Home > Becky Jaffe, guest post, rant > Nerd catcalling

Nerd catcalling

November 6, 2014

This is a guest post by Becky Jaffe.

It has come to my attention that I am a nerd. I take this on good authority from my students, my friends, and, as of this morning, strangers in a coffee shop. I was called a nerd three times today before 10:30 am, while I was standing in line for coffee – which is to say, before I was caffeinated, and therefore utterly defenseless. I asked my accusers for suggestions on how to be less nerdy. Here was their helpful advice:


Guy in coffee shop: “Wear makeup and high heels.”

Another helpful interlocutor: “Use smaller words.”

My student, later in the day: “Care less about ideas.”

A friend: “Think less like NPR and more like C-SPAN.”

What I wish someone had said: “Is that a dictionary in your pocket or are you happy to see me?”


What I learned today is that if I want to avoid being called a nerd, I should be more like Barbie. And I don’t mean the Professor Barbie version, which – get this – does not exist. When I googled “Professor Barbie,” I got “Fashion Professor Barbie.”


So many lessons in gender conformity for one day! This nerd is taking notes.

Categories: Becky Jaffe, guest post, rant
  1. jdmarino
    November 6, 2014 at 7:28 am

    I am one with my inner nerd. (Its actually an outtie). Growing up, my father told me “You sound like a dictionary: people won’t like you.” I replied “I have a big vocabulary and I’m not afraid to use it. “


  2. Katie S
    November 6, 2014 at 7:44 am

    tiresome world! What do they know?


  3. November 6, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Wow. I was with you all the way. Shaking my head in agreement. But did not see the surprise end about gender coming.

    I have had everything you listed said to me — including, by my own children! — a lot.

    They tell me to stop being so “article.” (It’s their code for taking about “ideas.”)

    And substitute male clothing issues for makeup/high heels.

    Probably like you, I celebrate all those distinctions made. And lament that there are so many who do the opposite.

    I am sure we could discuss whether there is a gender element but that feels to me like discussing how many angels on are the head of pin.


  4. Aaron
    November 6, 2014 at 8:07 am

    Why would you want to avoid being called a nerd?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. November 6, 2014 at 8:16 am

    This also explains why this country is in the situation it is is today.


  6. Keating Willcox
    November 6, 2014 at 8:18 am

    I don’t know. I love nerds. The problem with being a nerd is that it is hard to get dates.

    Most of the guys I know love nerds as well. I think folks like to look at someone who puts a little effort into their appearance, or is at least somewhat friendly. Were I a female nerd, I would also school myself on some of the details of watching pro sports on TV, and I would speak more about sports when in the company of non-tech guys. I would also engage guys in conversation about their visions and their careers, their dreams. You can stay a nerd and be a charmer. Lastly, if there is a guy you like that doesn’t know that you exist, use social media to send him a joke or funny story. He will understand that you have sent him permission to ask you out, that you would accept the offer of a date. If you get no response, it was not to be.


  7. Dave West
    November 6, 2014 at 9:52 am

    I wish I was a nerd. I would probably have a way better choice for employment. Your work is Brilliant !!!! Thanks


  8. November 6, 2014 at 10:25 am

    When I was a kid — a long time ago in a galaxy far away — “nerds” were what we called those little bits of rubber that rubbed off our erasers when we used them. This was long before I ever heard the more recent use. My old edition of Webster says “[origin unknown] slang (1965) : an unpleasant, unattractive, or insignificant person”, which is another different nuance from current use.

    Just be glad you don’t live in Michigan, where we have a Governerd, and not in the nice way.


  9. Mat
    November 6, 2014 at 10:26 am

    Wow, the comments so far are really surprising! I feel like most are missing the mark, so that probably means that I’m wrong, but here’s my take:

    – This is a fine example of observational science, not an admission of insecurity or a cry for fashion help. Great title, btw!

    – The observation in question: Dr. Jaffe is minding her own business and trying to get caffeinated, but in the process get unsollicited criticism about her appearance and manner. Not cool!

    – Of course this is about gender. Who else gets told to put on some makeup and high heels? (Pro tip: it doesn’t have to be about gender *or* nerdiness. It can be both!)

    – Re: faking interest in sports to get dates; entire posts could be written about this, but what a limiting and boring version of attractiveness! Tiresome indeed.

    And that’s my punctuational budget for this morning gone, so I’ll leave it at that.


    • November 6, 2014 at 11:11 am

      “The observation in question: Dr. Jaffe is minding her own business and trying to get caffeinated, but in the process get unsollicited criticism about her appearance and manner. Not cool!”

      Err..the article says she asked for suggestions. That’s the opposite of “unsolicited”.

      I think its been more than a decade since I’ve heard “nerd” used as a pejorative. I imagine it depends on what your social group is like, but I think the word has evolved pretty far from “Revenge of the Nerds” days, and is usually somewhere between neutral and a compliment nowadays.


      • Mat
        November 6, 2014 at 12:33 pm

        I was right: I was wrong! I totally misread the post. Thanks Simplicio (and the other commenters) for pointing it out!


    • November 6, 2014 at 12:45 pm

      I am not sure I agree that it was about gender. Yes, the comment was clearly gender based but only because the speaker was talking to a woman. I have received and seen other males receive “gender based” comments, including hairstyle, related to nerd-dom. More broadly, though, I believe it is symptomatic of a “look” based approach. That is, you “look” the part of a nerd and can change that. Not dissimilar to the you “talk” the part of the nerd and should change your vocabulary.


    • November 6, 2014 at 1:32 pm

      Ultimately, name-calling is a way to chastise someone for being too different from the perceived norm. Although I wrote this with a sense of humor, I am actually dismayed by the life-long name-calling, the routine reminder that my interests and passions and appearance are too different to be socially acceptable. I have never quite understood what it is that I am doing or saying that earns me the epithet “nerd,” which is why I ask people to clarify what they mean when they call me that name. Most of the feedback indicates that intellectualism is generally unattractive, and especially so in a female. I did not write this to solicit advice on dating or on how to fake interest in sports, but simply to point out that I have experienced a lot of social pressure to look pretty and shut up. I’ve heard so much of this ugly feedback, I could write a beautiful dissertation on it. And for the record, if I have to be called a name, I prefer the term “bookish.”


      • November 6, 2014 at 1:40 pm

        Isn’t “nerd” just the way dumb people say “bookish” but they don’t know the word because they don’t read the things?


        • Becky Jaffe
          November 6, 2014 at 1:46 pm



  10. elaine
    November 6, 2014 at 10:41 am
  11. cat
    November 6, 2014 at 10:58 am

    “faking interest in sports to get dates”

    Why would anyone date someone they only pretend to like? This seems like a recipe for a bad relationship. If you have kids, focus on your career, or anything that doesn’t put the guy at the center of your universe will be a huge problem since the ‘we share common interests and values” was not true.

    I am painting with a broad brush, but people internalize their hobbies as being part of their personalities and their way of life.


  12. Tom
    November 6, 2014 at 11:23 am

    I’m confused — what could possibly be nerdier than C-SPAN???


    • November 6, 2014 at 11:42 am

      No, technically speaking, C-SPAN is wonky.


  13. Liz
    November 7, 2014 at 11:32 pm

    Being a girl nerd is hard! There’s pressure from people outside of nerd-dom to be more girly and less smart, but also sometimes, I find, pressure from the nerd community to be LESS girly and EXTRA smart (otherwise you get overlooked and stamped with the “barbie” label). It is kind of a lose lose situation.


  14. November 9, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    Freedom is genuinely not caring about other’s hang-ups. You go!


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