Blog / The Archmage's Ruminations

The Nerd/Geek Dichotomy


or “Why nerds aren’t as socially inept as you think they are”

Blogmaster Helen Cothrel, hc261409@ohio.edu

If you’ve ever found yourself rattling off calculus at the lunch table, staying up for 48 hours watching back-to-back episodes of Star Trek, or downloading, honestly, anything that didn’t end up on your mp3 player, you’re probably a nerd. In which case, you’ve probably been called a nerd. Or have you been called a geek? Wait, are you a geek? Aren’t they the same thing?

The general consensus is that there are distinctions between nerds and geeks. If you believe the Venn diagram below, a nerd is simply a geek wielding the additional designation of “social ineptitude.”

Seems harsh, doesn’t it? I thought so, at least. I was surprised, too. I would never identify myself or my nerdy comrades as being socially inept.

Seeing this, I decided to poke around the internet a bit, and was shocked (and a little upset) to see that almost every explanation of the term “nerd” noted social ineptitude, while geeks are considered to be almost trendy. Geeks are more likely to be associated with high-tech lifestyles, and are usually considered to be experts in a single subject (i.e., a geek might be able to build a PC from scratch, but not hold up well in a chess match). As a result of their association with technology, it appears that “geek” has been able to take on a mostly positive connotation (though there are some who still consider it an insult), while “nerd” seems to be left in the dark.

Clip from an infographic on geeks and nerds that I found here: http://factspy.net/the-difference-between-geeks-vs-nerds/.

Clip from an infographic on geeks and nerds that I found here: http://factspy.net/the-difference-between-geeks-vs-nerds/.

So why has “nerd” kept its negative weight? Well, let’s see who might be considered a nerd. According to most, the key characteristics of nerds include not only social ineptitude, but high intellectual capacity and academic dedication. Nerds may be described as “raw brain power” or “soulless computation” (http://www.wolfgnards.com/index.php/2009/07/01/the-definitive-nerd-vs-geek).  Also, most nerds are introverted.

I’m going to now back up a bit and repeat a few words of what I just said. Nerds are often considered to be socially inept and introverted. That combination should be throwing up some red flags in your brain. I cannot help but point to this as the reason why alleged nerds haven’t been able to reach the level of social acceptance as alleged geeks.

At this point, I would love to launch into a rant about the nature of introversion and its modern social context, but I will simply tell you this: I am very, very passionate about introversion. Introversion is overlooked and under-appreciated, especially by American society, and it is easy for many to see “introversion” and erroneously think “social ineptitude.” I would go into more detail, but what it will essentially come down to is this: the introvert, who is more likely just overwhelmed than socially inept, is misunderstood.

So it would appear that geeks unhindered by introversion have been able to transcend the sinkholes of social terrain, while nerds remain buried and forgotten. Though they may appreciate the isolation, the term “social ineptitude” is insulting and, frankly, wrong. I can say with a lot of confidence that the negative implications of introversion has likely led to the contemporary dichotomy between geeks and nerds.

So, what’s the conclusion? Are geeks and nerds different? Apparently, yes, though the most glaring distinctions are those of a social nature. Should you worry about offending a nerdy friend by calling them a geek or vice versa? Probably not. If they’re offended, they’ll probably explain it to you and then go back to their game/book/tablet. But you should keep this in mind: when your most painfully nerdy friends stumble over their words or retreat to their lairs at they end of a day, don’t blame it on social ineptitude. Accept them for their introversion and treat them like human beings when they’re ready to see people again.

A note to introverts or open-minded extroverts: I read the book Quiet by Susan Cain over the summer and it changed my life. It’s worth picking up if you have the chance.

Questions? Thoughts? Leave a comment!

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6 thoughts on “The Nerd/Geek Dichotomy

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  4. Favorite sentence: “So it would appear that geeks unhindered by introversion have been able to transcend the sinkholes of social terrain, while nerds remain buried and forgotten.”
    A great analysis of a distinction I, who consider myself more of a nerd than a geek but by the general public would probably be the opposite, was previously unaware of.

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  6. I love the inclusion of Mac/PC in the cartoon description. It’s like they’re quoting a commercial to get their information, haha.

    Interesting points! And it really doesn’t seem like introverted people fall into any other social stereotype: they all seem to be dubbed “nerd” or some derivation thereof. Perhaps this means that our extrovert-based society doesn’t see the differences between the large group of so-called “socially inept” nerds (I’ve even seen reclusive “goth” or “emo” individuals referred to as nerd), whereas it has taken the time to sort extroverts into every other social category available (such as prep, jock, or even just smart).

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