This is the second in a short series exploring workplace myths. Having started my career as a computer programmer, this one is close to my heart and I use the term geek affectionately. IT departments are, of course, Geek HQ, but similar stereotypes apply to other specialists. For example, how can you spot an outgoing auditor? They look at your shoes when they’re talking to you. So if you’re a bit of a geek, or you work with them, here’s an exploration of some of the stereotypes and misconceptions that lie behind this workplace myth.
1. All geeks are introverts
This just isn’t true. For starters, introversion/extroversion isn’t an either/or, it’s a continuum*. Most people are somewhere in the middle. It’s true that technical specialisms, which require a depth of concentration, tend to attract people who are more introverted. But that doesn’t mean all geeks are introverted and certainly not that they’re all extremely introverted.
*Despite it being a continuum, I’m now going to refer to introverts and extroverts, just because it’s easier.
2. All introverts are shy
Some introverts are shy. So are some extroverts. The key difference is that introverts like quiet while extroverts crave stimulation. I’ve met some very socially confident introverts who are perfectly happy interacting with people, they just sometimes choose not to. Extroverts often mistakenly assume that if introverts just came out of their shell a bit, they’d see how much fun it is to be outgoing. Actually, many introverts are quite content where they are, but have to function in a world geared around extroverts.
Introverts often prefer to have a smaller number of close relationships rather than loads of acquaintances. If you’re a geek trying to build a professional network, you’re likely to be better off arranging to meet people on a one-to-one basis, than trying to work the room at those big events where you have to talk to loads of strangers while juggling a plate of canapes. Research suggests this strategy may actually be more successful – quality not quantity counts.
3. Extroverts are naturally more socially skilled
No one is born socially skilled. We all have to learn to get on with others. Because of their desire for more social contact, extroverts get more practice. But it doesn’t automatically follow that they’re better at it. As an extrovert, I know I’ve been guilty of all of the following:
Saying something out loud that really should have stayed inside my head
Talking over the end of someone’s sentence
Taking up too much air time
Mindlessly chattering in a place where people were trying to concentrate
Perhaps it’s not surprising that research suggests extroverts have slightly more difficult relationships with colleagues than introverts. Rather than introverts needing to become more like extroverts, there’s a lot that extroverts can learn from introverts. Take a look at Susan Cain’s work on the power of introverts for a different perspective.
4. Geeks only talk ‘Geek Speak’
Most jobs have some level of jargon – just look at how complicated it is to buy a coffee these days. But inevitably, specialist jobs have more of it and it’s more complex. While it’s entirely appropriate to talk to other geeks in the same language, it is important to learn how to translate it for the non-specialist. Some people are brilliant at this. For those that aren’t, it’s often a problem of being so immersed in a way of thinking that it’s hard to see it from the outside.
Here’s a useful checklist – whether you’re a specialist trying to explain something or a non-specialist trying to understand them:
Is the context clear? Do we both know what this is about?
Is there a concept to be explained here and if so, how clear is it? Analogies and diagrams often help.
How much jargon has been used and do we both understand it?
Is this the appropriate level of detail? Err on the side of too little; specialists have a tendency to go too far.
Incidentally, the place where communication is often hardest is with someone who knows a bit about it, e.g. a generalist accountant talking to a tax expert. There’s some shared jargon and it’s much easier to make (wrong) assumptions about how much someone knows, so take particular care here.
There are, sadly, some geeks who can’t be bothered to explain things clearly. It makes them feel smart to know stuff other people don’t understand and they don’t want to give that away. I’d say that strategy will backfire. As well as seeming unhelpful, people may assume that the geek is not capable distilling complex ideas into straightforward language. They could end up appearing less smart, not more.
5. They might ‘on the spectrum’
In the last decade or so, we’ve all become much more aware of autism. With that awareness has come whispered asides – “I reckon he’s on the spectrum”. It is likely that fields like IT and accountancy, with their emphasis on logic and order, will have a higher proportion of high functioning autistic people than average and they are likely to find social interaction a challenge. But they’re still likely to be a minority. I’m wary of amateur diagnosis. On the one hand, it seems to introduce a little more tolerance – “Oh that’s why they’re a bit odd; I’ll make allowances”. On the other hand, it creates distance, making the other person seem alien, someone with whom you can’t have a normal working relationship. I hope we get to a point where we value the many varied ways the human brain can be wired and adapt to work with people who see the world differently. But we’re not there yet, so I’d just say be wary of sticking labels on people. If you do need sound information about autism at work, the Autistic Society is a good place to start.
So there you go – a few geeks may have real challenges with their social skills; many don’t. For those introverted types who lack confidence in their social skills, things may not be as bad as you think (I really do recommend Susan Cain’s book – most introverts love a good book). And for those of us who are naturally more outgoing, it may be worth reflecting on the fact that, sometimes, we’re the problem. We can all improve our social skills. If you’d like some support to reflect on the way you relate to others, I’m just a click away: firstname.lastname@example.org