Geek Meets World

I’m glad I’ve had this weekend. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, 6am was much better as a bedtime, and I’ve been getting behind on blog posts and articles. Most importantly, though, it’s nice to have weekends to look forward to – when every day is a Saturday, they start to lose their appeal.

I freely admit, however, that this is not the job of my dreams, and the hunt is very much ongoing, so it’s hard to be diplomatic when asked whether I’ll apply for the permanent job in the office I’m temping in. The fact is, if I’ve got the opportunity to try different jobs in different areas of the NHS while I’m waiting for something else, it’s got to be better than doing the same slightly dull tasks without an end date in sight.

At this point, I should probably make it clear that this is no reflection on my current workplace. Everyone is polite and welcoming, which I’m told is the nearest to friendship achieved by temps: the staff don’t get too attached, after all, because you might not be there next week. They even smiled and nodded when they asked me questions and found out about “the medieval thing”. What surprised me, though, was their reaction to a phrase I thought far more innocuous.

One of our external contractors paid a visit this week (it’s the NHS – they’re all contractors, to whom we probably pay a lot more money than it would cost us to do things ourselves).  Conversation happened. I can’t remember exactly how it came about, but somebody pointed to me and said “She actually calls herself a geek!”

“A geek”! What a thing to call myself! Of course, her tone of voice said, that’s ridiculous – she’s alright, really.

There’s no agreement on what the term ‘geek’ actually means but, as with most things, the best place to start is Urban Dictionary. Personally, I like sense 4, though I’m not entirely sure I measure up to it. The point is, most definitions agree on the concept of a person whose combination of interests and skills puts them in a minority. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is up for discussion.

The colleague in question retired this weekend, so perhaps there’s a generational issue here, but it’s odd for me to meet someone who deems that word negative. By now, we live in a society where between Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes and Youtube, being a geek has become socially acceptable, even actively encouraged. Hasn’t it?

Universities are odd places in the sense that they collect and shelter geeks. Right from the moment you apply, when your personal statement defines you in terms of passion and aptitude for your subject, being a geek of some description or other is practically an entry requirement. When you get there (and this is something I was particularly aware of in Durham), it’s sort of a badge of honour. At the very least, it helps you justify your place there during those awkward Freshers Week conversations – and nothing forges bonds more effectively than shared obsessions.

The result is that universities are often hothouses for geekish pursuits: everybody picks things up from everybody else until the symptoms are more pronounced than ever. Think of them like plague ships, or eighteenth-century asylums.

By the time graduation comes, then, you’ve broadened your horizons and enjoy a range of interests, or so you tell prospective employers. What you don’t necessarily tell them is that some of those interests might seem a little weird. Doctor Who? Sherlock? Fine – geeks are cool, if they’re a certain type. Medieval history, for example, is a harder sell. There are good and bad types of geekery, it seems, and while I wouldn’t want to theorise on where the boundary lies, I appear to have a foot in both camps.

So how do you adjust to the real world, where it’s that bit harder to be geeky? Answer: I don’t think you do. Some things you’ll learn by experience – jokes nobody will get and references no-one picks up on that will teach you to pitch to your audience. But in the end, you have to prepare for the fact that you’ll draw puzzled looks sometimes when the world discovers your quirks, and it’s better than having nothing to say and people avoiding you anyway.

My reply, by the way: “I am a geek. But so is Doctor Who, so that’s alright.” I don’t think she got it.


3 thoughts on “Geek Meets World

  1. As a self-ascription, I guess that, with geek, one is quietly doffing one’s jester’s cap, but pretty proud to be a jester; as for anyone else calling one a geek, it is not self-evidently admiring in the way that ‘the boffins’ used to be, and could still be meant in a downright critical way.

    There simply are ‘dangers’, if one chooses to use a word that has not settled to a meaning – or, equally, has had a settled meaning (I think of ‘feisty’) shifted by people hearing the word used (e.g. by The Spice Girls), and inferring what it meant.

  2. I can officially say I’m not a geek as I have no idea what “The Agent Apsley” is on about. Sarah, as someone who has “a foot in both camps,” please can you translate? Thanks 🙂

    Also, you may enjoy this wesbite. Maybe.
    It’s referring to how the term Geek is something that is, very much so, socially acceptable and how it can be used to encourage women in the the technology business. I personally think it’s a bad piece of marketing as it’s not taking the term geek away from technology… but I work in technology and wouldn’t class myself a geek… I’m far too stupid.

  3. Ruth: Agent Apsley is basically saying that by telling people you’re a geek you’re implying that you’re proud of being something that used to be seen as purely negative. When somebody else says it to you, it’s less obvious whether it’s a compliment or not. Nobody has quite decided what the word means yet, so whenever you use it you take the risk that it might mean something else to the people who hear you. I think it’s a very fair point, made worse by the fact that there’s no alternative word you can use.

    I think the Ladygeek campaign is good for its purpose- it’s trying to encourage women to be technology geeks- but it’s interesting that you’re saying they should be trying to take the ‘geek’ out of technology to appeal to women. Are you saying that ‘geek’ = ‘clever’ = ‘puts off girls who don’t think they’re clever enough’?

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