DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m 24 years old now, going into my final year of uni, and recently came to the realisation that it’s really hard for me to relate to my peers in the ways everyone else can. It’s partly due to my interests, and partly due to a helicopter mom who insisted (due to genuine concern) that she keep tabs on me ALL THE TIME, and partly due to the fact that my high school and my uni have totally different cultures.
Since I don’t know how important my “social history” is for you to diagnose me and prescribe a solution (yeah, I know, “I’m not a real doctor,” but you play one on the internet!), I’m just going to get to the problem and put the relevant details below it for your perusal:
I don’t have the same interests or experiences as the people I spend the most time with. I don’t listen to songs, I don’t drink and so have never been drunk or had a hangover, I’ve never dated or had sex, I don’t care to follow any celebrities, you get the idea. I get along well with people fine one-on-one, since I can ask them about their lives and their thoughts on various things and have a discussion, and they certainly seem to like me. But the group conversations around me are almost always about things like concerts, music, celebrity gossip, or dating/sex experiences, that sort of thing. And I can’t relate to any of it.
It’s like any contribution I can make to the conversation necessarily drops the mood from fun and “experiential” to “speculative.” Is it possible for me to take part in this kind of group social bonding and keep things light and fun without making up for 24 years of being weird af?
And on a dating related note, I imagine most women don’t have the hots for dudes that they can’t relate to on some superficial level, especially for a short term relationships or hook ups, which I would at least like to experience at some point.
Now for my social history: it really boils down to being raised by parents (and mom in particular) for whom academia was the end-all, be-all of youth. I wasn’t allowed to get less than an A without some sort of yelling or a smack on the cheek, and I wasn’t allowed to socialise except in very specific, “of course you can, as long as I come with you or know exactly what you’re doing at every moment” ways.
Obviously, it was also ingrained in me that liking girls was a bad thing and that sexual desire was gross and always unwelcome (comes with the package, really), and to this day my parents are still super awkward about topics related to sex and sexuality. I like to joke that my mother doesn’t know that I even know what sex is, though I’m willing to bet I know more than she does now, just by listening to my significantly more experienced (and younger than me) coworkers discuss it. And by the posts on this site, of course.
Well, probably as some sort of defense mechanism, I adopted the identity of The Smart, Weird One (or as I like to call it, The Outcast) for my elementary, middle, and high school years since even then I was behind in terms of normal life experience. I made a few friends by virtue of exposure; since we were in the same class, often side by side, some people got to know me for who I actually am. On the plus side, there was no pressure whatsoever to lose one’s virginity at the high school I went to. Not even the popular kids talked about how much sex they were having, probably because they weren’t having any. It wasn’t a source of insecurity for people there.
That did, however, mean that there was no pressure for me to connect on an intimate level with women, and so I never bothered to learn the requisite social skills. I’m only starting that now, after taking some time to break through the “girls/women are temporary; grades are forever” mentality.
Unfortunately (as it were), the culture at my uni is very sex positive, and EVERYTHING is about sex. So I have felt the inadequacy that comes with virgin status for the past four of the six years I’ve been here (I was on dialysis my first year and recovering from a kidney transplant in my second, so I didn’t give a Kentucky Fried F--k about socialising then), and the full weight of consequences that came with becoming The Outcast (neglecting social skills, missing out on normal life experiences, etc.) made itself known.
I constantly felt less than other people, who had this magical ability to just talk to everybody without fear of judgement or rejection, and who were actually wanted and desired by other people.
Well, not to turn this essay into a thesis, I spent the last few years exploring those feelings of inadequacy, came to the conclusion that my misery was of my own making, that I simply had to accept that younger me lacked the insight to see that maybe my parents were wrong, and came to terms with the fact that I had absolutely squandered my innocent, responsibility-free years. I learned some basic conversation, and am now comfortable with talking to strangers one-on-one, though I still get somewhat intimated by groups, especially groups containing people who I judge to be better (read: more socially savvy, popular, or attractive in some way) than me.
And that’s the first draft of my autobiography. And, back to my question, is it possible for me to relate to the Normal Humans in a fun way when I’m constantly reminded of my other-ness, or will I first have to experience the 24 missed years of socialising?
DEAR THE OUTCAST: TO, you know how I’m always saying “the problem you have isn’t the problem you’re asking about”? Well, it’s time to sing along now, you know the words…
So, the problem here isn’t your experience or lack thereof. It’s your mindset, and the way you’re letting it dictate things to you.
First and foremost is that this isn’t the limitation you assume it is. You already know you can make friends and connect with folks. You’ve done it already; you hung around with folks who got to know you and oh look, you weren’t “The Weird One”, you were just TO. The way you make friends in college – or even after college, for that matter – is very much the same way you made friends in school. You spend time with folks, you get to know them and oh hey, y’all grow closer and get tighter.
Or at least, you do if you don’t go into these interactions assuming that you’re f--ked from the jump, that is. The biggest impediment to connecting with folks, platonically or romantically, is that you’re assuming that there’s no way they could like or relate to you because your experiences growing up are (presumably) so different from theirs.
But are they though? I mean, yes, you lived a fairly sheltered life with a family that pushed academics over literally everything else… but that’s not that unusual. This happens to a lot of folks. I suspect more people can relate to things like “overbearing helicopter parents” and “pushed academics over having a social life” than you realize. Given half a chance, I suspect you could find far more folks who were in the same boat as you, especially if there’re people in your area who’ve got similar cultural values.
However, whether you find folks who had similar upbringings to yours or not is almost immaterial, because honestly? This is hardly a disqualifier for being able to make friends or find relationships. People with wildly different backgrounds connect all the time.
Yeah, your experiences were outside other folks’ norms, but so what? We deal with folks who are outside our norms regularly. People from the same city and the same school often have wildly different family histories, interests and shared cultural touchstones. I mean, if you look at how much high-school sorts itself into disparate cliques – The Jocks, the D&D nerds, the STEM nerds, the Musicians, The Band Kids, The Theater Kids, etc. – then you’d see various groups that don’t seem to have anything in common with any of the others. They all have wildly different interests and tastes, different shared references and in-jokes, wildly different experiences… and yet, for as foreign as each of those cliques may seem from one another, there’s often more overlap than you’d realize.
You’re also making more of some of these differences than is actually there. Not being a drinker, not doing drugs or being someone who parties hard is not exactly rare on the ground. That’s actually fairly common, honestly. And as for having never been on dates or had sex… I mean, you’ve been a reader for while. How many letters do I get on a weekly basis from folks – from 18 to 80 – who’re in the same boat as you? I mean, on a good week, we’re talking double digits on that alone. None of that is going to mark you out as being some sort of weirdo, the last human being to never suffer from a hangover or wake up the next day wondering what stupid s--t they did while they were hammered.
Similarly, you’re assuming that in order to connect with folks, you need to be the center of attention and the life of the party and, well… you really don’t. I mean, there’re lots of folks who aren’t comfortable doing that still get dates and make friends. You seem to be seeing this as somehow needing to be surrounded by crowds and holding court in order to make friends, but honestly? That’s not how it works, certainly not for everyone and honestly, not even necessarily the folks who are comfortable with being in the spotlight. You already know you do well on a one-on-one basis – that’s how you made friends in high-school – so why not play to your strengths instead?
And hey, it’s not like you need to be able to chime in on every topic. People aren’t gonna call on you to make sure you give your two cents, nor are they gonna kick you out of the group if you can’t match them story for story or anecdote for anecdote. A lot of folks don’t realize that you can contribute to the group conversation just by being there to listen. In fact, someone who listens more than they talk can be invaluable. We live in a world full of people who don’t listen so much as wait for their turn to speak. Someone who’s willing to be an audience? That may be rare… but that rarity in this case makes them more valuable.
However, the single biggest mistake you’re making – the one that turns all of this from just you being you into a “problem”, with big sarcastic quotes around it – is that you assume that this is your permanent state. You don’t know much about music or bands or celebrity gossip… ok, and? Leaving aside just how much your peers are actually going on about various celebrities – less than you seem to believe, I’m betting – it’s hardly as though you’re a fly trapped in amber. You didn’t reach capacity and now new facts or experiences just bounce off because there’s no room for them. You’re fully capable of growth and change and self-exploration.
In fact, part of the whole point of this stage of your life is to do just that: figure out who you are. Not who your parents told you to be, not who your school tried to make you, but who you are and who you want to be. And you do that by, well, f--king around and finding out. You’ve never drank before… so, assuming you want one, have a drink. See if it appeals to you. Don’t go overboard – the experience of being inebriated is rarely worth the hangover – but give it a try. Maybe you’re a beer guy. Maybe you’re a wine guy, or more of a spirits kinda person. Or maybe alcohol isn’t for you, which is also cool.
Don’t listen to music? Well s--t my dude, now’s a great time to start. College and university is probably one of the best times to experience an abundance of different types of music, classical to contemporary, rock to reggae, opera to electronica and symphonies and more. Go check out local bands in the venues around you; I promise you there’s almost always at least three bands playing any given night. Hell, get Spotify and just go through some of their genre playlists and see what gets you grooving.
And you know what? Some of the folks around you may well be delighted to the Virgil to your Dante and guide you through a lot of these experiences. Far from expecting folks to come loaded with opinions and preferences and shunning the ones who don’t, a lot of folks would look at a blank slate such as yourself and be eager to share the things that they love. The opportunity to help someone listen to Celebrity Skin or Ride the Lightning or Wave of Mutilation for the first time? That’s a goddamn prize. Hell if you asked for some suggestions, you’d probably end up with more Spotify playlists than you’d know what to do with.
(Yes, I’m aware of when those albums came out. Music peaked in the mid-90s; it’s an objective fact.)
But what about sex and dating? Well, what about it? I can promise you’re not the first or only virgin on campus, or even the only virgin your age on campus. And if your campus actually is sex positive, then it’s worth remembering that sex positivity is about folks having the sex they want to have… which includes no sex. And however much f--king you think is going on, I can all but guarantee you that it’s much much less. Folks regularly overestimate how much sex their peers are having, especially at college; however much sex someone’s having, they tend to think everyone else is having way, way more. And for all that people are still wringing their hands about hook-up culture, the truth is that Zoomers are having less sex than Millennials or Gen X did at their age.
However, you’re also assuming that you need Captain Smooth to get laid, with the gift of gab and Usher’s moves. You honestly don’t; awkward people get laid. Weird people get laid. I mean, Machine Gun Kelly looks and sounds like the stoner fry cook who works the graveyard shift at the Waffle House and yet he’s banging Megan Fox.
You can stammer your way into bed with a sexy someone just as you can seduce them with your silver tongue and ability to lick your eyebrows. Most of it requires just, y’know. Talking to people, making connections, taking chances and making mistakes. None of the people you see that seem so socially fluent and gifted came out of the womb like that; every single one of them learned their social skills through practice. Maybe you’re getting a later start than some… that’s fine. The point isn’t when you started, it’s that you start.
But while we’re talking about mindset, let’s talk about a big one: how you see yourself. You call yourself the Outcast and you say you adopted that as your persona. Well f--kamagee my dude, I can’t imagine why you might feel like an outsider if that’s how you’re choosing to identify. That’s not being self-aware, that’s the worst sort of nominative determinism possible. You are, quite literally, defining yourself as having been excluded before you even set foot in the room. All you’re doing is creating a wall between you and other people before you even say “hi”. If you expect people to treat you like a weirdo, you’re gonna get it. Not because you’re unacceptably weird, but because you’re priming yourself for negative responses. You’re going to respond to just about everything from that filter, and that lack of warmth, that defensiveness and stand-offishness is going to prompt them to be just as stand-offish and cold as you.
So instead of holding onto the idea that you’re an outcast, how about recognizing that you’re just unique? Yeah you’re different, but that just makes you interesting; you bring a fresh and different perspective because of that. You don’t have some of the same experiences as your peers? This just means you’re a fresh slate. If you go in expecting folks to like you and find you interesting – refreshing, even – then you’re going to find that people are prepared to see you just like that. But if you can’t see that in yourself, then how can other folks see it? Or how could you accept it from them if and when they do?
All of this is up to you. You have an abundance of riches and resources around you and you’re in a place where you’re surrounded by folks your age and roughly in the same stage of life as you. So take advantage of that. Explore that s--t. Eat it up, come back for seconds and try it all on for size to see how it fits.
Whether you’re an outcast or a uniquely wonderful mutant, like all the other happy mutants, is all in how you choose to see the situation. If you want to see your life as a handicap, then yes, that’s exactly what you’ll experience. But if you choose to see this as a chance to explore and grow and learn and to share your own uniqueness with others and experience their uniqueness? Then you’re going to have an amazing time.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org