A couple of years ago, I attended a fiber festival in Indiana. Fiber festivals are gatherings of fiber artisans and generally include a lot of sheep, angora rabbits, and yarn. Even though there is a growing geek craft movement, fiber festivals are not known for attracting geeks.
So there I am, discussing some particularly lovely wool roving (the stuff yarn is made of) with a lady I'd just met, when her boyfriend walks up and joins us. After the introductions, he looks at the woman and informs her that the car is loaded with her fiber fest findings. My response to his statement was "Alliance or Horde?"
How did I know he was a World of Warcraft (WoW) player? Nothing on his person indicated it. Nothing geeky at all had come up in conversation. There was just something in the way he spoke that told me right off the bat that here was another WoW player. His speech seemed almost textual to my ears. I guessed right; though his quick assumption that I played an Alliance Night Elf was far off. The squinty look in his eyes as he summed me up told me that he was Horde. Much to his girlfriend's confusion, he was relieved to find out that I played a Troll Hunter.
What was it about that guy that was so obviously geek? Why did I not stand out as a geek? I thought perhaps it was like that Simpsons episode where Lisa learns that nerds give off a certain pheromone. Do geeks give off a geek pheromone? Is it possible for people to adopt certain speech patterns simply by spending time doing geeky things?
Well, sort of. Many people have studied geek communication, and it turns out that geeks do have certain speech patterns and conversation habits. According to blogger Philip Guo, certain verbal and nonverbal behaviors are particularly prevalent among geek-kind. Topping the list is a general failure to understand conversational turn taking and bridging gaps of silence. Guo posits that geeks often fail to correctly interpret body language. This leads them to not know when to stop or start speaking during a conversation. Awkward silences ensue.
According to speech therapist Karyn Ashburn, geeks exhibit specific speech patterns, mostly based on the geek's obsession with accuracy. During a QA session at a 1999 SciFi convention, Ashburn explained that geeks pronounce words very carefully (this is obviously a generalization, but such studies often are). Ashburn explains that geeks even pronounce punctuation, like commas, by recognizing them with verbal pauses. As for conversation skills, Ashburn admits that she originally thought a cluster of geeks was being very rude until she entered the conversation and realized that geeks have their own conversation patterns. As geeks, most of us don't realize that we are exhibiting these behaviors, though the non-geeks around us are often aware that our conversational habits differ from most.
In this way, the stereotype that geeks do not communicate well with non-geeks is fairly true. Geeks use complex terminology that many people see as overblown. Geeks use long word clusters, whereas most (even well educated) people use short sentences that include generalizations. Basically, geeks often are more comfortable communicating textually, and this preference is even evident in geek speech patterns.
Now that I think about it, that's what clued me in to that guy at the fiber festival. He didn't simply say that the car was loaded -- he told his girlfriend lady where in the vehicle each specific purchase was stowed. From her perspective, it was not important information -- she only needed to know that it was all in the car, not that the angora was in the trunk and the alpaca was in the back seat. For the geek, the information wasn't worth giving unless he gave all of the relevant information. Turns out, I was spot-on about his speech sounding textual. What I was wrong about was that I thought it sounded that way to me because I am a writer. What I realize now is that I was simply recognizing shared speech patterns with another geek.
More about geeks and communication
Nicole Bremer Nash is Director of Content and Social Media for HuTerra, where she uses SEO and social media to promote charitable organizations in their community-building and fundraising efforts. She enjoys volunteering, arts and crafts, and conducting science experiments at home. Nicole has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Transylvania University, and has experience in copywriting for education, print, business, and the web. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter via @HuTerra.