Readings in Geek Communication


This post continues the setup for a session I’m running at ScienceOnline 2011 with Maria Walters and Desiree Schell called, “It’s All Geek to Me.” We’ll discuss what we can learn about communicating science by looking at differences between a general audience and science’s most solid audience–geeks.

Geek is not the default in our society, so when someone describes the differences between geek and non-geek communications, they tell us about geeks. Still, by looking at what geeks do “differently,” we can gain insight into both geeks and non-geeks. The following are posts that tell us what sets geeks apart from everyone else.

Toni Bowers at TechRepublic lays out how the communication mismatch is generally addressed and asks a question that reframes the problem:

“The tech worker, the geek, is a problem solver; the businessman, the suit, is a people influencer. The geek likes to fix things, the suit relies more on people skills,” said Zetlin. Technology for suits is a “means to an end”-business success-while for geeks (who see themselves as outsiders and artists) it’s a “living, breathing thing.”

This is one of the reasons you hear so many career professionals advising IT folks to develop good communication skills. The better able you are to interpret what the business folks are asking for and turn it into a useful tool or technology, the better off you’ll be.

So should the other side of that equation be the suggestion that business people hone up on their technical skills? Well, you certainly don’t hear that as much. Wonder why that is?

A post and comment thread at Geek Etiquette specifically looks at differences in behavior:


The best is enemy of the good. Geeks often seek perfection, where non-geeks are more prepared to accept “good enough”. Lots of arguments occur around this.

Relevance mismatch. Geeks think some things (eg. how someone dresses) should be irrelevant, and largely disregard them. Non-geeks tend to place greater emphasis on personal grooming and dress codes. Conversely, non-geeks might think that something like desktop operating system is irrelevant, when it’s highly important to geeks. Either group will disregard what they consider “irrelevant”, not realising it’s relevant to the other party.

Another Geek Etiquette post takes on multitasking and balancing it with non-geek expectations for interaction:

If we’re not running a sideband conversation about the presentation topic, we’re often googling for more information on the presenter’s topic, or downloading and trying out the code in real-time. Those of us who are presenting later on are probably working on our slides at the last minute, and those of us who are taking time off from work to attend probably couldn’t do so unless we kept up with our email. All worthwhile things, one might argue.

On the other hand, the one-day London Perl Workshop last December didn’t provide WiFi, saying (in their FAQ) “it’s rude to type during someone’s talk and when you’re out of talks you should be socialising :)”

And yet one more Geek Etiquette post addresses geek literalism and the differences in producing and interpreting verbiage with only social content:

Most non-geeks have outbound tact filters: they filter what they want to say and add polite noise as it passes through. Geeks have inbound tact filters: they take bare communication with no politeness and just wrap it in assumed politeness as they interpret it.

When non-geeks talk, geeks think the polite sounds they make are redundant.

When geeks talk, non-geeks just think they’re being incredibly rude.

Adam Bluestein at Inc. magazine produces a user manual for geeks that discusses motivating geeks and the particulars of geek psychology:

Systematic thinking. Geeks see nothing magic about technology, only problems to be broken down and solved. “They tend to view the world in black-and-white terms,” says Frazer. “They’re very good at looking at a problem and reducing it to its component parts.”

Wrong? Never. Geeks often have a powerful intellectual vanity. That makes it hard for them to admit mistakes. Hence, the plethora of expressions that blame the victim (see glossary, below).

Competitive nature. Being smarter than their peers is really important for geeks. Developers are constantly honing their skills with the aim of doing something that no one’s been able to do.

Rands in Repose provides a similar guide for women dating a geek (a nerdy one in this case):

Nerds are fucking funny. Your nerd spent a lot of his younger life being an outcast because of his strange affinity with the computer. This created a basic bitterness in his psyche that is the foundation for his humor. Now, combine this basic distrust of everything with your nerd’s other natural talents and you’ll realize that he sees humor is another game.

Humor is an intellectual puzzle, “How can this particular set of esoteric trivia be constructed to maximize hilarity as quickly as possible?” Your nerd listens hard to recognize humor potential and when he hears it, he furiously scours his mind to find relevant content from his experience so he can get the funny out as quickly as possible.

Bex Huff discusses one implication of the geek’s strong problem-solving drive:

Now… empathy is not easy, and its extraordinarily difficult for engineers.

Most technical people have been brainwashed by years of “education” into believing that there’s a “right way” to do everything, and that its our job to fix it. When something is “wrong,” we want to dive in and tell everybody how to make it “right” again. Its a trained compulsion. This is why engineers make lousy lovers, but excellent terrorists. In both cases, its a lack of empathy that dooms us to this fantasy world of absolute right and wrong, making it impossible to see things from another perspective.

Sound like anybody you know?

Finally, a favorite of mine and one from a geek culture that isn’t a computer culture. This has more to do with interpersonal interactions than online communication, but it’s still worth reading for insight into the different ways geeks and non-geeks process social interaction. Cally Soukup summarizes a talk by a speech therapist on how science fiction and fantasy fans communicate differently than “mundanes.”

What we say in those large word groupings is also different. We ten
d to use complete sentences, and complex sentence structure. When we pause, or say “uh”, it tends to be towards the beginning of a statement, as we formulate the complete thought. The “idea” or “information” portion of a statement is paramount; emotional reassurance, the little social noises (mm-hmm) are reduced or omitted. We get to the heart of what we want to say — if someone asks us how to do something we tell them, not leading up to it gently with “have you tried doing it this way?”

This leads us to body language. Our body language is also different from mundanes. We tend to not use eye contact nearly as often; when we do, it often signifies that it’s the other person’s turn to speak now. This is opposite of everyone else. In mundania, it’s *breaking* eye contact that signals turn-taking, not *making* eye contact. She demonstrated this on DDB; breaking eye contact and turning slightly away, and he felt insulted. On the other hand, his sudden staring at her eyes made her feel like a professor had just said “justify yourself NOW”. Mutual “rudeness”; mixed signals.

We use our hands when we talk, but don’t seem to know what to do with our arms. When thinking how to put something we close our eyes or look to the side and up, while making little “hang on just a second” gestures to show that we’re not finished talking. We interrupt each other to finish sentences, and if the interrupter got it right, we know we’ve communicated and let them speak; if they get it wrong we talk right over them. This is not perceived as rude, or not very rude.

So, what other good resources are there for describing the differences between geeks and non-geeks in communication and expectations?