What stereotype were you in high school? Go ahead, think about it.
Stereotyping is a mental shortcut that everyone uses, whether they admit it or not. It provides us a quick way to flesh out the rest of a person’s characteristics, when we can only observe a small portion of them.
Oh he plays football? He must be a dumb jock. She’s in the chess club? She must be awkward and anti-social.
Even though we’re taught from an early age that stereotyping other people is bad, we still do it because it’s so ingrained in how we observe the world. It’s a survival instinct.
Imagine pulling up to a gas station at night and there is a group of young men in hoodies who appear to be loitering outside. As you leave your car and approach the door of the station to pay, the young men all begin to move towards you.
You know almost nothing about these men or their backgrounds or what their intentions are. You don’t know if they’re scholars or musicians, high school dropout or college graduates. But your brain is telling you with 100% certainty that you are in physical danger.
What if that same scene happened but the men were wearing khakis and button down shirts? You’d probably assume they were coming to ask you for directions.
We all stereotype.
The stereotypes we each hold are a product of the life experiences we’ve had and the stories we’ve heard. Our brains naturally look for patterns between hard-to-observe traits like aggression and intelligence and maps them to traits that are easy to observe, like how a person is dressed or what shoes they’re wearing.
Stereotyping is often criticized because a lot of stereotypes are negative:
Blonds are dumb. Women can’t drive. Black people are thugs.
No one wants to be on the receiving end of these kinds of stereotypes. But there are also so-called “positive” stereotypes:
Asians are good at math. Socially awkward students are smarter.
Whether good or bad, stereotypes allow us to quickly make judgments about people we just met or don’t know very well. The stereotypes we’ve formed shape how we interact with others, whether we realize it or not. We take the few traits that we can observe, and make millions of assumptions about the traits that we can’t.
Of course, once we actually get to know someone, we can pierce through the stereotype and learn about their actual traits and characteristics. But stereotypes offer a nice placeholder until we reach that point.
I bring all of this up as a way to introduce a particular stereotype that’d been on my mind a lot recently: that of the nerd.
With my recent move from the marketing team to the notoriously nerdy position of “software engineer” at HubSpot, I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means and how other people might size me up based on my job title.
Urban Dictionary succinctly defines a nerd as “one whose IQ exceeds his weight.”
The “nerd” stereotype that most people hold goes something like this: A nerd is someone who knows more about technical topics than the average person. Nerds enjoy playing chess or building rockets or programming computers, or some other hobby that requires internalizing an arcane science.
Because of their unusually technical passions, nerds aren’t well understood by “normal people” and are generally perceived as anti-social, unfashionable and awkward.
In high school — when stereotypes run rampant — nerds are shunned and often picked on by the popular kids. Nerds certainly aren’t “cool”.
Paul Graham has a fantastic essay on his experience growing up as a nerd:
Because I didn’t fit into this world, I thought that something must be wrong with me. I didn’t realize that the reason we nerds didn’t fit in was that in some ways we were a step ahead. We were already thinking about the kind of things that matter in the real world, instead of spending all our time playing an exacting but mostly pointless game like the others.
We were a bit like an adult would be if he were thrust back into middle school. He wouldn’t know the right clothes to wear, the right music to like, the right slang to use. He’d seem to the kids a complete alien. The thing is, he’d know enough not to care what they thought. We had no such confidence.
Unfortunately, many of us begin discovering our passions during high school, in an environment that is particularly hostile towards nerds. This has undoubtedly kept many curious students from joining their school’s Science Olympiad team.
Only the brave ones would dare sign up and risk the social persecution. These are the rare few who value their own intellectual curiosity more than their desire to fit in.
Everyone has some level of both intellectual curiosity and a desire to fit in. But the social structure of most American high schools is based around social worth — not smarts — and so most students opt to sacrifice their curiosities in order to rank higher on the totem pole.
It’s social suicide to follow your interests and become a nerd.
Math, Science and Technology
I remember reading a Time for Kids article in 4th grade — in 2000! — that was looking back on the twentieth century. The article described it as mankind’s most innovative 100 years ever. Not since the Romans had technology evolved so quickly and changed our society so deeply.
From cars and airplanes, to home appliances and mobile computers, society had changed more in the last 100 years than it ever had before. And who was leading that change? Nerds.
If we as a society derive so much value from the hard work and dedication of the technologically curious, how can we shun them?
As a computer science minor myself, I somewhat deliberately avoided many of the stereotypical things that my “nerdy” classmates were doing. My reputation was (and is) very important to me and I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a social misfit.
I played sports and served as class president and brought musicians to campus and started a few businesses and ran triathlons. These were all things that I enjoyed doing, but I was also very conscious of the fact that they were “un-nerdy” pursuits.
As a sidebar, one might say that I shouldn’t care as much about what other people think of me, but I think that’s naïve. What other people think about you has a huge impact on how you’re treated and where you fit in a community, especially at a tiny liberal arts school. I care about what other people think of me insofar as I was caring about my own well being.
I knew that nerds were generally at a disadvantage in many social situations, and I wanted to avoid taking on that handicap myself.
And so I was very upset when Bowdoin’s president referred to computer science, math, and physics students as separate from “us mere mortals” in his baccalaureate address to the graduates this year.
very steamed that president mills referred to math and comp sci students as separate from “us mere mortals” the audience chuckled
— Hartley Brody (@hartleybrody) May 25, 2012
I like the overall msg of becoming a more technical society, but that won’t happen if such knowledge is related to “non mortals” (ie nerds)
— Hartley Brody (@hartleybrody) May 25, 2012
But I knew that I still loved building things and writing code. No amount of social pressure would change that. Those are my passions, and you can’t sacrifice those for anything.
And so I am determined to change the stereotype.
Revenge of the Nerd
As I mentioned earlier, everyone forms their own stereotypes based primarily on their own life experiences. If someone with an Australian accent is friendly to us at a bar, we begin to think — however subconsciously — that all Australians must be friendly.
Psychologists would describe that behavior as us assimilating the experience into our worldy schema. We’re constantly taking what we observe and building a framework that helps us understand the world.
One of my life goals is to convince as many people as I can — however subtly — that people who are passionate about science and technology aren’t necessarily awkward, contemptible or uncool. To disentangle the positive from the negative in the “nerd” stereotype.
It’s certainly not easy to change the perceptions of millions of people, but fortunately, I have some help. Because of the high profile success of nerds like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, being nerdy is starting to lose its stigma.
Hopefully, it starts to become “cool” for high school kids to follow their passion for math, science and technology. Maybe one day, the image of a nerd getting a swirly by some football jock will be all but erased from society’s memory.
In the meantime, there’s lots to be done.
I support most of the “brogramming” movement — minus the misogynistic bits — since it encourages software engineers to stop perpetuating the stereotype and being so damn nerdy.
It’s great — not only for the software industry, but for technology professions everywhere — to create positive and enticing stereotypes that encourage people to respect us and what we do. To think of what we do as desirable and fun.
People who write software are cool. Strike that… we’re fucking awesome.
It’s important for us to act that way. Not only for ourselves, but for our kids, who might one day struggle with choosing between joining the robocup team or trading in their curiosity for something more “normal”.
It’s possible to love technology and still be cool. We just need to show people.