What’s the difference between a geek and a nerd, you ask? A lot.
According to some random poll from the internet that I’m going to treat as gospel truth, roughly 80% of people prefer ‘geek’ to ‘nerd’. Since these are arbitrary slang terms already, we’ll just start from there, and assume that, of the two, ‘geek’ represents the more socially acceptable of the two. And speaking of social acceptance…
1. Social Skills
We tend to use the words ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ interchangeably, but the fact is they are completely different species. Consider the following two specimens: George and Norman.
George has a few days of stubble and somewhat rumpled hair and appearance, not from apathy, but from being too wrapped up in something else. He wears a t-shirt with some pop culture reference you don’t get, but he doesn’t call attention to it or make you listen to an explanation of what it means. He doesn’t talk much about topics he doesn’t know about, but he listens, willing to be open to new experiences and knowledge. He knows how to make small talk, has a decent sense of humor, and keeps the conversation flowing. When you do get to a topic he knows about, he waxes verbose. His enthusiasm for his passion is infectious, and you understand why he likes what he likes. He’s aware that you have different interests, though, and may apologize for monopolizing the conversation. George is a geek.
Norman is wearing the same t-shirt. He asks, ‘Did you see my t-shirt?’ When you don’t get it, he explains it to you. When you don’t find it funny, he explains why it’s funny. This may require filling you in on 10 years of Lord of the Rings fan-fiction. Which he then tells you more about. He speaks in a steady monotone. He also stares. He gets really excited about whatever he’s excited about, and you have no idea why. He half-heartedly laughs at jokes he makes that only make sense to the initiated. He picks at pimples, scratches himself in inappropriate places, and does other things that most people know better than to do. When you try to change the subject, he either doesn’t talk, or tells you that he doesn’t like that thing you like, and goes back to his topic of choice. Norman is a nerd.
The line between geeks and nerds is the line between affably offbeat and potential serial killer.
You can be a geek or nerd about anything. It doesn’t have to be a traditionally geeky or nerdy interest or pastime, like Star Wars, tabletop RPGs, or, God forbid, math. If you spend hours every day comparing field goal percentages, batting averages, and yardage stats, you are a sports nerd. However, if your interest is more culturally embraced, the word ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ will often be replaced with ‘buff’ (e.g., sports buff, history buff, trivia buff). This does not mean you are not a geek or a nerd, only that society has decided to forgive you.
Where geeks and nerds may vary on interests is input vs. output. Geeks often focus on more output-oriented interests: math, computer programming, writing, filmmaking. Nerds spend more time taking in material that has already been made: Star Trek, D&D, video games, fan fiction. It’s the difference between making and taking. The way geeks and nerds relate to their interests feeds into the second difference.
Everyone likes to be the best at something, at least within one’s social circle. Guitar Guy, Computer Guy, Car Guy, Funny Guy, Food Guy…everyone wants to be a That Guy. Geeks and nerds are no exception.
Geeks get some (but not all) of their identity from being the best at what they do. They’re the ones you turn to when your computer breaks down or you need a paper proofread. They’re chessmasters and math savants. They welcome strong competition in their field because it keeps their skills sharp and keeps them learning.
Nerds get all or most of their identity from knowing the most about what they know. They’re the ones you flee in terror when you hear them talking about the audio commentary they just listened to, or see them starting a game of Doctor Who Trivial Pursuit. They enjoy weak competition that they can use to show their superior abilities, but they are threatened by anyone who knows as much as they do. As nerd pursuits are more passive, they require less work than more active geek pursuits, so it’s more crucial that nerds be the uncontested expert in the field. They’ll steal someone else’s thunder, race a joketeller to the punch line, and butt in with their own trivia that’s way better than that other guy’s.
Most people have a line, a line where they say, ‘This far shall I go, but no further.’
Most people. But not all.
Geeks and nerds will both go farther than the cultural norm when showing their appreciation for the things they love. But geeks still have a line. Nerds…
Let me put it this way. A geek goes to a Firefly convention dressed as Jayne.
A nerd goes to a Firefly convention dressed as Jayne’s hat.