and it was impossible to be "popular" with most of 800 people in a class.
posted by NGnerd at 2:00 PM on February 17, 2003

I'm convinced that at least some of it has to do with perception. I had in high school (and still have) all the qualifications of nerdiness, but I had a great time in high school, and moved pretty much freely throughout all the groups and social strata. I didn't have any really intimate friends who were jocks, for example, but I was friendly with most of them to the point where (as the president of Chess Club and Knowledge Bowl) I could expect at least a friendly nod of acquaintance if I passed the starting quarterback on the street. Certainly I (and a lot of my friends) didn't notice anything like a John Hughes-style caste sytem.

But at the same time, others of my friends thought that the whole school was repressive and intimidating.. they felt threatened by the "jockocracy" and opted to skip the last two years of high school and do Running Start full time. None of them can really point to a specific incident that made them feel like high school was an uncomfortable place, they just for one reason or another thought they couldn't fit in.

That's why I don't buy Graham's implication that the system is loaded to make intelligent people into outcasts. I think that to a large extent at least, people carry in their expectations about how it is supposed to work, and this influences both the experiences they have, and the subtexts of those experiences that they simply perceive.
posted by Hildago at 2:09 PM on February 17, 2003

One logical response to this is that sports is part of what you are supposed to do if you are a boy in school ... the whole sound mind, sound body thing.

Certainly, athletics were an integral part of the classic high school curriculum until very recently. We don't give football stars the option not to take math, so we probably shouldn't give math stars the option not to go out for sports. It (artificially) creates this segment of alienated, unfit, unattractive people who then, self-defeatingly, look down on "jockdom" when physical prowess has always been celebrated in human culture.

(And I feel this way even more so about the way we tolerate people to be ignorant of some academic subjects and not others. Engineers have to take years of literature, but we permit people who are almost completely innumerate to graduate magna cum laude from elite colleges.)
posted by MattD at 2:22 PM on February 17, 2003

I was a full-time nerd/dork/reject all 4 years of HS. Even the band kids wouldn't hang out with me. My senior year (at a new school) I was getting tripped in the halls by juniors and sophomores. Thick, ugly glasses, bad haircut, no fashion sense and no desire to make friends or even be there, I mostly hung out in the library and computer lab. Which was ultimately my saving grace: the most popular and respected members of the student body were the football players, who hadn't the faintest ideas how to work the aging macs they were supposed to plink out book reports on. A week of repeatedly showing them how to spellcheck and save to a floppy and I was unofficially their mascot; got invited to their parties, sat with them in class, no longer had to worry about getting hassled in the hallways. A bittersweet end to an otherwise agonizing 4 years.

And yeah, I was 'smart', they were 'dumb', but the realization that there was something to be gained by a relationship made that a moot point.
posted by bizwank at 2:27 PM on February 17, 2003

It (artificially) creates this segment of alienated, unfit, unattractive people who then, self-defeatingly, look down on "jockdom" when physical prowess has always been celebrated in human culture.

I think you're cofusing "athlete" with "jock" there MattD. An athlete is someone who plays sports well, which like prowess in any other field is a pleasure to watch and praiseworthy. A jock is someone who thinks those abilities make him better than anyone else, which tends to rub the rest of us the wrong way.
posted by jonmc at 2:31 PM on February 17, 2003

Agreed, if you can suggest some way to alter the factors in school sport that alienate the less able in the first place. Nerds don't dislike sport merely because of lack of aptitude, but because of the officially sanctioned victimisation that this lack of aptitude produces: demeaning team-picking rituals; placement in remote positions in team games so that the lack of aptitude will never be improved by practice; insults from jocks (and teachers) during games; etc. In this area, I do believe that the system is 'loaded': there would be an outcry if such behaviour happened in (say) math classes: poor mathematicians given lesser access to computers, jeered at by the abler pupils, and so on.
posted by raygirvan at 2:58 PM on February 17, 2003

Those who concentrate on the nerd/jock dichotomy ignore the more subtle and complex nerd/jock/drama geek dynamic going on.

It would be interesting to extend this to income brackets. Why am I not making lots of money now? Well, one reason is that I am more interested in pursuing a graduate degree than I am in taking a job in investment banking-- a field that I just don't have the patience for. The question of "why aren't professors rich?" could be answered by saying, "professors are more interested in their individual intellectual pursuits than pulling in big bucks with consulting fees." (Your mileage may vary)

The secret to making lots of money is to pursue fields that pay a lot of money (finance, corporate law, surgery, etc.). The secret to being "popular" is to take interest in what is considered popular (trendy clothes, mainstream-but-not-teenpop music, the right social connections). However, not everyone has the intellectual or personal "bent" towards going into investment banking or coporate law. Similarly, not everyone has the desire or interest in wearing the "right" clothes, listening to the "right" music, or being friends with the "right" people. High school simply exacerbates these issues because, unlike real life, there are no outlets to find like-minded people like yourself outside of what is considered the "right" way.
posted by deanc at 3:09 PM on February 17, 2003

Raygirvan, you seem to presume that nerds are going to be bad at sports. Why so?

And as far as nerds having some high-minded aversion to "officially santioned victimisation", I've certainly never noticed in nerds a tendency to be merciful or understanding to people who less competent than they in the nerdly disciplines. If you think about the structure of academic science, where many nerds end up, there is nothing more stratified -- good nerds get the sweetest labs and tenure at prestigious institutions, bad nerds get to teach freshman CS at inner-city junior colleges and can't get their papers into peer review, to say the least of published.
posted by MattD at 3:11 PM on February 17, 2003

Why so?

You raised the stereotype of "alienated, unfit, unattractive people", not me. How people behave at work is irrelevant. The thread has been about about how the school situation might form attitudes, and I think that in the school environment 'jocks' are given far more license to be unpleasant to 'nerds' than vice versa.
posted by raygirvan at 3:38 PM on February 17, 2003

I don't quite agree with the insinuation that not fitting in is a failing on the part of the nerdier kids in school. Yes, because they spend more time reading than playing sports they are seen as different by the other kids and are given a hard time. But when these nerdier kids grow up they are the ones who actually end up building things and doing important work, not the kids who were good at sports and had lots of friends.

To tell a generation of bright enthusiastic students to stop being so damn studious and try harder to fit in with the crowd is to shortchange their future success in a world where success can (sometimes) be based on merit.

If great thinkiers were worshipped the way athletes are in North America we would certainly have a much brighter future.
posted by Space Coyote at 3:55 PM on February 17, 2003

In our high school I think popularity came down to money. The kids who were most popular had the clothes, the cars, the cash. Sad but true.
posted by btwillig at 4:08 PM on February 17, 2003

I was popular in high school because I made sure I was friends with at least one person in every clique.

Ferris Bueller, folks, Ferris Bueller.

This was fine til I inadvertently outed myself by leaving a whack-off story about me doing the entire football team on the printer in the computer room my senior year. Then I only remained popular with the jocks, but not publicly popular. Extraordinarily popular nonetheless. 10 years later, I go to my high school reunion, and none of it mattered anymore other than the fact that about half the varisty football team had come out of the closet.
posted by WolfDaddy at 4:13 PM on February 17, 2003

That was the best anecdote I've heard all day.
posted by Stan Chin at 4:25 PM on February 17, 2003

WolfDaddy: My trick as well. The Ferris Bueller tactic, not the Rod Stewart tactic. But hey, more power to ya!
posted by AccordionGuy at 5:10 PM on February 17, 2003

AccordionGuy, thanks for the link, as "Alanis Morisette (who is supposedly addicted to semen)" is the best anecdote I've heard all day. Even better, MeFi spell check suggests "salamis" for "Alanis". Wonder what her high school was like??
posted by WolfDaddy at 5:47 PM on February 17, 2003

In our school the smartest kids are also the most athletic and the most popular. The nerds are all a little stupider than those kids and lot more lacking in other qualities. Being a nerd doesn't necessarily imply intelligence - you'll run into more psuedo-intellectuals amoung nerds than amoung any other group. Nerds are only slightly more intelligent than the other teenagers they believe themselves superior to.
posted by Veritron at 8:02 PM on February 17, 2003

I can't believe how popular this thread is. I'm not quite thirty and I barely remember high school.

(I didn't drink until well into college, so save it!)
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:53 PM on February 17, 2003

Mere intelligence is, as mentioned by the author of this article, only half of the nerd equation. The other half is a dedication to a subject or hobby that doesn't fall within the realm of acceptable persuits. A popular kid can write an essay and win a merit award while a nerd is more likely to build elaborate models or write fantasy stories.. partly as a way to escape from the real world that treats them so poorly, and partly because the reward they seek from their own persuits is a personal satisfaction rather than acceptance from ousiders. (No rational-thinking nerd ever thought his bug collection was going to impress the ladies. He (or she) just likes bugs. Or whatever)

The crux of the nerd forula is a lacking of the desire or ability to fit in, a condition which encourages behaviour that, unfortunately, usually ends up widening the gap rather than narrowing it.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:47 PM on February 17, 2003

In my northern BC high school, it didn't matter much how smart you were, how good-looking or athletic you were, or anything at all, really, except how well you could handle your booze. This, coupled with my Liver of Steel, explains quite a lot about me. I had quite a lot of fun in high school, spotty drunken brainiac that I was.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:45 AM on February 18, 2003

As I see it, part of being "smart" is not only having a high IQ, but also having necessary social and interactive skills. Generally, in my experience, "nerds" have plenty of the former, but are definately lacking the latter. So how smart are they really? How will they really succeed in the "real world" with no friends?

I don't think the social skills required in school are the same as those required in the "real world." I never went to high school, but in the lower grades I had very few friends and was fairly universally loathed, and when I went to community college for a year at 15-16 I didn't know a single person in the entire (large-ish) school; I remember the name of exactly one of my classmates. Then I moved out and started working. It took a few months to recover from the damage inflicted by the school system, but ever since I have not had a problem making friends in the various places I've lived.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 6:10 AM on February 18, 2003

I can't believe you nerds are trying to prosecute the popular people.

I was popular because I was funny (Although admittedly a Western Massachusetts kind of funny). Not all of the popular people were jerks.
posted by Samsonov14 at 9:58 AM on February 18, 2003

There is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd, and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular.

We had a word at our school for smart cool nerds, smacks, anyone else? Maybe not cool, you didn't know they were marking A's.
posted by thomcatspike at 4:36 PM on February 18, 2003

I think Graham has it right what the basic problem is -- that schools don't encourage learning; in fact, they don't really encourage much of anything, and that's why social structures are built on really stupid things.

Although -- I do think it would be wrong to say that intelligence means nerdiness. Maybe it depends on your school, a lot of people at mine were concerned with getting into good colleges (i.e. University of Michigan). There was a group of popular people who were also intelligent and they tended to do well in class.

I think the difference is that they didn't try to be smart or act smart, and that they really cared about being popular. They'd take calculus, but if you tried to get anything intelligent out of them other than on a test you were out of luck (they were also woefully ignorant in anything the school didn't teach. Of my AP English class, which was filled with these types, none of them recognized "Ride of the Valkyries" when we watched Apocalypse Now)

The nerds are people who have other interests. While you can do classwork and still expend energy on popularity, many "nerds" expend energy on stuff their classmates think of as schoolwork: reading, writing, programming, building things.
posted by dagnyscott at 8:16 PM on February 19, 2003

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