Programmers and social skills

Someone recently asked a very interesting question over at programmers.stackexchange.com.  Unfortunately, though somewhat predictably, people jumped all over it and it ended up getting closed and then deleted within 20 minutes of being asked.  That’s actually happening a lot recently, to the detriment of the community IMO, but that’s a subject for another time.  But I think there’s some actual, worthwhile discussion to be had in this deleted question, so I’m preserving it here, along with the answer I would have posted.  Hopefully it’ll be of interest to some people.

Q:

I have heard a lot of people say this:

Programmers can’t get a girlfriend easily because they mostly lack social skills (i.e only a programmer or a genius can understand what they say usually). Is this really true for an average programmer or its just a misconception ?

It seems to me that this is just another case of society (and particularly pop culture) being slow to catch up to reality.  It’s only in the last couple decades that computer programming has really emerged as a serious discipline with real benefits to society.  Back in the day it was a lot less understood and less accepted.  For example, Edsger Dijkstra had to officially register as a theoretical physicist when he was required to declare his occupation because the registrar didn’t believe that “computer programmer” was even a real job. (Ironically, the declaration was part of the process of obtaining a marriage license. Perhaps computer programming was so much in its infancy back then that geekdom and the stigma attached to it hadn’t been invented yet?) 😉

And like any other subculture existing on the fringe of society instead of at the mainstream, people who move in those circles aren’t well-understood or well-accepted socially.  They have problems with social interaction not because they lack social skills, but because they lack the same set of social skills that most people consider normal, because they move in different social circles.

We’re really seeing a shift in attitudes in recent years, though.  Bill Gates proved that it’s possible to make a whole lot of money as a programmer, and that’s always been something that improves one’s legitimacy in the eyes of society.  (For good or for bad. Just look at the way the concept of legalizing illegal drugs in the USA has recently made the jump from “lunatic fringe” status to “idea that actual politicians will talk about.”  Anyone who doesn’t think that the promotion of this idea is being very quietly financed by people who are already making obscene amounts of money selling either illegal or legal drugs is either deluding themselves or simply hasn’t thought about it much.)  And Apple’s “iProducts,” with their decent quality and absolutely brilliant marketing, have led people to understand that technology can be “cool” and mainstream and not just something for geeks.

And we’re definitely seeing the concept of geeks as cool make its way into the mainstream lately.  Perhaps the best evidence of this is the recent treatment of geeks by entertainment media produced for mainstream consumption.  Live Free or Die Hard gave us a computer hacker, played by a good-looking, well-spoken actor, teaming up with Bruce Willis (the epitome of MANLINESS!) to save the US’s electronic infrastructure, which we can all agree is critical to our modern way of life.  One episode of the excellent but tragically cancelled FlashForward had a hilarious scene in which self-proclaimed “quantum physicist genius” Simon Campos uses quantum physics to seduce a hot girl on a train.  And the just-released X-Men: First Class gives similar tricks to the young, charming Charles Xavier, retroactively applying modern society’s attitude towards geeks to the 1960s as Charles uses his knowledge of genetics and mutations to sweet-talk cute coeds, which he’s apparently pretty successful at.  This is a very different depiction of geeky characters being fed to today’s rising generation than the one I grew up with.  In my childhood, the image of a geek was quite memorably codified in pop culture by Steve Urkel!

And even programmers who grew up under that image seem to be doing pretty well for themselves.  Where I work, most of the developers are living pretty successfully in traditional families, married with multiple children.  And Jim McKeeth, who used to work here before going to RemObjects, has a lovely, intelligent wife with four wonderful (if overly energetic!) children.  If I can do half so well I’ll count myself a lucky man.

So no, I don’t think that the image of the computer programmer with poor social skills is a valid one.  It’s just a stereotype left over from an earlier time that just hasn’t managed to die yet.  Certainly the runaway success of StackOverflow has demonstrated that it’s quite possible for large numbers of computer programmers to have an excellent degree of facility at communicating effectively, the most fundamental of all social skills!  By the time today’s children have children of their own, this attitude will be a quaint cultural relic of ages past that they’ll look back on with amusement, much like the way we tend to regard the culture depicted in Leave it to Beaver today.

12 Comments

  1. batman says:

    ..hmmm,
    of course we can base this question or even the answer to a single case.
    I personally do think as cetegory, programmers lack a bit of social skill compared to other groups… and with resons.
    That’s all.

  2. GrandmasterB says:

    I have a theory that the notion of the lack of social skills comes from non-technical folks out of insecurity. Your typical salesperson or manager, for example, considers themselves ‘people persons’, without technical skills. So, since they have people skills and lack technical skills, it must in turn mean that people with technical skills dont have people skills. For if thats not the case, they are essentially admitting to being less essential than technical people. Human ego will not allow that. Particularly in a tech company, it would mean that while the salesperson couldnt do the programmer’s job, the programmer could do the salesperson’s job. So where does that leave the salesperson? Thus the defensive attitude develops to encourage the notion that programmers lack social skills.

    • Fabricio says:

      Hmmm… That’s a great theory, and explain very well that phenomena…
      And I learned that inact “people skills” can be fought with training,
      and you can get pretty well if you want that.

  3. EMB says:

    Hey.
    I agree with you Mason… I and many programmers that I known doesn’t think this is a problem.
    What happens is just what you said. They are “specialized” with some subjects, and not what others people think is popular.
    Here where I work, we must tell the girls (there’s none geek girl yet…) why we are laughing when we tell a math/programmer joke. For example: We all use some kind of mug (to our coffees) with a label and names. Some day, someone removed the label my mug, so I shout: “Hey, my mug is kind of undefined now! I don’t know how to type cast it!” As you can imagine, only programmers smiled at that. Days after, I see, my colleague sad, cause he could not drink coffee. Asking why, he replied: “Someone grabbed my mug, and did a FreeAndNill in that object”. We lol’ed about. (Maybe you can imagine what are a stackoverflow are in the mug…)
    Media did a good work in making the perception of what are a NERD, and thus, confusing people on what are a real world programmer. Maybe you remember the programmer of the first Jurassic Park movie huh?
    Logically, many programmers, like youth teenagers, develops wrong feelings about this issue. They feel that they do not fit in the great group so they step away. This make them feel alone, so they feel like they do not fit in the group. As they feel they do not fit in the group, they step away. This make…. ahhh you got it. Well, if not, see below:

    Begin
    :FeelsDoNotFitInGroup
    goto StepAway
    :StepAway
    goto FeelsAlone
    :FeelsAlone
    goto FeelsDoNotFitInGroup
    END

    I would do an UML diagram but, you know, I am a programmer. 😀
    Anyway, just my cents…

  4. Pani says:

    It’s hard to find the perfect algorithm.. erm I mean girl 🙂

  5. EMB says:

    Hey My comment gone to spam… 🙁

    • Mason Wheeler says:

      Sorry about that. I don’t get false positives very often, so I don’t usually check through my spam comments, but it looks like yours was genuine so I dug it out and approved it.

  6. KW says:

    I somehow agree with that, most programmers belong to Melancholic category according Four Temperaments (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Temperaments),
    if you don’t believe, you can take the test. And those “talk a lot” like salesperson belong to Sanguine.
    Of course every temperaments is special in it way. But when you naturally quiet, people will thought you lack of social skills.
    And people talk a lot, will be regard have social skills. Although is not 100% truth, but just some thought of it.

  7. Warren P. says:

    Let me outline your argument:
    Argument #1. People think that geeks have poor social skills.
    Argument #2. X-Men is a comic book, and they turned it into a bunch of movies, some of which have sexy coeds; therefore argument #1 is invalid.

    A perception is called a perception precisely because it is a perception, and is not necessarily reality.

    Referring to a fantasy series to make your case, doesn’t help your credibility much. Are you comparing reality to a fantasy, or comparing two fantasy worlds to see if they are somehow related to reality?

    W

    • Umm… I’m sorry, but did you even read the rest of the article? What I said was that the entertainment our culture produces both reflects and helps to shapes our society’s attitudes and perceptions, and that there’s a pretty clear trend in recent entertainment, (such as the new X-Men movie,) to portray geeks in a way that departs radically from the old stereotype.

      This both reflects and reinforces a shift in our society’s outlook, which is due in large part to the way computers have emerged as a central aspect of the modern lifestyle instead of just being an expensive toy that geeks and shadowy military and intelligence people played with.

  8. Delfi Phan says:

    Well, I haven’t had any luck with the ladies and in all companies I have worked in during my career, I’d say the IT groups comprised about a quarter single guys.

    At university, the engineering dept. was overwhelmingly lacking in females. And at places of work it’s the same situation. Looking around my company now, the two women in our IT department have partners outside the computer programming world.

    Finding social circles with a mix of genders is difficult, and yes, the social skills are lacking or develop far slower or perhaps move on a logical rather than emotional path. In addition, the type of person attracted to programming is possibly not the type that can generate that protective feeling women look for in a partner.

    Joining non-computer associations, say a theater group, means your reason for being invited is invariably technical, so you end up programming the lighting desk at the back. At parties you are roped in to work the music (and you are grateful, because you to have something to do instead of just standing around with a drink in your hand!).

    Some guys I know have solved the problem by marrying women from the Far East.

    But in general, the stereotype, in my experience anyway, holds true.

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