Around fifth grade, I discovered that I was really good at math; in seventh grade I began competing locally in Mu Alpha Theta competitions and winning. Middle school is an unfortunate time to be good at math and also socially uncalibrated. I got called “nerd” a lot.
I guess I could have denied it. Or I could have tried to hide my talents. Or, worse, I could have tried to fit in and gain the approval of the name-callers. But I was independent and a little rebellious – not much has changed after all these years – and something snapped. Instead of denying or approval-seeking, I simply owned it. “Yes, I’m a nerd,” I told people. Get over it. I formed Nerds of America, an exclusive organization consisting of only my best friend and me. And I carried a briefcase just to rub it in their faces. Yep, I was that kid.
Two things happened after that, surprising to me then but completely predictable to anyone with an understanding of human psychology. First, kids stopped calling me a nerd. What was the point? Second, I gained a measurable respect – perhaps even admiration – for my confidence and willingness to shut down the name-callers and bullies.
It’s for the same reasons that the young black community reclaimed ownership of “nigger” and the gay community reclaimed ownership of “queer.” Owning a label removes its teeth.
In my posting yesterday, I referenced my attempt to buy the social services of someone more outgoing and socially aware than I am. Carol Ross Joynt of the Washingtonian took an interest in my CraigsList ad and wrote a blog post about it. Other than the two references to Pretty Woman, which weren’t mine, I thought the post accurately depicted a guy trying to buy what he didn’t already have: the social calendar of a socially aware extrovert.
I read a few of the comments and the Twitter reposts. The word “creepy” or some derivative thereof appeared several times. When I think of creepy, I think of some sexually depraved mustachioed guy stalking a young girl from behind the bushes. I connote “creepy” with “socially detached” or even “dangerous.” Lonely Island gives us a hilarious glimpse here.
My initial reaction was to internalize the label, to feel hurt, to worry that maybe I am akin to the stalker from the bushes. Of course, that’s what labels are meant to do: pigeonhole and denigrate. On a more objective assessment, I know I’m not creepy. I’m fun, interesting, and more-or-less socially aware. My search for a person to help me be more socially aware can’t possibly constitute creepiness.
Still, everyone has their button. People who feel insecure about their intelligence are going to be more jarred by the label “stupid,” for example. Feeling socially awkward has always been my button. Being called “creepy” rubs me the wrong way. But I can’t help thinking that owning this word (or any other epithet shot my way by the angry and insecure) seems to be the healthy response. It allows others to have their own opinions – inaccurate as they may be – while allowing me to both own my feelings and preserve my dignity. So maybe it is a little creepy for a man to hire a young socialite to manage his image and social calendar. What’s your point?