On Being a Nerd

In a certain subset of my friend group, the term ‘nerd’ is unanimously considered a term of endearment. This happens to be my own default so it came as a surprise when I was recently reminded that this is not the opinion of most people.

Last week one of the people in that aforementioned subset recounted how after he had described an acquaintance as a ‘nerd’, they confronted him and said that they were quite hurt by his comment. My friend was rather taken aback (as I would be in that situation, and explained that to him, calling someone a nerd is virtually the highest compliment he can pay.

Why the difference in opinions? Is it that the two parties have different conceptions of what being a nerd actually entails or do they agree on the definition but differ in terms of the value they place on those traits?

I can’t imagine that their definitions of a nerd would be grossly different. If they were presented with ten people and had to pick out the nerd then I’d wager that they would both look for the same features and would almost certainly pick out the same person. It’s a stereotype for a reason after all.

It seems much more likely that my friend just has a rosier opinion on the actual traits of nerds. Why might this be?

Well, what makes a nerd? In general, a nerd is someone who places a higher value on being intelligent (and on being seen to be intelligent) than most people do. They also tend to prioritise their own interests (which are typically of a cerebral nature) over the attainment of popularity amongst their peers. This results in the stereotypical lack of social skills.

So if my friend calls me a nerd I take it as a compliment because I think “Hey, he must think that I’m smart and that I’m independent enough to do my own thing”. Whereas when my friend called their acquaintance a nerd, that person thought something along the lines of “Why does he think I’m not popular?”

Thankfully this opinion seems to be on the wane. There’s no doubt that society as a whole is more accepting of nerdiness and everything that goes with it nowadays than say, a decade ago. Part of this shift can be attributed to the success of the Silicon Valley enterprises run by people who would have been mocked as computer geeks when in school.

Not only are these people becoming incredibly wealthy, they are also influencing people’s conceptions of what it means to be cool. We can now draw a Venn diagram showing an intersection between nerdiness and coolness and not expect people to scoff at it.

Additionally, pop culture has more positive depictions of nerds nowadays. Granted, shows like the Big Bang Theory still portray nerds as socially inept and often seem to be laughing at them rather than with them but at least they don’t treat them as boring. That’s a big change from Ross Geller in Friends who consistently put everyone to sleep as soon as he started talking about his passion for dinosaurs.

And if you really want proof of how the nerd’s philosophy has permeated throughout pop culture, just listen to Big Sean in the song Wanna Be Cool where he basically raps a nerd credo:

Rocking pink Polo’s, shit ain’t even fit me,
Looking for the inspiration that’s already in me,
All the confidence I was trying to buy myself,
If you don’t like me, fuck it, I’ll be by myself,
Spent all this time for you to say I’m fine,
I really should have spent it trying to find myself.

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