Sunday, February 21, 2010

Good Geek, Bad Geek. A Public Service Announcement

Somewhere along the line it became cool to be a geek about something.  At least I hope it has, as I’ve kinda staked my “personal brand” on it, obviously.  I’ve always preferred the term geek, I find it less pejorative than nerd, dork, dweeb and a few choice others.

That doesn’t mean, though, that all geek habits are socially acceptable.  There is still such a thing (in my opinion), as “bad geek”. 

A while back while out at a restaurant with the family, we ran into another family we know.  During whatever in the conversation the father makes a movie reference, I make what I think is the next line of the movie reference, and his maybe 10yr old son, complete with eye roll, loudly re-quotes my line with one word changed because obviously I’m a frickin idiot.

Many things make this a bad geek moment.  Thinking, for example, that it is at all important who gets a movie quote right, and that it’s your job to correct somebody? Wrong.  Nobody cares.  It’s not important.  Teaching your child that this is an important skill to have?  Even more incorrect.  Lacking the social skills that enable you to understand how not to be rude to someone?  Strike three.

I asked on Twitter recently what to call this idea - “if quoting Monty Python makes you a geek, what does correcting other people’s quotes make you?” I was surprised at the number of responses I got back: “It’s called awesome!” “How about soulmate?” “Ubergeek?” and other, entirely positive, suggestions.  I don’t know if I just phrased the question wrong, or if I’m the only one to point this out, but it’s not cool, and nobody cares.

Don’t get me wrong, there are of course times when your superior knowledge of the subject is useful.  Such as, when the other person actually invites it.  Somebody starts out a quote by saying, “Oh, how’s that expression go, that one from Shakespeare about not being a borrower…” then of course you get to show off.  But when somebody in conversation says, “Remember what Shakespeare said, neither a borrower or a lender be.” and you feel a moral obligation to pipe in “NOR, it’s NOR a lender be,” then you kinda sorta need to go back to courtesy school, my fellow geeks.

Am I guilty of this? I think I probably am, at times, but I try to be conscious of the problem and not do it.  My crime is more often in talking too much, not shutting up, stealing other people’s stories.  But I don’t find myself correcting people without invitation, for exactly these reasons.

Dale Carnegie, in the classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, tells a story on this subject. While at a dinner party, a fellow guest quotes the Bible (“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends…”) and Carnegie calls him out on it, knowing for a fact that it is from Shakespeare.  After the argument becomes heated they agree to ask a third party, who turns out to be a friend of Carnegie.  “You’re wrong, Dale,” says the friend, “It is from the Bible.”  Later, Carnegie corners him and says “You know perfectly well that’s from Shakespeare.”

“Yes of course,” he replied, “But we were guests at a festive occasion. Why prove to a man he is wrong? Is that going to make the man like you? Why not let him save face? He didn’t ask for your opinion. He didn’t want it. Why argue with him?”

Had to be said.  Something to think about the next time you’re about to open your mouth and show off just how much of an awesome ubergeek you are, regardless of subject.

5 comments:

Levi said...

I enjoyed reading this blog post. I like that it covers a wide range. from 10 year olds to Dale Carnegie. I like that it deals with human nature, one of my favorite subjects.
Publicly correcting people becomes a slippery slope when it is boiled down to intent. Are we correcting them to educate or to belittle and define our places in the hierarchy of human development? The rolling of the eye, the searing use of a down tone at the end of a statement that let's our disgust be known and elevates our own capacity over another's. Allowing a disagreement about the source of a quote to get to a frenzied argumentative stage. I can see myself being guilty of all of these things, at times.
I had never heard that Carnegie story, but I love the third party's response.
I needed this today, thanks.

Duane said...

Thanks Levi. I think it's interesting to see people place the line over when it's welcome and when it's rude - or even more interesting to see the people who don't understand the difference. I mean, sure, if somebody's trying to make a point about something, and their point is based on incorrect fact, it's certainly logical to point out a mistake. That, also, can be done politely. We're talking about quotations, here. The height of trivia. I think there are some geeks out there that have forgotten that the definition of "trivia" is not "really useful knowledge that will make people very impressed when you show them you are more a master of it than they are."

One habit of mine, speaking of trivia, is to announce trivia when I'm about to speak it. No matter the circumstance, whether the new movie "Repo Men" (*) is coming out or not, will you ever hear me say, "Michael Nesmith's mom invented WhiteOut (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_Paper). True story." Were I to say it like that, it gives the feeling that I think people actually care, and that when I am done they will be in awe of me for knowing that. No, instead I'll say something like, "Want to hear something that's just ridiculously trivial? Mike Nesmith's mom invented WhiteOut. I have no idea why I find that worthy of remembering." The geek in me does indeed want to show off that I have that knowledge, I can't help myself. But I can at least acknowledge that it is a pointless thing, not a useful one.

(*) Mr. Nesmith directed a movie called Repo Man, you see. So I can already see the lines of conversation from Repo Men -> Repo Man -> That dude from the Monkees -> Mike Nesmith -> WhiteOut.

Lisa Ann said...

Thanks for this post. As someone with a lot of geek friends, I see this far too often. Some perpetrators think their superior knowledge will get them respect (which it won't).

But, in my experience, most are purists – people so dedicated to an imaginary world that they must defend its honor, even at the expense of a possible friendship. When you get a Star Wars fact wrong (in conversation with them), you're not just incorrect. You're mis-representing and disrespecting something important – something sacred. And it's their duty to set the record straight.

These are often the same people who can spend ten minutes outlining for you – even though you're not remotely interested – why the re-released Star Wars original trilogy is a travesty. Sometimes, their fervor seems almost religious.

Just for the record, I'm a big Stars Wars fan, and a rather old-fashioned sort of Christian, so I'm not trying to mock either. I just think that sometimes, fans can start to love fictional worlds with the same fervor that religious people love their gods.

JM said...

Pardon me if I'm somewhat off base and reading all of this somewhat wrongly, but several questions come to mind:

When did knowledge become a culprit in any sense, never mind verboten in "certain circumstances"?

When did extensive knowledge about something begin to automatically define the possesor of that knowledge as a "geek"?

When did the importance of quoting Shakespeare correctly become a mere matter of "taste in triviality" and "proper party protocol"?

When did veracity and accuracy, ergo Truth, about something become negotiable?

And with all due respect to Mr. Carnegie, the "how to win friends and influence people" set of skills happen to be mostly about deception, trickery,and phoniness; trying to fool someone into allowing someone else to succeed----no matter the cost to honesty, integrity, and the truth. --- Smacks of a little too much Machiavel.

In my experience, ten year olds roll their eyes about LOTS of things, "trivial"--and not so trivial. But it has also been my experience, that there's a far better chance of getting the truth of feeling, leading to the truth about something--opinion or no--from a ten year old than as opposed to an adult.

Wonder why that is...?

Duane said...

Well, JM, there's certainly a notion of a time and a place, wouldn't you agree? Consideration for others factor into it at all in your book? I'm not saying it's a crime to have the complete script of Monty Python's The Holy Grail memorized (watch somebody correct me if I forgot a word in the title or somesuch). I'm saying that the belief that because you know this, and your demonstration of that fact at the expense of the embarrassment of others, is a social mistake of which "geeks" are often guilty.

Whether you like Carnegie's book or not, the point of the story is valid - what exactly is it that you gain by correcting someone, in public, who did not ask you to, on something that really has no significance whatsoever other than to show that you know the right answer and the other person does not? There are times, of course, when proper knowledge (and correction of mistakes) is useful and valuable. Doing construction work on your home and saying "I turned the power off, so I can go ahead and cut this wire" deserves an intervention if you know, in fact, that the power has not been cut off. And it does not make you a geek to know that, or bring it up.

But when somebody is telling a story, you'd expect that there's probably a general point to the telling of this story. At the very least, this person has the floor, by default. He's speaking, people should be politely listening. He quotes something. He gets it 90% right. It's not even the main point of his story. If he used the wrong verb in his quote, though, and you have to bite your lip to keep from pointing this out because it bugs you so damned much, and you know what you can't help yourself you have to say it even if maybe you say it quiet enough so you can feel better about having said it and he won't hear you? Then yeah, you're a geek. You're knowledge in this particular instance is not that important, and your belief that it does, at the expense of others, is the kind of thing we're talking about.

Perhaps we can pull it all back to "If you can't say nice about someone, don't say anything." Correcting people can be done nicely, or it can be done rudely. If it comes with an eye roll, it's not very nice. If it comes with an eye roll because it was a mistake on a single word? Doubly so.