A salt and pepper shaker set with arms embracing each other

When Geeks Have Empathy Problems

This is a guest post by Addie. Addie is a software engineer specializing in web applications in the Portland, OR area. She’s actively involved in the Portland tech community, including the local women-in-tech group Code N Splode.

This post originally appeared on her blog.

Over the past few days, I’ve been tipped off to an incident on the Planet Mozilla blog, an aggregator of the personal blogs of Mozilla community members. Mozillans can choose which entries make the feed and which don’t, but non-work-related content is part of the point, to reveal an insight into the actual people driving the process. This makes sense in theory, but I get that it’s a situation waiting for a bit of a “turd in the punchbowl” moment.

And so it goes. The Mozillans that I know are LGBTQ-identified. And I agree with them that a post in this aggregator, voicing opposition to the rights of LGBTQ folk to marry, is hate speech, even if that’s a more severe term than we’re used to hearing in a media climate that insists on giving airtime to “both sides of the argument” under the guise of impartiality, even if one side’s view is odious. In a couple of decades the majority of the population is going to look back on the gay marriage discussion and see opposition to it as unequivocal hate speech, not unlike the majority of us do for those who oppose interracial marriage these days. In the future I have no doubt that people who are defending the folks who are making these statements are going to feel sorry for doing so. But in the meantime they’re making fools of themselves.

I’ve seen enough of these discussions play out on the Internet, given that some guy does something wildly inappropriate at a technical conference (post sexualized content, talk in terms that make female attendees feel marginalized and invisible, sexually assault a fellow attendee, etc.) about once a month. I feel like Geek Feminism doesn’t even keep a comprehensive list of all these “incidents” anymore because they’ve become so common. The nice thing is that a lot of guys are noticing this trend too and getting equally sick of it; regardless, in almost every incident, the predictable surge of geeky individuals steps up and defends the offender in what they think are extremely logical, clever and original terms.

A clear pattern has emerged, and I feel compelled to summarize it briefly instead of ranting about it loudly to my housemate (a form of preaching to the choir that she’s kind of sick of at this point, too.)

Here goes: geeks, technical people, programmers, engineers, etc. – are highly logical individuals, and it’s totally normal to start thinking about ourselves in terms of logical systems, because the way we interact with the world on a daily basis is distinctly different from the rest of the population. I, too, often encounter communities or aspects of pop culture that are totally foreign to me as a result of my logical orientation, although I think this is an experience that isn’t unique to geeky folks; everybody runs into individuals that they just don’t “get”. But here’s the thing a lot of geeky people seem to forget as they bond more and more tightly to their identity as logical individuals: geeks are still, first and foremost, human, and as a result, will still experience human emotions on a regular basis, even if they’re interpreted through a logical filter. In my experience, geeky folks have just as many emotional responses as a non-geeky individual in any given circumstance, but the geeky folks are a lot more likely to be totally clueless about the fact that it’s actually a human emotion that’s driving what seems to them like a highly logical argument.

If someone posts something odious to a news aggregator – that makes people in marginalized groups feel hurt, unsafe, threatened, etc. (note that I omit the word “offense” – it’s abused too often to retain any useful meaning in these discussions) – and you have never been in a marginalized group, or cared deeply for someone in a marginalized group, or felt unsafe at work – then I totally understand why you’re more likely to want to defend the person saying the odious stuff. It’s called empathy. And what you’re doing when you’re defending that person is actually an act of empathy: you realize you’re far more likely to accidentally say something hurtful on a news aggregator (or other public forum) than you are to be the target of that sort of language, and if you were ever to do that, you’d want guys like yourself to be able to understand your perspective. You know what? That’s a totally reasonable, and utterly human, response, and nobody’s going to judge you for that. But it’s also completely inappropriate to share in a larger space and frame as a logical argument. It’s not. It’s empathy polluting a comment feed and for people who are used to seeing this play out over and over, that “original” argument is tired and frankly embarrassing.

Geeks who make these empathic arguments and think they’re contributing something new to the discussion look really, really foolish to those of us who get it. I’d feel sorry for them if they weren’t making me so angry by actively hurting people I care about (and often me, as a female programmer – in the case of “incidents” at tech conferences.)

Let me give an example from my own life. Over the past year I have done some really silly things that have revealed my socioeconomic, white, straight, and cissexual privilege. I have even said some things that have revealed my privilege as a person who has not suffered from domestic abuse. Since certain things aren’t in my range of experiences, it’s totally reasonable for me to be ignorant and occasionally make mistakes. But I do see it as my responsibility to learn from those mistakes when they’re pointed out, and do my best not to make them again. I have no doubt that I’m probably still doing stuff like that all the time, but that the people who I’m accidentally hurting by saying those things just don’t feel comfortable pointing it out. I know this because I can empathize with parallel situations where people have done this to me, in parts of my life where I am not so privileged.

If I did one of these things in a public forum – like on a blog, or at a conference – and it became a subject for public discussion – I, too, would have the impulse that a lot of people in these situations do, which is to defend my inherent goodness as a person. Because my emotional response when being told that I’ve messed up – by, or in front of, individuals that I’d like to think highly of me – is to try to convince them to keep thinking highly of me. Denial and defensiveness is a pretty instinctive first response. But I really try to move past that, and swallow the discomfort and shame I’m feeling, and do the right thing, which is to acknowledge the hurt I’ve caused. And honestly? A sincere acknowledgement – and taking the simple steps to amend the wrong – kills the controversy almost immediately. Unfortunately, when that happens, it doesn’t cause nearly as much attention as the trainwreck that occurs when people give in to their impulses instead and dig in their heels. Then people flock to the trainwreck, respond with empathy, don’t realize they’re responding with empathy, and the disaster grows. It’s a headache, but like most individuals sucked into these situations, I nonetheless can’t look away.

Honestly, it’s encouraging to see that geeky individuals feel such strong amounts of empathy and compassion. What saddens me is how many of them have no clue that they feel such emotions – all the time! What a great capacity for positive change and collaboration we’re completely misusing. Emotions can be incredibly powerful in tandem with logical thinking, when used mindfully.

That said, as a person who has felt some degree of threat (i.e. stereotype threat) at the workplace as a default status, but has also felt legitimately unsafe in rare contexts, it’s completely unacceptable to defend an individual who is making members of a community feel unsafe and unwelcome in that community. This is my empathy speaking up here: as a person who has felt unsafe in the workplace and in communities, I am well aware of the intense pain that these defenses are causing. It is so much worse, and so much more debilitating, than the discomfort of brief embarrassment or shame from making a mistake. Please, stop. This sort of pain keeps brilliant, capable people from doing their jobs. And if you really care about the strength of a community on its technical merits, you’ll want everybody to feel safe and welcome above all else, even if it means coping with the discomfort of feeling chagrined once in awhile.

34 thoughts on “When Geeks Have Empathy Problems

    1. Ms. Sunlight

      I’m sorry, but having followed the link and read the blog post that triggered the above article, I really don’t understand how one begat the other.

      Was the original posting on Planet Mozilla (asking people to support a campaign against marriage equality in the UK) inappropriate for that kind of feed? Probably. Was the discussion that ensued less than clueful, and at times hateful? Definitely.

      I just don’t get what that has to do with being, or thinking of oneself as, a “logical” person. How is it any different from any other form of privileged obliviousness? I certainly don’t think there’s anything inherent in being a geek that makes one particularly logically oriented (although the author may well be).

      1. tiferet

        What it has to do with being a “logical” person is the part where people don’t realise that they are not being logical about the situation when they take the part of the offender, because they aren’t emotionally self-aware and they also don’t want to be aware that/admit that they’re seeing themselves in the same situation. As someone who is not particularly emotionally self-aware (to the point where I’ve actually had to have other people tell me that I was completely freaked out and had probably been triggered–and they were right) I recognise this impulse (and past misbehaviour) all too well.

      2. Restructure!

        For many STEM geeks, our geek identity is linked to the idea that what sets us apart from non-geeks is that we are more logical. Non-geeks accuse us of having less empathy, and some of us agree, because we don’t always understand social situations and non-verbal communication, yet we understand things that don’t require empathic understanding, such as computers and systems.

        When geeks in the majority group identify with others in the majority group, they think that their position must be based on logic, since geeks purportedly lack empathy. However, this is wrong. Geeks have empathy too, but many of us who identify as being logical simply do not have the emotional awareness to recognize that we are acting on empathy.

        1. kevix

          “What saddens me is how many of them have no clue that they feel such emotions – all the time! ” — this I would take issue with. From my aspie observtiions(being that aspies are certainly part of geekdom), some aspies are not self-aware and it might take a lot of work to become aware. So its not like we are just purposefully not being aware. My theory about this suggests an issue with modifying certain aspects of cognition that are impaired like being aware of acting sexist or considering this before speaking that require more reinforcement then typical people.

  1. Name *Debbie Notkin

    I get your point about how the empathic defense can hurt people, and I get your point about the ensuing trainwreck. I’ve seen both.

    What I don’t get (and I’m seeing this more and more) is why anyone thinks this pattern is about, or limited to, or more common in, or relates to people being geeks.

    I see this behavior in my workplace, which has some geeks but is not a tech company. I see it on the street. I see it in the halls of power of the Republican party.

    I don’t see it as geek specific.

    1. Addie

      It’s definitely not common to geeks for sure! I see it in other discussion spaces all the time, where the people participating in the discussion may or may not identify as geeky.

      I’m tethering on logic because it’s presented to us on many occasions as the opposite of an emotional response. And once these two are presented as opposites, logic is presented as superior and “masculine” and emotion is presented as inferior, unreliable, and “feminine”. When we’ve been given these cues our whole lives I think it’s pretty easy to take pride in the logical side and shut the emotional side out. I don’t think this exclusive to geeks, but our logical skills are prized as part of the work we do, while in contrast emotional skills can sometimes be treated with distrust and outright hostility (in my experience). So I think it can be especially pronounced for us in terms of how we form our identities, experience our geek culture, and think about the world.

      The key in this case is that I, too, identify as geeky, so I’m able to empathize with where these arguments are coming from, and identify where the breakage is happening. I don’t think I can say the same thing for other contexts, where I might be out of my familiar climate. As a person who straddles the line between being highly logical and also very in touch with my emotions, I’m honestly really tired of having conversations that go nowhere because the people I’m talking to will only engage with one of those sides, under the false belief that they can’t mindfully co-exist.

      1. Jayn

        I have a major problem with the empathy/emotion dichtomy (beyond the obvious)–I see emotion as being logical. Our emotions are a response to our experiences, our ideals, our opinions, and our values. Which I think is one of the reasons why any sort of hand-waving in these circumstances just fuel the fire–when you play something off as being ‘just emotions’, you’re ignoring all the REASONS that people feels the emotions we do. Sometimes, we’re not always completely aware of the underlying reasons for why we feel what we feel, but there is always a logic of some sort behind the emotional response.

        You want to be logical? Fine. That doesn’t mean ignoring emotions, it means examining them. Emotion is not the opposite of logic, but a form of it.

        1. tiferet

          While the idea that being logical requires one to ignore one’s emotions is false, it’s still prevalent in our culture (whether you are getting it from the misogynistic divide between head and heart, or from Star Trek and the Vulcans). Many geeks do pride themselves on being logical, by which they mean having the ability to override their emotions and do or say what they believe to be the purely logical emotionless thing, even though they’re wrong and usually the emotions get the better of them in some worse way than they would if they’d been acknowledged.

          So the idea is false, but the damage it does in our culture is very real–like all the other false ideas we’ve grown up with about things like race and gender.

          I do differ with the idea that emotion is a form of logic. Emotion comes from a different part of the brain than logical reasoning and serves different purposes. Sometimes emotional impulses are rational when examined, but often they’re not. I feel and think that emotion is data, which a rational person should never ignore (but I’m trying to unlearn that behaviour, because I didn’t always understand this!)

          For instance, if I feel afraid when a person I don’t know well comes into my presence, there’s almost certainly a reason–but is it because they’re actually behaving in a manner that is likely to indicate they might be violent, or because they are non-neurotypical and their body language is nonstandard? Obviously in a situation with a stranger where I might be in immediate physical danger, I get out of there; but if this is a person I’m expected to interact with (say, at work) I need to examine the situation and find out more, like, is this individual obviously socially challenged or is this individual laughing at rape jokes?

          Or to use another example, I have a lot of angry feelings (probably more than most people do, honestly) but sometimes when I’m angry, it’s because someone has actually hurt me, and sometimes when I’m angry, it’s because I feel thwarted or discounted and the person who inspired the emotion hasn’t done or said anything wrong at all–they’re just between me and something I want/need, or they just happened to say/do something that reminded me of something that happened when I was a kid.

    2. Restructure!

      Stereotypically, upper/middle-class white cis-male het geeks in STEM fields have pretty ignorant views about people who are less privileged. As a female geek in STEM, I think sexism in the STEM geek culture is worse than sexism in mainstream culture, when controlled for class. (For example, upper/middle-class artsy people tend to value empathy and understanding the perspectives of other people as a marker of sophistication, but upper/middle-class STEM geeks see empathy as touchy-feely crap in the “emotional manipulation” category, and as a marker of being less intelligent.)

      What is surprising to me, and what I learned from this post, is that STEM geeks in majority groups are not like that because they/we have less empathy, but because they/we empathize with people who are like us.

  2. Lindsey Kuper

    What do you think it means to be a “highly logical individual”? (Good at solving logic puzzles on the LSAT?)

    As an aside, isn’t it interesting that logic, as a field of philosophical study, was originally developed partly as an attempt to understand human nature? (It wasn’t a very successful attempt.)

    1. Addie

      Lindsay, a few things that come to mind for me beyond aptitude for logically-oriented activities (logic puzzles like you mentioned, discrete math, programming, etc.):

      1. Thinking of non-technical concepts in technical terms (viewing day-to-day activities in terms of systems, for instance)
      2. Seeing effective communication as a matter of the most superior, logically sound argument
      3. Thinking that does not engage the emotions (as mentioned above) or otherwise “unreliable” data

      Those are the few that come to mind for me because they often come up in my life, but I’m sure there are more; the issue I’m trying to present is the case of 3), and the idea that if you’re good at logic you’re also good at properly identifying and responding to unreliable data. (I actually think emotions provide very useful data – that’s part of their purpose! But ignoring and / or mislabeling them creates problems.)

  3. AMM

    I also don’t see that this dynamic is any different from what goes on in non-geek spaces.

    In the USA, at least, there’s a pretty universal assumption that white males, especially educated het white males, are “logical,” and that their thinking, including their support of their own privilege, arises from reason and not emotion, while other groups’ thinking, to the extent that it disagrees with that of the educated, etc., is illogical and driven by emotion. Basically, “logical” is effectively defined as “what educated white het males think.”

    The main thing that seems to be different in geek spaces is that the white males there are used to thinking of themselves as less privileged, and so they are more offended by being accused of acting like privileged people.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

    1. Addie

      I think that’s a fair extension of the concept: it doesn’t need to be limited to the geek space, but as the male-dominated environment I’m most affiliated with, it’s certainly the most familiar to me (and as a result is the area where this behavior hurts me the most as well).

    2. Tim Chevalier

      Perhaps I’m being cynical, but is there a reason to point out that this attitude isn’t confined to geek spaces, other than deflecting attention away from criticism of one’s own community?

      As Addie pointed out, while geeks did not invent oppression or derailing, there are a number of aggravating factors that make it frustrating for geeky minority group members to interact with geeky majority group members: for example, the valorization of “logic” and incorrect use of it to frame majority-group members’ emotions as rational and objective, while dismissing minority-group members’ emotions as irrational and subjective.

      1. Ms. Sunlight

        I don’t think that pointing out that this is a wider problem in society is derailing, at least so long as it’s not pointed out in a way that belittles an individual’s experiences in a geek setting or attempts to silence. I think it’s important to point out that geeks are not special little snowflakes and that we have the same problems as society at large. We don’t always need special geek solutions.

        1. tiferet

          I don’t think anyone’s saying that geeks are special snowflakes.

          Just that geeks are more likely to screw up in this particular manner because we tend to be more alienated from our own emotions, less comfortable talking about emotions and thinking about emotions, more likely to subscribe to the idea that ignoring emotion is a logical thing to do, and so on.

          There’s a difference between putting geekiness on a pedestal and treating it as a quality that makes us special and superior and more oppressed than, and acknowledging the very basic fact that people who self-identify as geeks or spend a lot of time in “geek culture” doing “geeky” things for fun and profit tend to have a lot of specific traits in common, which is why they identify that way and seek out each other’s company.

      2. Addie

        Tim, thanks for this comment – while the points about the larger argument being applicable to privileged but non-geeky spaces as well are fair, you’ve captured the motivation for the original rant pretty coherently, i.e. “I’m so tired of seeing these same patterns emerging in every non-productive conversation with my peers,” and I do think that more narrowed focus serves a purpose.

    3. Restructure!

      I think this dynamic is different, because identifying as a geek (in STEM) often means that one thinks that one is not acting on empathy. There is a stereotype that geeks have less empathy, and STEM geeks somewhat believe this as well.

  4. Apple Cider Mage

    I think a lot of people try to rest way too easily on their logical laurels in spite of their emotional responses, which leads them to believe their thinking is rational and right, even in the face of passionate, emotional, messy social justice issues. It’s a lot of what you see in the athiest/skeptics communities when confronted by things like sexism – you have people who are emotionally affected by sexism and people who OUGHT to be examining their sexism/privilege but aren’t, despite being so rational and skeptical.

    I think you touch on that, but it definitely happens elsewhere. Geek communities just use the facade of being “above” emotions to oftentimes and very sexistly undercut women as emotional and irrational, hysterical, as if there’s a spectrum of being right and the only right side has to be devoid of feelings and compassion.

    That’s not to mention the fact that not all geeks are logical/technical thinkers. A lot of us are creatives, and therefore live in the world of emotions 24-7. ;)

  5. Claire

    I agree with Apple Cider Mage.

    My partner is a huge geek and creative, so logic doesn’t really come into play all too often. However, I think most geeky folks lean more towards logic than an overwhelming amount of emotion and feelings. In my opinion. :)

  6. Russell Coker

    I can’t imagine why it’s encouraging to see people demonstrate empathy only for people like them. Empathy with people who are like you is easy and it’s very much a matter of direct self interest.

    It seems to be a fairly common situation for members of the majority group to only have empathy for others like them and to also criticise members of minority groups for supposedly not understanding them – even when members of minority groups understand but disagree.

    I also disagree with the whole “geeky” focus of this post. There is quite a range of geekyness in the various geek communities (such as the FOSS community that I’m most familiar with). I have not observed any trend of the more geeky guys being less sympathetic to minority groups than the less geeky guys.

  7. AMM

    Addie — I don’t want to be derailing, but I’m still not clear about how the way in which you are saying that the communities you’re thinking of are clueless and defensive (or however one would describe it) differs from the way other communities that I am familiar with are clueless and defensive.

    The thing about being more “logical” I have a hard time taking seriously, because in my experience, STEM folk, at least, are no more rational about stuff than anyone else, even about the technical subjects they are experts in. Viz.: the frequent “holy wars” in computer programming.

    What I have noticed among many STEM and geek-interest people is a tendency to want to frame everything in terms of explicit, unambiguous rules (my sons’ fondness for Magic the Gathering comes to mind) and to wish away or ignore anything that can’t be easily fit into a schema of rules. (Especially, rules they like.)

    FWIW, my own take on this fondness for rules is that it’s a way of not dealing with the pain of being human, much the way intellectualization is used, or rigid orthodoxies (religious or otherwise.) (Of course, maybe my urge to “understand” is my own way of not dealing with the pain of being human.)

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

    1. S.P.Zeidler

      but that’s exactly it, isn’t it?
      Geeks tending to claim to be “above” such things as emotional arguments when they really aren’t.

    2. Addie

      Late reply, but, my simplest answer: (anecdotally), programmers start thinking of themselves in terms of systems, or computers – which then can lead to some robotic thinking.

      It’s not that other geekdoms or privileged areas aren’t susceptible to similar traps, but I think we’re uniquely suited to think of ourselves as more robotic than we really are when we spend so much time buried in our code.

  8. AMM

    Another thing that I noticed in the Mozilla thread, but have also seen plenty of other places:

    I sometimes see people dealing with the real world as if they were really in some alternate reality that they find easier to understand or is in some way more gratifying to them, but which differs from the planet _I_ live on in some essential way that completely invalidates their argument or proposal. They make assertions which make me wonder when was the last time they looked at something besides their computer monitor (or D&D book.)

    I remember first noticing this when certain Sci-Fi authors talk about the real world (especially politics.) They make assertions and proposals that just don’t make any sense in the world that I have lived in all my life, but would make sense in the world of one of his novels or short stories. Heinlein was a big offender in this regard, as was John Campbell. In particular, Heinlein’s women seem more like fantasy objects than like any women I know in real life.

    I always figured it was because they spent so much time in imaginary (often wish-fulfillment) worlds that they were no longer quite clear as to which world was real and which was imaginary.

    1. tiferet

      As someone who grew up on and to some degree got screwed up by Heinlein and Roddenberry, I’d have to say that they and their fans are pretty aware that their ideal world isn’t the real world. Heinlein in particular was aware that the world was messed up for women, and that the sexual dynamics of his era were screwed up as a result of it, but because of his race/gender/sexuality/class privilege, the solutions he proposed only make sense to other people who share some or all of his privilege and are actually pretty unworkable. Personally, I do give these writers and their fans a certain amount of credit for at least realising that the world as it is and was then is not okay and NOT deciding that the way to fix it was to turn back the clock on social justice and go back to what they think the mores of the Victorians were. (Which doesn’t mean I can stand their libertarianism and NiceGuyness.)

      Whether their awareness that problems exist makes them more teachable, or their assurance that Military Heinlein or Sexy Heinlein or Class Is The Only Oppression Shetterly has got The Solution makes them less teachable, depends on the individual. But that doesn’t make them any more removed from reality than the people who know the world is messed up, yet think that Ron Paul or Republican Jesus have all the answers; it just means that their proposed utopias come with cooler hardware and oppress non-cismales and non-heterosexuals in different ways.

  9. Sir_Godspeed

    I can’t help but feel that “nerdy, “geeky”, etc. as a social label has long since outlived its usefulness. It’s used so frequently and in so many different situations and with so many different qualifiers that I honestly feel it has lost all meaning. I’ve always been into literature, fantasy and gaming, as well as having spent a whole lot of time studying history and anthropology on my own before I attended University (where I’m currently studying social anthropology), as well as following documentaries with great enthusiasm from when I was a kid. I’m just listing these “qualifiers” that has more or less made feel what could be called “geeky”.

    Yet on the other hand, I’ve never been good with math, only about average with logical puzzles, and I am a somewhat emotional person (I have a soft spot for melancholic music, for one reason or other), I’ve also done amateur stand-up and comedic revues, and my personal humour preference contains a lot of nonsesical humour.

    My point here is merely that “geeky” seems to have expanded from being a term applied (along with “nerdy” a term with which it is very often associated) to people with poor social skills, highly consuming interests in very narrow fields and little style-awareness (meaning more or less that one doesn’t really care about one’s appearances – not necessarily that one dresses poorly.)

    Are these really the current qualifiers? It seems more to me that the current qualifiers seem to be “liking MarioKart a lot” or “knowing a lot of pop-culture references”. It just really feels like an utterly empty term.

    ————————————-

    Please don’t assume this is an attack, however, since aside from that, I agree with pretty much everything.

    There are certain things, that I as an ethnically-dominant (I’m trying to translate the American use of the term “white” into a more international jargon, since the same race dynamic doesn’t really apply where I’m from) heterosexual male don’t really GET. And in these cases maybe it’s better for me to shut up and listen instead. I think that’s a good idea; opinions are like assholes. We’ve all got them. But when judging the use of the N-word, for example, one would assume an African-American’s opinion to be more relevant than mine. (being neither black nor natively English-speaking).

    The other is that we all have that defence instinct where we try to change the meaning of our original (arguably stupid) statement when someone calls us out on it, instead of perhaps admitting that it may have been out of line. I’m always impressed when people do this, and they earn a big star in my book (for what it’s worth) – and it’s definitively somethin I could get better at, personally.

    I do, however, strongly feel that these definitively aren’t restricted to “geeks” (who you make sound almost like some kind of Star Trek Vulcan-esque Enclave :P ), but are pretty much common for all of us.

    1. Addie

      I totally agree with you that “geek” and “nerd” have become incredibly ambiguous terms, especially as taking them on as part of one’s identity has gained social relevance! However, in the context of the original post, it should be obvious that the scope is a bit narrower (programmers / technical folks, in mostly-professional environments).

  10. Russell Coker

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexithymia

    It seems to me that a general trend in the comments is towards symptoms of Alexithymia among geeks. People who have some degree of Alexithymia will be attracted to employment and recreation choices which involve less people contact and problems that can be solved logically – IE geeky jobs and hobbies. The comments about Vulcans and robots are particularly telling, among the Autism community they are often used as slang terms for people who show signs of Asperger Syndrome.

    There are some online Alexithymia quizzes which will interest some people.

    I think that anyone who would describe themself as “very in touch with my emotions” is going to have some difficulty in understanding anyone who describes themself as a Vulcan.

    I’ve been restraining myself from mentioning Alexithymia or Asperger Syndrome for the past 9 days because I don’t want to derail the discussion. But it seems that the discussion keeps circling those issues so we may as well talk about them directly.

    Finally please note that I’m not claiming that the undesirable patterns in online debates that we are discussing are due to Alexithymia or Asperger Syndrome. But it seems impossible to have a useful discussion about geeks, emotions, empathy, etc without addressing Alexithymia and Autism.

    In terms of the original issue, we have to keep in mind the difference between Sympathy and Empathy. It can be really difficult to determine if someone doesn’t understand your position or if they just don’t care about you.

    1. kevix

      I too was shy-ing away from what I would agree might be alexithymia–that state of not quite knowing what you ‘feel’ but might know that you are ‘upset’ or ‘angry’ and not any more fine-grained than that.

  11. F.C.

    This bit makes me really uncomfortable: “What saddens me is how many of them have no clue that they feel such emotions – all the time! What a great capacity for positive change and collaboration we’re completely misusing.”

    Alexithymia has been mentioned so I won’t repeat that.

    It should not be assumed though that the people referred to “have no clue” about their emotions. Some people have a very good clue about it but the emotions may be overwhelming in a way where it is difficult to process and/or cope. It is also difficult for people who do not experience this to understand what it is like, and a lack of such understanding leads to labels/statements like ‘no empathy’ and ‘has no clue they feel emotion’.

    We need to be more understanding, compassionate and tolerant and not
    categorise these people and their perceived lack of action (in the way the
    author desires) as contributing to ‘misused opportunity’.

    For some people it is genuinely very difficult to deal with the emotions that cause a sense of empathy or a reaction of “that’s unjust, it sucks”. When some people are exposed to an injustice, no matter how ‘small’ it may seem to others, it can be difficult to cope with so that person’s coping mechanisms kick in, whatever they may be. When an observer does not understand this, or they expect a certain response/reaction from the person but they do not get it, the observer will often label the person unfairly.

    This is why kids with Asperger’s are so often unfairly treated.

Comments are closed.