Why nerds are so unpopular - Part 1

When we were in junior high school, my friend Rich and I made a map of the school lunch tables according to popularity. This was easy to do, because kids only ate lunch with others of about the same popularity. We graded them from A to E. A tables were full of football players and cheerleaders and so on. E tables contained the kids with mild cases of Down's Syndrome, what in the language of the time we called "retards."

We sat at a D table, as low as you could get without looking physically different. We were not being especially candid to grade ourselves as D. It would have taken a deliberate lie to say otherwise. Everyone in the school knew exactly how popular everyone else was, including us.

My stock gradually rose during high school. Puberty finally arrived; I became a decent soccer player; I started a scandalous underground newspaper. So I've seen a good part of the popularity landscape.

I know a lot of people who were nerds in school, and they all tell the same story: there is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd, and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular. Being smart seems to make you unpopular.

Why? To someone in school now, that may seem an odd question to ask. The mere fact is so overwhelming that it may seem strange to imagine that it could be any other way. But it could. Being smart doesn't make you an outcast in elementary school. Nor does it harm you in the real world. Nor, as far as I can tell, is the problem so bad in most other countries. But in a typical American secondary school, being smart is likely to make your life difficult. Why?

The key to this mystery is to rephrase the question slightly. Why don't smart kids make themselves popular? If they're so smart, why don't they figure out how popularity works and beat the system, just as they do for standardized tests?

One argument says that this would be impossible, that the smart kids are unpopular because the other kids envy them for being smart, and nothing they could do could make them popular. I wish. If the other kids in junior high school envied me, they did a great job of concealing it. And in any case, if being smart were really an enviable quality, the girls would have broken ranks. The guys that guys envy, girls like.

In the schools I went to, being smart just didn't matter much. Kids didn't admire it or despise it. All other things being equal, they would have preferred to be on the smart side of average rather than the dumb side, but intelligence counted far less than, say, physical appearance, charisma, or athletic ability.

So if intelligence in itself is not a factor in popularity, why are smart kids so consistently unpopular? The answer, I think, is that they don't really want to be popular.

If someone had told me that at the time, I would have laughed at him. Being unpopular in school makes kids miserable, some of them so miserable that they commit suicide. Telling me that I didn't want to be popular would have seemed like telling someone dying of thirst in a desert that he didn't want a glass of water. Of course I wanted to be popular.

But in fact I didn't, not enough. There was something else I wanted more: to be smart. Not simply to do well in school, though that counted for something, but to design beautiful rockets, or to write well, or to understand how to program computers. In general, to make great things.

At the time I never tried to separate my wants and weigh them against one another. If I had, I would have seen that being smart was more important. If someone had offered me the chance to be the most popular kid in school, but only at the price of being of average intelligence (humor me here), I wouldn't have taken it.

Much as they suffer from their unpopularity, I don't think many nerds would. To them the thought of average intelligence is unbearable. But most kids would take that deal. For half of them, it would be a step up. Even for someone in the eightieth percentile (assuming, as everyone seemed to then, that intelligence is a scalar), who wouldn't drop thirty points in exchange for being loved and admired by everyone?

And that, I think, is the root of the problem. Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular, certainly, but they want even more to be smart. And popularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school.

Alberti, arguably the archetype of the Renaissance Man, writes that "no art, however minor, demands less than total dedication if you want to excel in it." I wonder if anyone in the world works harder at anything than American school kids work at popularity. Navy SEALs and neurosurgery residents seem slackers by comparison. They occasionally take vacations; some even have hobbies. An American teenager may work at being popular every waking hour, 365 days a year.

I don't mean to suggest they do this consciously. Some of them truly are little Machiavellis, but what I really mean here is that teenagers are always on duty as conformists.

For example, teenage kids pay a great deal of attention to clothes. They don't consciously dress to be popular. They dress to look good. But to who? To the other kids. Other kids' opinions become their definition of right, not just for clothes, but for almost everything they do, right down to the way they walk. And so every effort they make to do things "right" is also, consciously or not, an effort to be more popular.

Nerds don't realize this. They don't realize that it takes work to be popular. In general, people outside some very demanding field don't realize the extent to which success depends on constant (though often unconscious) effort. For example, most people seem to consider the ability to draw as some kind of innate quality, like being tall. In fact, most people who "can draw" like drawing, and have spent many hours doing it; that's why they're good at it. Likewise, popular isn't just something you are or you aren't, but something you make yourself.

The main reason nerds are unpopular is that they have other things to think about. Their attention is drawn to books or the natural world, not fashions and parties. They're like someone trying to play soccer while balancing a glass of water on his head. Other players who can focus their whole attention on the game beat them effortlessly, and wonder why they seem so incapable.

Even if nerds cared as much as other kids about popularity, being popular would be more work for them. The popular kids learned to be popular, and to want to be popular, the same way the nerds learned to be smart, and to want to be smart: from their parents. While the nerds were being trained to get the right answers, the popular kids were being trained to please.

So far I've been finessing the relationship between smart and nerd, using them as if they were interchangeable. In fact it's only the context that makes them so. A nerd is someone who isn't socially adept enough. But "enough" depends on where you are. In a typical American school, standards for coolness are so high (or at least, so specific) that you don't have to be especially awkward to look awkward by comparison.

Few smart kids can spare the attention that popularity requires. Unless they also happen to be good-looking, natural athletes, or siblings of popular kids, they'll tend to become nerds. And that's why smart people's lives are worst between, say, the ages of eleven and seventeen. Life at that age revolves far more around popularity than before or after.

Before that, kids' lives are dominated by their parents, not by other kids. Kids do care what their peers think in elementary school, but this isn't their whole life, as it later becomes.

Around the age of eleven, though, kids seem to start treating their family as a day job. They create a new world among themselves, and standing in this world is what matters, not standing in their family. Indeed, being in trouble in their family can win them points in the world they care about.

The problem is, the world these kids create for themselves is at first a very crude one. If you leave a bunch of eleven-year-olds to their own devices, what you get is Lord of the Flies. Like a lot of American kids, I read this book in school. Presumably it was not a coincidence. Presumably someone wanted to point out to us that we were savages, and that we had made ourselves a cruel and stupid world. This was too subtle for me. While the book seemed entirely believable, I didn't get the additional message. I wish they had just told us outright that we were savages and our world was stupid.

Nerds would find their unpopularity more bearable if it merely caused them to be ignored. Unfortunately, to be unpopular in school is to be actively persecuted.

Why? Once again, anyone currently in school might think this a strange question to ask. How could things be any other way? But they could be. Adults don't normally persecute nerds. Why do teenage kids do it?

Partly because teenagers are still half children, and many children are just intrinsically cruel. Some torture nerds for the same reason they pull the legs off spiders. Before you develop a conscience, torture is amusing.

Another reason kids persecute nerds is to make themselves feel better. When you tread water, you lift yourself up by pushing water down. Likewise, in any social hierarchy, people unsure of their own position will try to emphasize it by maltreating those they think rank below. I've read that this is why poor whites in the United States are the group most hostile to blacks.

But I think the main reason other kids persecute nerds is that it's part of the mechanism of popularity. Popularity is only partially about individual attractiveness. It's much more about alliances. To become more popular, you need to be constantly doing things that bring you close to other popular people, and nothing brings people closer than a common enemy.

Like a politician who wants to distract voters from bad times at home, you can create an enemy if there isn't a real one. By singling out and persecuting a nerd, a group of kids from higher in the hierarchy create bonds between themselves. Attacking an outsider makes them all insiders. This is why the worst cases of bullying happen with groups. Ask any nerd: you get much worse treatment from a group of kids than from any individual bully, however sadistic.

If it's any consolation to the nerds, it's nothing personal. The group of kids who band together to pick on you are doing the same thing, and for the same reason, as a bunch of guys who get together to go hunting. They don't actually hate you. They just need something to chase.

Because they're at the bottom of the scale, nerds are a safe target for the entire school. If I remember correctly, the most popular kids don't persecute nerds; they don't need to stoop to such things. Most of the persecution comes from kids lower down, the nervous middle classes.

The trouble is, there are a lot of them. The distribution of popularity is not a pyramid, but tapers at the bottom like a pear. The least popular group is quite small. (I believe we were the only D table in our cafeteria map.) So there are more people who want to pick on nerds than there are nerds.

As well as gaining points by distancing oneself from unpopular kids, one loses points by being close to them. A woman I know says that in high school she liked nerds, but was afraid to be seen talking to them because the other girls would make fun of her. Unpopularity is a communicable disease; kids too nice to pick on nerds will still ostracize them in self-defense.

It's no wonder, then, that smart kids tend to be unhappy in middle school and high school. Their other interests leave them little attention to spare for popularity, and since popularity resembles a zero-sum game, this in turn makes them targets for the whole school. And the strange thing is, this nightmare scenario happens without any conscious malice, merely because of the shape of the situation.

For me the worst stretch was junior high, when kid culture was new and harsh, and the specialization that would later gradually separate the smarter kids had barely begun. Nearly everyone I've talked to agrees: the nadir is somewhere between eleven and fourteen.

In our school it was eighth grade, which was ages twelve and thirteen for me. There was a brief sensation that year when one of our teachers overheard a group of girls waiting for the school bus, and was so shocked that the next day she devoted the whole class to an eloquent plea not to be so cruel to one another.

It didn't have any noticeable effect. What struck me at the time was that she was surprised. You mean she doesn't know the kind of things they say to one another? You mean this isn't normal?

It's important to realize that, no, the adults don't know what the kids are doing to one another. They know, in the abstract, that kids are monstrously cruel to one another, just as we know in the abstract that people get tortured in poorer countries. But, like us, they don't like to dwell on this depressing fact, and they don't see evidence of specific abuses unless they go looking for it.

Public school teachers are in much the same position as prison wardens. Wardens' main concern is to keep the prisoners on the premises. They also need to keep them fed, and as far as possible prevent them from killing one another. Beyond that, they want to have as little to do with the prisoners as possible, so they leave them to create whatever social organization they want. From what I've read, the society that the prisoners create is warped, savage, and pervasive, and it is no fun to be at the bottom of it.

In outline, it was the same at the schools I went to. The most important thing was to stay on the premises. While there, the authorities fed you, prevented overt violence, and made some effort to teach you something. But beyond that they didn't want to have too much to do with the kids. Like prison wardens, the teachers mostly left us to ourselves. And, like prisoners, the culture we created was barbaric.

Why is the real world more hospitable to nerds? It might seem that the answer is simply that it's populated by adults, who are too mature to pick on one another. But I don't think this is true. Adults in prison certainly pick on one another. And so, apparently, do society wives; in some parts of Manhattan, life for women sounds like a continuation of high school, with all the same petty intrigues.

I think the important thing about the real world is not that it's populated by adults, but that it's very large, and the things you do have real effects. That's what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.

When the things you do have real effects, it's no longer enough just to be pleasing. It starts to be important to get the right answers, and that's where nerds show to advantage. Bill Gates will of course come to mind. Though notoriously lacking in social skills, he gets the right answers, at least as measured in revenue.

The other thing that's different about the real world is that it's much larger. In a large enough pool, even the smallest minorities can achieve a critical mass if they clump together. Out in the real world, nerds collect in certain places and form their own societies where intelligence is the most important thing. Sometimes the current even starts to flow in the other direction: sometimes, particularly in university math and science departments, nerds deliberately exaggerate their awkwardness in order to seem smarter. John Nash so admired Norbert Wiener that he adopted his habit of touching the wall as he walked down a corridor.

As a thirteen-year-old kid, I didn't have much more experience of the world than what I saw immediately around me. The warped little world we lived in was, I thought, the world. The world seemed cruel and boring, and I'm not sure which was worse.

Because I didn't fit into this world, I thought that something must be wrong with me. I didn't realize that the reason we nerds didn't fit in was that in some ways we were a step ahead. We were already thinking about the kind of things that matter in the real world, instead of spending all our time playing an exacting but mostly pointless game like the others.

We were a bit like an adult would be if he were thrust back into middle school. He wouldn't know the right clothes to wear, the right music to like, the right slang to use. He'd seem to the kids a complete alien. The thing is, he'd know enough not to care what they thought. We had no such confidence.

A lot of people seem to think it's good for smart kids to be thrown together with "normal" kids at this stage of their lives. Perhaps. But in at least some cases the reason the nerds don't fit in really is that everyone else is crazy. I remember sitting in the audience at a "pep rally" at my high school, watching as the cheerleaders threw an effigy of an opposing player into the audience to be torn to pieces. I felt like an explorer witnessing some bizarre tribal ritual.


Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...