A Geek Guide to Small-Talk Parameter Adjustments

Evan Dorkin, Eltingville Club

Talking hobbies amongst friends is cool. Sharing them with Grandma is generous of you, but will frighten and confuse her. (Pictured: “Eltingville Club” art from Evan Dorkin’s Dork #6.)

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover, I struggled to convey why I’ve recused myself from the tens of thousands of online symposia on the unsolved mystery of “What’s the difference between a geek and a nerd?” In defining my terms, I contrasted “geek” with “ordinary” in a brief, simplistic fashion:

From my own day-to-day standpoint, it’s as simple as this: if I talk about a given subject at either church, work, or family gatherings and receive nothing but blank stares or furrowed brows in return, those are the ordinary people. In those settings, I know that my version of “small talk” would wander too far past the geek boundary and I keep my mouth shut, except about the weather or whatever subjects they bring up first.

All of this sets aside the fact that I do embrace ordinary aspects about myself and my life as well, as longtime MCC readers should recognize by now, considering the number of past entries that were overtly not about geek-relevant topics, but were usually (hopefully?) informed in subtle ways by my interests and skill sets. (Tomorrow night’s entry will be one of those, in fact, 100% guaranteed.) Suffice it to say I’m not mocking anyone who’s 100% ordinary/0% geek — merely observing there are pronounced differences when those percentages fluctuate.

As someone who’s well aware and consistently disappointed that not everyone shares his passions, I try to minimize how much I alienate any surrounding humans by using a mental scorecard to track which acquaintances can handle which levels of geek conversation. If I’m invited to see a movie with other relatives, I know better than to bore them with a list of all the other films I’ve seen by the same director. Obviously one does not simply sit down at a quarterly company meeting and ask everyone who their favorite member of the Great Lakes Avengers is. And I’ve yet to participate in a Bible study wherein the other fellows argue over which female Robin was better, Carrie Kelley or Stephanie Brown.

At my age, and with the settings I’m routinely required to live in and through, discernment and discretion are keys to living peacefully without baffling everyone I know. Hence the scorecard.

If we use a friendly chat about, say, Iron Man 3 as our guinea pig to discern geek levels, the ranks work roughly like this:

LEVEL ZERO: They’re aware Hollywood still makes movies, but don’t keep up and may not even pay attention to TV ads. The last film they saw was either made-for-TV, something old that they’ve seen a dozen times, or Fireproof. You might be shocked what a large percentage this group comprises.

BASIC LEVEL: They’re aware of Iron Man thanks to the movies. They recognize the lead actors from other movies. They know I’m a fan of super-hero movies. They may even have sat through one or two of the most popular ones when they weren’t busy working, drinking, or watching sports.

INTERMEDIATE LEVEL: They knew Iron Man before the movies. They may have owned actual comic books when they were young. They may have faintly recognized Guy Pearce and struggled to remember where they’d seen him before. If they didn’t blink, they probably caught Stan Lee’s cameo as a beauty pageant judge. Maybe a select few folks from my surroundings live at this level.

ADVANCED LEVEL: They can name famous Iron Man stories from the comics (e.g., “Demon in a Bottle”, “Armor Wars”, “Extremis”). They can name at least two other films written by Shane Black. They recognize William Sadler from other movies such as Die Hard 2 or Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. They approve of Happy Hogan’s adoration for Downton Abbey as he watched a Season 2 rerun while recuperating. For extra credit they recognize the faces of Miguel Ferrer as the VP or busy character actor Spencer Garrett as the Rose Hill sheriff. At this level are my wife, two guys at church, and several folks I’ve known online over the past decade-plus, many of whom I’ve met in person at conventions, just because we clicked like that.

LEVEL OMEGA: They’ve written a novella-length treatise dissecting the numerous instances in which IM3 fails at basic film-school levels, and will also happily share their list of twenty French New-Wave films you should go track down instead for your own good. And don’t even get them started on the psychological implications of Tony Stark’s need to externalize his ego in the form of impregnable facades that require continuous upgrading. These commentators are the finely honed superhumans who routinely surpass me online and make me look frivolous and/or mentally stunted. Bravo for them, in all sincerity. In their presence I nod silently while sending myself to go stand in the corner with a dunce cap covered in stick-figure doodles.

Long list short: I do try to be mindful of my immediate audience so I can set my topical boundaries and approach accordingly. Bear in mind, the point of this scale is not for the detestable practice of “geek gatekeeping”. It’s to keep myself in check and avoid wasting other people’s time and patience, not to shame other people for falling short of exclusionary, addlepated ideals.

(That being said, encountering such folks higher up the scale in offline settings is always a tremendous, too-rare pleasure. The convention scene, like the Internet, is wondrous that way.)


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