Then there’s the rule that you should never upset anyone. Always think of other peoples feelings and how your statement might affect your social standing. Firstly, this is just plain boring. If you’re only ever allowed to say things everyone already agrees with and never bring up anything out of the ordinary, you’ll never learn anything or improve in any way. Secondly, in a work setting, this can, and will, and does continually, lead to disaster. Honest, hard working and straight talking programmers clearly state that the product is not ready for production, but their messages of concern are translated to upper management via more ‘socially skilled’ minions who in accordance with social etiquette state that ‘everything is going according to plan, sir. No problem, sir. We’ll have everything delivered on schedule’. We all know how these projects turn out. We need to stop worrying about upsetting people, and worry more about learning how to handle bad news and criticism. How not to let ourselves be upset. If someone tells you something you don’t want to hear, maybe they aren’t the problem. Maybe your feelings are.
When you care deeply about something, every little aspect of it becomes very important to you. If you’re a journalist, you argue about the use of idioms. Then we have the likes of the grammar Nazis and the fashion police. Programmers can have heated discussions about indentation of code. Now if a large part of your life consists of sitting around discussing other people and how they behave, you can quite easily end up similarly obsessed. Many are. Things that really shouldn’t matter are seen as reasons for social exclusion. Social exclusion then leads to even worse social skills. This is the main reason blaming nerds for having no social skills pisses me off. First someone is bullied and pushed out from the ‘in crowd’, forced into a depressing childhood of seclusion. Then they’re blamed for having no social skills. How the hell is anyone meant to develop healthy social skills if no one wants to be their friend? The problem isn’t the guy with no social skills, the problem is the people who let that happen, who made that happen. If people would relax their criteria for what is acceptable social behavior, we’d see less exclusion. Less exclusion would lead to better social skills all round. So what if that guy down the hall has worn the same pair of jeans for 5 years straight and has a strange fondness of rabbits. Does it really matter to you that he eats nothing but spaghetti with anchovies? These are the kinds of people that make life interesting, if you ask me. Well adjusted, socially adept people – if you’ve met one, you’ve met them all. Boring.
Being really interested in, and caring about social interactions of course has its benefits. I’m sure any community, not just the software community, would be better off if people spent more time thinking about how their personality was affecting those around them. But there are only so many hours in a day, you have to choose what to focus on. Should you spend your time developing a deep understanding of a particular field of expertise (like programming) or should you spend it sitting around a sofa, talking with friends about other people, who you like, who you dislike, and why you like or dislike them. This is what social skills are all about: Interacting with other people, learning and creating the rules for what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. I’ve sure done a lot of this. It seems to me to be what us girls do more than anything else. We sit around and talk. About people. In my experience the more nerdy the group, the less we talk about other individuals. Instead we talk about our field of expertise, we talk about new technology, we talk about politics, religion and so on. I love these conversations! But the less you focus on the rules of individual social interaction, the less you learn about them. Nerds never get the memos about how annoying it is when someone does X or how silly it looks to wear Y. Or we get them a bit later than others maybe.
Anyway, it’s not like we never socialize. Us nerds learn a lot from each other in social settings. I had a really interesting experience at a software meetup not long ago. We were a group of programmers gathered together to learn about functional programming and F#. Now I forget why, but the local newspaper had sent a reporter along to write about our group and what we were doing. She was a very nice young woman, pretty and most likely seen as very socially adept in her surroundings. But in our group she didn’t work out at all. It was quite funny really. I think we managed to be nice and polite to her, just like she would have been nice and polite to one of us if we showed up for a party at her place and started talking about Test Driven Development and Pair Programming. But that’s exactly how awkward her presence at our meetup was. Her conversation and questions were so far removed from ‘our world’ that we struggled to find answers for her. My point is that much of what is perceived as social ineptness is a matter of culture. Put a computer nerd in a group of jocks and he’s completely out of place. But it’s the same the other way around too.
I know there are hopelessly antisocial software people out there that really need to sort themselves out. But they are a minority. Labeling us universally as socially inept is causing unnecessary problems all round. If you expect someone to be socially hopeless, you’re more likely to find proof to back up your concern. I think we deserve a second chance. I also think that if we spent less time getting worked up about inappropriate social interactions and more time exploring new technology the world would be a better place.
Live long and prosper, nerds! You’re the best :-)