Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Rough Guide to Social Skills for Awkward Smart People

I am a full-on dork. The things that make me want to get up in the morning are things that make normal people lose interest in the conversation, or giggle. These are things like lucid dreaming, artificial intelligence, utopian movements, and Esperanto.

Be that as it may, I'm mostly fine with boring the normals and living in the Vibrant True World of Beauty with its other full-on dork denizens. Amazingly, I've found that Esperantists seem to be anarcho-Taoists, that AI researchers tend to have experimented with lucid dreaming, and that other secret threads hold the seemingly disparate interests of Dorks Like Me together. I have countrymen. Just not yet my country.

The other thing that holds my kinsmen together, though, is an unfortunate thing: they are all asses. They decimate the chances of their ideas' success by offending everyone they meet, making it look like being happy and having friends are suspicious, counterrevolutionary behaviors.

In case you're wondering if my sermon is directed to you, there are some common tropes in our oft-reenacted social suicide:
  1. We call someone's beliefs "idiotic."
  2. We call someone's beliefs "idiotic" within five minutes of meeting them.
  3. We happily inform strangers of our vast and superior intelligence.
  4. We derail a conversation about American Idol to bring it back to the real issue at hand: that there is no God.
  5. When given a compliment, "Oh, you're so well-read!", we look blankly in the eyes of the complimenter, and respond "Yes, I know."
I can hear your retort, oh ye smart and lonely. "But I am the smartest person in the room"/"But their beliefs are idiotic."/"I'm not going to compromise the truth to make some idiot happy."

Great. Good luck with that. Oh, and by the way, your cause will die, I promise.

People don't respond well to being told that they're idiots, even if they are. Ideas don't spread by beating their enemies to a pulp. They spread by subterfuge and incalculable subtlety.

I would propose that sacrificing some smaller truths in your day-to-day interactions is the only way for the greater truth to prevail.

Be a Good Spy

As a short exercise, I invite you to think of it this way: it is World War II, and you are an Allied spy. You are in Germany, and you have attained a mid-level rank in the Nazi bureaucracy. Your superiors speak well of the Führer.

Now ask yourself, which response probably achieves the most towards the furtherance of your objectives?

(A) "No, he's actually an idiot, and killing Jews is wrong, and I'm an Allied spy, and there are Jews in my attic."


(B) "Heil Hitler."

The Old One-Two

Now of course we'll never achieve anything good if we simply walk around saying "Heil Hitler" all day. If you do have an important mission in the world, you'll have to face dangers, and at some time show your true colors.

Doing this in the wrong way Schrutes your whole mission. Doing this in the right way makes you Ani Difranco, or Bob Dylan.

Ani Difranco has a trick. She gets up on the stage, and her guitar is un-tuned. While tuning it, she ad-libs a story. The story isn't funny. There are a lot of pauses, and a lot of "uh"s. The crowd starts to get uncomfortable. We feel sympathetic embarrassment. Massive pity. Poor little girl. Then, suddenly, she rips into everyone's soul, fast. Now she's confident and smarter than you can handle. Now she's referencing poets and playing brilliantly with language. The whole dumb scared thing was an act (she doesn't do it in interviews). It works. I call this The Old One-Two.

One: Disarm. Don't be an ass. Be weak. Be self-deprecating. Build Ethos.

Two: Be brilliant.

The Old One-Two is charm at its atomistic simplest. Most good actors use it (though not so much in their stage performances as in interviews.) Bob Dylan is the absolute king of the game, ripping off Milton and making it sound like something he misheard his grandfather say.

What I find the most interesting about The Old One-Two is that even after I realize I've been duped, I still love the guy who's scammed me.

"Oh no, I really don't play piano, I just mess around"

"Aw, come on, pleeease?"

"Oh, alright" {Flawless Bach Piece}


Even after you know it was a lie, the false-humility still gives you warm feelings. Now when this guy later turns around and says "Aw, naw, not really; well, I guess kind of I dabble in The Ultimate Truth", I'll probably listen.


This is an old post. Read a newer one. You know you want to.


  1. You need to send this out to all the Mensa chapters so they can make hand-outs.

    Nothing is as pathetic as a room full of clueless men and whining to each other that "they can't find anybody or get a date," while simultaneously dismissing the rest of the worlrd as "morons"

  2. edit: "clueless men" -> "clueless men and women"

  3. I've been learning this the hard way. Sometimes being an ass is terribly fun, though.

  4. Thank you, everybody! You make me feel good.

  5. I learned in high school that making others laugh was a great way to avoid complete social exclusion.

    1. Yeah. I've also learned that and been doing it. Well, it works.

  6. +1 for using Schrute as a verb.

  7. That's a beautiful brilliant Jewess.

  8. You forgot to suggest corrections:
    1. We call someone's beliefs "idiotic."
    2. We call someone's beliefs "idiotic" within five minutes of meeting them.

    Perhaps, with your enormous intellect, smile and present a fact that would derail their misconceived ideas. For example, "Perhaps, have you considered that the fair field that your economic model is built on is not static?"

    3. We happily inform strangers of our vast and superior intelligence.

    Don't. Smile instead.

    4. We derail a conversation about American Idol to bring it back to the real issue at hand: that there is no God.

    Smile and nod.

    5. When given a compliment, "Oh, you're so well-read!", we look blankly in the eyes of the complimenter, and respond "Yes, I know."

    Instead smile and say, "thanks!"

  9. OMG. I know so many people that are trapped by this. Maybe I should send them an olive leaf by sending them this post. The problem is, I am scared by their reaction to it. Also, I suspect I am one of the people that need this post but don't entirely know.

  10. I've actually thought about this too and titled it the "bitter intellectual syndrome"

  11. This post will do nothing to alter the ways of those to whom this sort of mentality is a given.

    For the sort of person that this is aimed at, generally they don't believe they have any problems socially, they're blissfully unaware of their apparent arrogance and abrasive manner; and if they do believe they need work, they'll try to do it themselves, not look for help from others. Its these types of 'nerds' which I have a personal repulsion to... Of course I say this while at the same time being genetically related in 'geek genes' to them...

    By the way, the majority of people I've found who act this way have Aspergers, which makes it much less of a an active decision to act this way and much more of a neurological pathology.

    This is no excuse, I'll admit, as one's behaviors can be altered with a lot of work.

    I just thought it necessary to point out, its as good (for some) as telling them that their disability infuriates you and to do something about it to be less 'disabled'.

    just my 2c

  12. You're not a real dork. You must be a spy.

  13. "Sometimes being an ass is terribly fun, though" - agreed. Addictive fun. I'm trying to quit... Before I've lost all ofmy friends. So thanks for the post)

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  15. except your zealous lack of belief is even dumber than those fundies'.
    you aren't smarter than anyone, you just can't think properly.

  16. Um . . . huh? Lack of belief? Fundies? I'm really not sure of what you're talking about.

  17. “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”
    * Bertrand Russell quotes (English Logician and Philosopher 1872-1970)

    Maybe he should have added the words “I think” to that saying, but maybe he wasnt wise enough to think he should have ? :-)

    PS that "dumb genius act" is just another Dorkian 'passive antagonist' ruse. Give me genuine ego tripper every time, but perhaps one who will listen.

  18. And the whole article is the putting in practice of the theory you've written, but backwards. An interesting introduction, fun, well written, showing off your ironic skills... and then you end up abruptly by giving a single obvious advise.

    Ha!! I'm joking, I was just trying to be a sound like a Full-On Dork myself :-P

    I really liked your article, but I think some people can do nothing just not to offend others. If they have no interest whatsoever in mingling with idiots, what's the point in trying to make them smile. If I was like that, I would think of it as a dangerous behaviour, actually. Imagine I get on with someone just because I've lied, it would be an unfair relationship, based on a lie, and a huge effort on my side that's not really worthy.

    Anyway, good stuff.

    Regards from Barcelona (it is in Spain, Europe, just to be sure -oops, I did it again-)

  19. Ray: "'The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.'
    * Bertrand Russell quotes (English Logician and Philosopher 1872-1970)

    Maybe he should have added the words “I think” to that saying, but maybe he wasnt wise enough to think he should have ? :-)"

    No, he was wise *and* trying to be part of the solution to the problem he was talking about!

  20. You are quite right, irrational beliefs are deep set and cannot be 'corrected' in a conversation. While talking about American Idol, use it as 'research' to see where the fans are coming from and how it gives them pleasure. The word 'research' is patronising, remember you are 'taking an interest'. Your only defence against holding irrational beliefs and being an idiot yourself is to be open to being swayed. Doubt is the key to knowledge, if you can plant just one seed of doubt in a conversation, your job is done.

  21. You're a self-centred egotist, not quite an idiot, but getting there.

  22. The one problem here is that the common tropes you list of the awkward smart person, are just not that smart.
    1. Beliefs are subjective. Subjective truth is a truth to the subject.
    2. Jumping to conclusions is not usually that smart.
    3. Most of the vastly superior intelligent people of history, have realised that their knowledge is limited and much of their exploration through knowledge reveals many more things they don't know and will never know in their lifetime.
    4. Don't get me wrong, I'm no church member, but I would like to read a proof of this one in another blog post. While they're at it, it should be a simple corollary to prove there is no extra-terrestrial life in the universes which we don't even know the end of.
    5. I admire their confidence, but again, how many books have they not read? And was there more to the reading than gloating over being well-read?

    Do truly smart people need to pretend to be humble, all the while preparing the ol' one two? Well I can't actually speak for them but my subjective truth is that their humility is not false.

  23. Well, actually, you are using the word "decimate" incorrectly, as there is no reason to believe that you have divided your chances by 10.

  24. Interestingly, the exact kind of superior ass who behaves in the way described is much more often wrong than he/she would like to believe. As others have posted, most true intellectual superiors are actually quite humble and self deprecating.

    Generally those who are arrogant and boastful are advertising a superiority that they feel a need to defend.

  25. I was looking forward to reading this because I was sure I knew a few people I could forward this to. However after seeing myself in items #1, #2, and #4 I was annoyed to see I was reading about myself. Damn the Intertubes for delivering me uncomfortable self-revelation...again.

  26. Those of you that rant on about how you are so intelligent yet can't manage to communicate with every one else are facing your largest single flaw in the face and believing it to be your strength. If you can not grasp the idea's of civil communication amongst your peers, you are either ill-educated, or possibly suffering from Aspberger, or simply too dim witted to realize if these are your concerns you are not intelligent, but you do entertain those of us who are with your constant child like cries trying to convince us of your higher order thoughts.

  27. I enjoy watching the smartest person in the room condescend upon everyone with their trickiness. I also enjoy knowing that most of the other people in the room enjoy watching them do it too. They surely figure out that I’m not that smart within 5 minutes, but it doesn’t take me that long to figure out that they are an ass.

  28. I learned at an early age that the real smart people don't need to "toot their own horn." If you have to brag how smart you are, then you aren't really smart.

    Frankly, I have met people like what this post describes and getting them to counter argue instead of making ad hominem attacks is near impossible. A sign of ignorance.


  30. Being an ass or a nice person has nothing to do with intellect.

  31. I recommend reading Scott Adams Blog to see how to "do it right"

  32. Luis, me encanta su webpage. It's gorgeous.

  33. So let me see if I get the problem right:

    Some (intelectually superior) of us are special and they have to figure out ways to co-exist with the mere mortals.

    Special techniques are suggested so that they don't allienate the commoners.


    How on earth is that right / politically correct?

    I say, either like people, or don't get along with them! Seriously, if you think they're morons, why bother? Do you realize how sad that is?!!

    btw, I find opinions like
    "Of course I say this while at the same time being genetically related in 'geek genes' to them..."
    scary... OK, your kidding right? No? no way

    My 2c is: Take your self less seriously and you will find the way towards __real__ relationships with others. Its very rewarding (at this point I would like to say ', I promise' but saddly I'm really bad at relationships too :) )

  34. Really funny, Kenneth! Because I like to swap with kindred souls... Google, "bilobalism", a term which I now claim to have coined, then read my Blog, "My Dirty Little Secret" (the secret is that I'm both a professional country music picker and a computer programmer -- ergo, bilobal.) Thanks, Ken... keep the irony ironic.

  35. I read this blog post because it was advertised on Code Project, which I think is the best of the developer blogs online, and because I know several smart programmers who have been jerked around by management practices that reward people who are not so smart but who deal effectively with corporate politics. Unfortunately, a lot of people who do well in corporate politics are already following your “advice”. They are as deferential to their bosses as Hitler’s subordinates were during the Nazi regime and obsequiously follow orders, no matter how counterproductive or unethical the dictates might be. A degree of humility, which you seem to recommend without practicing it, does seem to be a good thing. Even better might be some analysis of why corporations and organizations of all kinds tend to reward the wrong people: generally careerists who are single minded about their own advancement and only occasionally highly skilled or responsible.
    The cultural ethos that engendered the US Constitution included a doctrine of human nature in which it is implicit that nobody should have very much power because, the evidence indicates, human nature is such that people who get power will tend to abuse it. A lot of your neighbors down there in the Bible belt understand very well the Calvinist ethos that engendered this doctrine of human nature. They know that good people are often not very successful in an unjust world. Instead of writing blog posts about your assumed intelligence you might want to go down the street to the nearest church and learn something about a culture that developed over several thousand years and embodies important ideas that are beyond even the smartest people in any single generation.

  36. "Come over and do wine when you're in town. Seriously." - I cannot help to wonder, how many had accepted your invitation to have a glass of wine with "I" you?

  37. @supergee -- hey, nice reference to Miguel de Icaza and his "Well, actually" blog post on essentially this same topic. (NSFW, via the title, at least.) Presumably you also know that "decimate" has several definitions -- many words do! -- one of which simply is "to reduce drastically" or "to cause great destruction or harm." You're just funnin' us, right?

  38. PS Hi, Michael (Dodaro)! :-)

  39. I'm completely unbiased when someone does something stupid.

    Doing something stupid is being stupid, even if I happen to be the one doing the stupid.

    Unfortunately, I find it nearly impossible to not voice said opinion when the stupid thing someone did makes me angry. Even if I happen to be the one who did the stupid.

    Compulsive perfectionism makes me an equal opportunity criticizer. To bad it doesn't prevent me from making mistakes.

  40. Nice post, but even allowing for the self-deprecating humour, your analogy of being dropped behind enemy lines is rather revealing. If you really think this way about the "non-dork", to hijack your terminology, portion of the human race, all the social skills you are trying to build here are just a form of condescension.

    I have been politely informed I can be arrogant on occasion, and this might even be true. But I've also learned that even idiots are right sometimes, and I'm wrong.

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  43. Funny post. I feel much sympathy while reading this. Consider my thoughts.

    A criticism of intelligence
    The definition of "intelligence" I derive is a fascination with "dorky" subjects. This notion of "intelligence" is pretty dumb.
    From school (high school, college) I learned there are many analytically intelligent people around me that have no interest in traditionally dorky topics. I gauge that they were analytically intelligent because they score as good or better than myself in the classroom. And the learned new concepts faster than myself. Those intelligent people (as evidenced by apparent school success) were interested in "dumb" topics like television shows, nice cars, money, raunchy humor, etc. The things I too would have associated with a average or below intelligence.
    The conclusion I have come to is that I have a fascination with certain intellectual topics. That fascination is not necessarily related to how well I may perform on any particular test of analytical intelligence.
    If you were able to use your analytical skills for solving needed problems in life, then how come this problem is so difficult to solve? If it's not solvable, how come it is repeatedly engaged? To say this in other words, how are you so sure of your self-judgment of "intelligent" in the context of these failures?

    A criticism of the suggested solution:
    I anticipate the "one-two punch" solution will fail. Not "intelligent" people know a faker in their midst. I too have tried such schemes for socialization. The self-centered motivations behind such schemes eventually reveal themselves. Such a scheme does not seek to engage another mutually. Such a scheme seeks to engage selfishly; always trying to engage others only in your own comfortable mental place.
    This may sound corny but... the only solution for relating to other human beings that had lasting, repeated success was to learn to see the value and humanity in people beyond my fascination with "intelligent" topics. To be willing and interested to engage people on their "turf"; to engage them within their interests.

    Other suggested considerations:
    My frustration with dealing with people that are apparently dumb leaves me frustrated. Is my attachment to my particular notion of "intelligence" very intelligent? Given that it distances me from people to whom I would like to relate?
    Why is my idea of what is "worthy" thinking so damn important? Are not other ideas worthy of thought? ideas that don't translate into a higher measured IQ?
    Given my opinion of that which constitutes "intelligent" thought, the odds that I arrived at such a recipe of topics and interests is very unlikely. It is more likely, I can only understand my own recipe of "intelligent" thinking, because that is what I am best at understanding. Therefore, other people that do not share my interests may or may not be intelligent. Rather, other people that do not share my interests most likely do not share my interests.

    I share these thoughts from my similar experiences of frustration. I come back to self-tempering thoughts like this often.


  44. Good points, Tom.

    As for this reading, I enjoyed it with comments that prompted some afterthoughts, albeit indignant.

    I'm tired of this glorification of bashing intelligence in an anti-intellectual country with a backwards education system. Most of these posts exude mob mentalities, e.g. these disgusting Mensa and high IQ comments.

    Truth be told I don’t think it’s fair that people are laughed at for Artificial Intelligence, Lucid dreaming, etc. Why aren’t most people thinking about ways to live in a more comfortable biome? That if one is passionate about the quest for truth, the distance to the nearest math book means that you aren’t going to find love or friends to take up these passions just as thoroughly. Why can one not be serious about a passion, without the snarky, “Taking yourself seriously.”, “Stone-faced”, “No life.”

    “This is unfair.” [Simple sickness]
    “Life’s unfair.” [Simple remedy]

    Why is it that intellectuals are bitter and MUST deal with it, equipped with weightless tools? Why do the rules, all of a sudden, have to change? Blessed with kismet and opportunity, why the obsession to obey this whole "humility" thing?

    Can someone stencil humility in the same parameters by stating, if “Person A” is NOT showing signs of intelligence, s/he must be practicing some form of humility? That someone who is not, could never practice humility, is branded as "arrogant."

    I find this funny, slightly shaking my head because, this idea of humility is associated with people whom, if put in different positions wouldn't know the real outcomes of their behaviors—lending to an unexacting understanding of behavioral postures. I'd be remiss in failing to mention how QUICK people label someone as arrogant—almost to suture a defense against future occurrences of labels they utter so freely.

    That word and its suggestions: arrogant, haughty, self-serving, condescending, conceited, etc...there is no escape once you have been labeled this. You can try to change, but collect dismal results in the end. Failing on all fronts of the war to be understood, whilst hoping, for all but an aroma of the fruits they pick only in dreams? That things may have occurred where the less intelligent pick on the incubating blasphemer that still, society easily casts stones upon? Is this a surprise one becomes bitter I ask?

    And why self deprecate—ever? A genius calls himself a fool, so now we must emulate this man or woman’s adages because at least we can tether to insightful words, though dangling from their coat tails… So let’s all practice calling ourselves fools, lest we want the same insights as they, dressed with the humility, avoiding the path of Byronic Heroes?

    Insight is a terribly beautiful thing to waste. We have so many problems because those who have been kissed by nature, are raised in non-insulatory environments. It’s not easy to be secluded anymore, like Newton, Einstein, Tesla et al. were. Not easy to focus with distractions we have. A function of chaotic systems of growth, commands almost a synaptic orientation—outliers to be eliminated.
    Regardless of what disposition a person holds, I end asking: How arrogant is it to admit that one is less enlightened, to bring someone down as if they could control indubitable love and obsession with understanding—so intolerant of strikes against the one thing that just might dilate the depths of minds.
    And so,
    “Oh, If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” [Body]
    “I should probably this high IQ membership, I’d look too pretentious. It doesn’t sound right to want intellectual stimulation. I should be smart enough to know that I could be labeled, even in innocence.” [Mind]

    There’s something, overwhelmingly wrong with this contrast.


  45. Open criticism does make a person feel superior, weak as that may be, and i'm sometimes guilty of it. But mostly I get along with most people, i've learned to accept that they just arent like me and that i cannot judge intelligence.
    There are different types of intelligence. The problem for me is that i get frustrated by the apparent misuse of intelligence and logic, gullibility and close-mindedness.
    When someone rants on about sport or idols (despite the fact that they are in fact quite intelligent) my mind screams "what the hell!? dont you have better things to be interested in? cant you see how useless your pursuit is?". I used to dismiss these people as stupid when i was younger, but with age comes wisdom but sometimes not as much patience as you wish you had.

    I have accepted the fact that i'm an asshole and my friends know this about me... i often warn and apologise for it and tell people not to take me too seriously.

    On the other hand I use my intelligence to influence people but some people are just not worth influencing and I really dont need their approval, and so i tell them what i think of their worthless opinions.

  46. Relevant in this regard:

  47. I feel a little better situated after reading this and some outstanding, soul-stirring comments. At least I accept being a social retard.

    I'm even more grateful now that I'm hardly stricken with the need to compensate by being an arrogant ass.

  48. Idiotic is as idiot does, or speaks. Only intelligence that has come full circle is full enough to grasp the concept of a supreme being that created the universe. By what you have written, I would suppose that you envision this position as yours. Your intelligence has not reached an enlightened level just yet, but good effort.

    If in a room with you, I am sure that I would tell you that your beliefs were idiotic. Well because in fact they are. I do enjoy your point; you just have it all wrong. Or whatever.

  49. A672, I agree with you and plus my 2©:

    First, intelligence does not mean arrogance. One can get irritaded and even wanting to scream inside because the other party seems so dumb, but that does not mean an intelligent man can't be humble and polite. In fact an intelligent man has means with diplomacy and can interface with others. Don't confuse intelligent with smart.

    Second, stating that there is no God is as stupid as stating that there is a God. If you can't prove any of those, then you can't state any as a truth. That's where faith comes in and everyone is free to believe what they want.

    Yes, you have it all wrong and your diplomacy skills might be the reason to be a failed polititian.

    Social skill is one kind of intelligence and perhaps you're just dumb on that ;)

  50. You know what people REALLY hate? *Not* socially awkward smart people. I can attest to that personally. We appear too well adjusted, when in fact we go home and feel like shit about ourselves because despite sincere best efforts we have no friends. And that, friends, is why I <3 the internet.

  51. I must not be very smart because the only thing I can think of right now, despite a very interesting discussion in these comments, is: Kenneth must watch The Office reruns because the episode in which Andy coins "Shruted it" was on last week.

  52. Hahaha this had me cracking up. SO true! Wonderful post.

  53. "Awkward Smart People" -- kind of oxymoronic?

  54. So what you're saying is Dunning-Kruger effect is rampant among MENSA members? Zoinks!

  55. There are situations and situations. there is no FORMULA for people, social interactions..