Reclaiming ‘Nerd’

Man, it’s good to be a nerd these days.

I recently had one of my pseudophilosophical meditation moments and came to think how hard it would be to have to hide or downplay a part of your personality continuously. In particular, I’ve been intrigued by the people I know who still feel the need to avoid talking about their more nerdy pastimes in order to avoid ridicule, or at least in order to believe being able to avoid ridicule.

I don’t think nerd is an all-encompassing term. It can be used to characterize a certain amount of interests, hobbies and attitudes towards things, but I fail to see how, in its present usage, it could ever include all the traditional negative meanings the word supposedly implies. I like to use nerd as a quick description of myself, and then later elaborate on as to what about me actually fits within that definition. Nerd is so loosely used nowadays that it really doesn’t mean much on its own. To some, simply knowing what a motherboard is will be proof of nerdhood, while others will require you to have been a part of the cabal and have glasses repaired with duct tape.

Personally, I’ve been extremely lucky throughout my life to always have found friends that shared some of the same hobbies and passions as I did. I was never bullied at school, and was never a recluse or even anti-social despite being a weirdo. Disclaimer: I don’t think weirdo has a negative connotation either. Partly because nobody has ever, to my knowledge, stamped the term nerd on me as a viciously negative label, to this day I utterly fail to connect it to the pool of detrimental personal traits. Again, I have been extremely lucky in this respect.

It really happens

Even as a kid, I clearly identified the things I enjoyed, and those I didn’t. Through sheer coincidence, I always received enough support around me to be able to relish my hobbies without being afraid of people not liking me. Or being able to effectively ignore those who did. Granted, I always did other things to complement the nerdy stuff. I’ve always liked sports, and immensely enjoyed football, basketball, floorball and every other team sport we played at school. This allowed me to avoid being profiled as something or other and let me fully enjoy all aspects of whatever struck my fancy.

During the France years, I don’t remember anyone ever ridiculing me over playing video games or studying, which is what I did most of the time. I liked those things, and everyone else seemed to readily accept that fact. Back in Finland in ’98, one of the first things I noticed at school were how getting good grades could get you criticized and badmouthed. This felt weird at the time; the experience at my school in France had been abundantly different. Either the shift was culture-related, an extension of Finnish jealousy, or the same thing would have happened wherever I had been at that age. “Someone is better at school, let’s make him feel uncomfortable.” That sentence did not specifically apply to me.

In the last years of primary school in Finland, I managed to gather a group of friends around me who generally enjoyed the same things as I did, something which allowed, among other things, for my general nerdy nature to flourish. We created a self-sustaining circle of people large enough to support each others’ non-conventional hobbies and shield us from the criticism of others – or at least make it less poignant. I was properly shielded. As long as there were other people who accepted what I did and liked to do, life was relatively easy.

Joona and I attended a couple of Java programming courses at the university of Helsinki at ages 14 and 15, respectively. Despite being called boy geniuses by a friend’s dad, the boy couldn’t keep up with the genius. While Joona attentively listened during lectures and passed both courses with the highest grades, I mostly slept in my seat, wrote down funny quotes from the lecturer and failed both classes. I’m pretty sure not everybody at school was pleased with us leaving two times a week during normal classes to go to the university, but I was absolutely oblivious to whatever comments may have floated around behind our backs. Sometimes it pays off to be socially as blind as a bat.

© Penny Arcade

My life in this fluffy duffy Turingian world of charm continued well beyond the age where I was old and confident enough to stand by my beliefs and fields of interest no matter what other people around thought about them. In high school, during military service or at the university, it has come as a surprise to nobody that I’m a nerd. It’s not something I shove down people’s throats, but I’m not trying to hide it either. Why? Because I’m proud of it! I have things I like, and I like liking them. Either deal with it or don’t deal with me. If someone thinks less of me because I like computers, video games and comics, they either need to be educated slightly on the issues or, if that fails, they can fuck off for all I care.

My closest group of friends still comprises mainly of the people I got to know during my primary school years. The sense of security and acceptance derived from such a close-knit group of friends allows for a very strong sense of self-esteem – even bordering on arrogance in certain situations.

As an interesting anecdote, we got a reminder a couple of years ago of how some people, especially those young and confused enough to still look for their place in society, have a tendency to interpret the word nerd as an insult.

It was probably 2008. We were playing Mölkkygolf, a Big Bang Theory-like but purely Finnish sport, in a public park, during a warm summer night. When I say night I positively mean night, not evening. After a while, a cohort of drunken teenage mutant ninja turtles girls strolled past us. While most of them were wary and preferred to keep their distance to a gang of older weirdoes who were throwing wooden blocks towards other wooden blocks in the dark, one girl was intrigued by the admittedly crazy looking game. Whether this interest was genuine or purely alcohol-induced is hard to tell. Actually it’s not hard to tell at all. The latter. Concerning the obvious questions as to what the hell we were doing in a park at this time of the night without copious amounts of alcohol (we only had a few beers), our immediate answer was that “we’re nerds, it’s what we do”. Since that one girl wanted to try the game, we quickly explained her the rules, the basics of which she never properly grasped, and thus she partook in our Mölkkygolf match for a few rounds until eventually growing tired of it.

Upon leaving with her merry friends, she shouted back in our direction: “You’re not nerds! You’re actually really nice guys!”, as though those two things were mutually exclusive.

Without a second of reflection, I retorted – and I wasn’t the only one: “Of course we’re nerds!”

Befuddled, she quipped with one last fading cry from the distance: “What!? So you want to be nerds!?”

Yes. Yes we do. That’s who we are, and we like it that way.

-Antti

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