Monday, March 05, 2007

The Last Sock In the Nerd Hamper

I’ve put off posting for a while because of a whole crapload of reasons, most of which are boring, even to me. So, I’ll just jump right in…

I think you should know that writing about, or even discussing, being gifted is something I Don’t Do very often. It’s right up there, in my categorization of social skills, with asking an attractive person of the opposite sex, whom you just met an hour ago, to take a look at the fungus on your privates to see if he knows what it might be and how to cure it. It doesn’t fit into my southern upbringing, which prioritizes good humor and humility, and I have found that talking about being gifted often changes the way people treat me. I have to trust that you will take it in stride and continue to be the same person you were to me previously, or that you’ll have the courtesy to ask me whatever questions you want to ask and then move the heck on, which is what I mostly do about it myself.

So, here’s that last socially smelly sock at the bottom of my nerd hamper -- I’m a member of Mensa. I’ve been a member for over 15 years, and I like it. I’m not particularly active, but I still like being a member. And I don’t tell people about it hardly ever, I don’t list it on my resume unless I have good reason to believe that the person reviewing that resume will respond positively, and I simply don’t consider it any different from other groups that I belong to, each of which has a focus of some sort, and which have specialized journals and jargons pertaining to the interests of the group.

There are usually two groups of responses to finding out I’m in Mensa (if you have come to know this outside my “friendship/trust” framework) – a) competitiveness –to prove you are as gifted or more so than I am and that you’re worthy of my respect and appreciation, and consequently elevating both me and Mensa to a position way beyond what we deserve based on name recognition alone, and b) denigration - that you don’t think it means anything, but you’re going to shoot me down anyway, if not directly, then by making a lot of dunning remarks about Mensa. I categorize both reactions as “the 142nd fastest gun in the West” responses, humorous and completely unnecessary.

Because being in Mensa, or being gifted, is like being the 142nd Fastest Gun in the West; it’s not a particularly unique position, from a standpoint of the number of qualifying persons, it is only significant in the great pool of large statistical numbers, and there really is no point in challenging me to either prove my worth or convince me of yours, or to pointlessly jab and slash at anyone who’s gifted. It’s just a state of being; I was not given a choice about being gifted, any more than I was given a choice about being born female, American, or right-handed, and I like all those things about myself, too.

And, Mensa is not what it’s perceived to be. I’m sure that if you look hard enough you’ll find members who want to tell you their IQ and the IQ of everyone else, or at least their estimates thereof, and there are plenty of people in any group, Mensa or otherwise, who have the answers to all the world’s problems, whether anyone wants to listen to them or not. There are also plenty of droners. Mensa does not exist to consult with governments or create life from household chemicals for corporations or just for fun. It’s a social support group for smart people who need a social support group of other smart people. That’s all.

There are great conversations, witty ripostes, truly competitive games and puzzles, varying levels of expertise in a surprisingly dizzying array of people from all walks of life in all kinds of topics, and a group joke about chocolate. And there are “problem children” – people who have too much hair, adipose tissue, religion, arrogance, mental illness, or simple strangeness, or too little of something from more categories than I can mention. All of which has the effect of making it a great cauldron of tolerance, as well as being a social support group.

Public bias has mistakenly confused giftedness with superiority, much as it confuses wealth with happiness. Each is completely independent of and very, very different from the other, regardless of some superficial similarities. Consequently, I hear and read somewhat laughable commentary about how incredibly smart Mensans are, and how arrogant they must be, and what’s it like to have all that brainpower in one place, and what are they up to (as if meetings were concerned with creating new stealth bombs). Some of the commentary is extremely complimentary (and, often, quite off base) and other comments are envious (and also off base). Newspaper articles tend to poke fun at Mensans for not being what the writer wanted them to be (dry, humorless, pontificating physicists with excess eyebrow hair, judging from the articles I’ve read).

I suppose the best analogy for a Mensa meeting that I could make would be:

Suppose you and 20 of your favorite college professors and high school teachers and a couple of other people you think are interesting, all go off for a buffet dinner, free bar, and decide, at 11 p.m. at night, to go out fishing. There you are, full of good cheer, on a boat, trying not to snag each other’s eyelids as you cast your lines, and talking about God only knows what while you wait for something to bite.

You can hear your history professor and your best friend, a hairdresser who reads Proust during slow times in the salon, heatedly debating current politics behind your left shoulder. Your Calculus teacher and your uncle, a janitor at Lockheed, are discussing the merits of Portuguese gourmet cuisine behind your right shoulder. Your English professor is busy trying not to be seasick over the stern and singing dirty ditties in Olde Englische between belches, all by her lonesome.

The Captain, poor slob, is bitching up a storm at some malfunctioning mechanical bits, which, by listening carefully, you realize that you personally can fix. You hand your rod to your son, who is arguing in French with your former Microbiology professor about science fiction authors, and head over to bang wrenches with the Captain. You’re joined by three engineers, none of whom are the slightest bit helpful, and all of whom spend most of the time disagreeing with each other. When someone breaks out the slide rules, you know it’s gotten ugly. Fortunately, the engine runs again, and you do make it back to shore. There are no fish, but everyone had a great time.

So, if you think Mensa is a group ego fest, it’s not. It’s also not the greatest problem-solving organization, and it’s not a gathering place for the great, the somber, the emotionally sober, or even the particularly enviable. It is a social support group for smart people who need somewhere to go and let down their guards and just be themselves, whether it involves being overtly smart or not. Lots of people already have those support groups in their daily lives, and they don’t join Mensa because they have no need to do so. Some of the rest of us do.

Like most groups, Mensa does do spiffy things – scholarships, community service, colloquia of interest, research, etc., and there are publications, smaller sub-groups, and a variety of activities based on interest and willingness to participate. More info at the main website here:

Me, I’m off to do laundry and not think about this topic any more for now. Although I’m pretty sure I’ll need some chocolate to get over it. ; )


Anonymous said...

Wow, I think I'll memorize some of those lines. Great post, Joan!

Gallivanting Galactic Gadfly said...

I always find the unqualified tag 'gifted' somewhat arrogant (I'm a 20+ year Mensa member) since it relates to a degree of above average quality in just one of a variety of attributes but implies that it is primary or most significant. Many are gifted in other areas (some obvious such as creative arts, sports etc, some less obvious such as inter-personal ability) yet it seems that only those (of us) with an arbitrarily high iq get labeled, or like to label ourselves, as gifted. I wonder if we find it reassuring to use that label in case potential is not reflected in real world achievement.

Anonymous said...

I saw a link to this entry posted on a Mensa email group. Wow, what a great entry!

library mistress said...

I recognized my own experiences in every sentence - thanks for the post from an Austrian mensa member, who also has to choose very carefully the persons I tell about my membership and/or IQ.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog name! What a great post about Mensa (and I liked the one about parents too). I also keep my Mensa membership a secret from most. I'm off to check your knitting links now. My name is Amber...I am a yarnaholic.

BoS said...

Thanks for all the nice comments, folks, and GGG, if you are ZerendipT, then I'm not rising to this bait either, sugar, get over yourself and your snark habit.

If you want to engage in self-hatred and navel-gazing, please do so on your own blog. Also, I'd advise you to rethink the use of "unqualified" and "arbitrarily", as they are hilariously inapplicable in this instance.

GGG said...

I'm not whoever that is so you now have one more for your 'doesn't think like me so must be loony' list.

But you see for one inexplicably mad moment, I thought you indeed had used 'gifted' in an unqualified way when you wrote:
"I think you should know that writing about, or even discussing, being gifted is something I Don’t Do very often."

but I now see how obviously wrong I was.

And what's even worser, I had also erroneously believed Mensa qualification was set arbitrarily at some specific iq percentile but I now see how wrong I was there as well.

Oh the folly of my foibles! But now it is just so applicable that I am able to rethink and see the hilarity of my humbling at your hands. Gee, you must be gifted or something.

BoS said...

GGG - Look, if you mean unqualified in terms of "unmoderated" or "unspecified", I agree that many people are unfamiliar with the standard definition and perceive it as arrogant. There is, however, a specific definition, even in federal law, and series of standardized criteria, which have been in use for decades. My objection was to that presumption and to your corresponding remarks which parallel some of the arguments made against gifted programming in school. For further reference, please see:

Definition of giftedness (pretty comprehensive)

More numerically oriented

Easy Table

If you really want to take issue with the Mensa IQ criteria, I think you should re-read some pages on the national website, for example, these sites are informative:

And, if you're not Zer, then there's no reason to take issue with remarks directed at her, which she richly deserves, and I'd be happy to discuss with you offblog.

Eric Stephen said...

"There are usually two groups of responses to finding out I’m in Mensa (if you have come to know this outside my “friendship/trust” framework) – a) competitiveness –to prove you are as gifted or more so than I am and that you’re worthy of my respect and appreciation, and consequently elevating both me and Mensa to a position way beyond what we deserve based on name recognition alone, and b) denigration - that you don’t think it means anything, but you’re going to shoot me down anyway, if not directly, then by making a lot of dunning remarks about Mensa."

Wow. I think it's pretty obvious from which camp GGG hails.

Great post, BoS. I've often wondered more about Mensa. For some reason it's always had an "elitist" ring to it, though that is obviously an unfair assessment.

Keep up the great knitting!

Anonymous said...

I encourage you to submit this wonderful post as an essay, anywhere and everywhere you can think of! We, the people of Mensa, need the world to understand just what you've so eloquently, clearly, and humorously outlined. Thanks. :)

Amy P.

kim said...

*nods in recognition* Hi, I've been in Mensa for a few years now myself. But I largely see it as "a way I got to meet some people I wouldn't have met otherwise." And that's about it.

I didn't actually take the qualifying test -- I was goofing off online one day and saw a list of the "alternate test scores" Mensa would accept to consider membership. And when I saw that my SAT scores would actually qualify me, I think I giggled for a solid 2 minutes, because the idea of me actually qualifying for Mensa just seemed too ridiculous. And then when I recovered, I realized that that was probably a sign I'd keep membership in the proper perspective, and thought "what the hell" and joined.

If it comes up, I remind people that IQ is a measurement of capacity -- it just means that, say, I have a bigger jar than most people. But having a bigger jar is only one part of it -- the other part is what I fill that jar with. Having a larger-than-the-norm IQ don't mean squat if I spend my time filling it with nonsense, and it's what you put IN your brain that matters, not how much.

Actually, the only time I really bring up membership is when I do something kind of stupid and people are smothering their giggles; usually that's when I grin and pull out my membership card and say, "Wanna know what makes this moment even funnier?" And we all have a laugh together and everyone cheers up. Yay.

McGaladon said...

Excellent explanation. I think you should send it to the Bull, or at least put it up on the "official" (snort!) M website, or your local newsletter--ChiMe would love it, I'll bet. Might garner ya another Pubs award!

It's obviously been much appreciated by those who've read it--I'm assuming it circulated a tad beyond the usual sphere, since it got more comments than most of your other fine posts.

Funny catch re "Zer", whoever she really is; pity that the few with that attitude, tho rare inside the club, manage to broadcast so vociferously.

Anonymous said...

You can post this or not, it's up to you, but I didn't know how else to contact you.I'd love to publish the "last sock" piece in the June issue of the Mensa Bulletin if you will allow reprint rights. Please let me know. Thanks.

Dick Hodgson
Communications Director
American Mensa Ltd.

BoS said...

(Comment modified to remove privacy violation)

Zer/ZerendipT has left a new comment on your post "The Last Sock In the Nerd Hamper":

XXXXXX (whoever you may be), what a kick in the head to trip over a blog that discusses me as if you and I are acquainted. Not only acquainted, but apparently I am a person you consider worth lambasting. You seem to think I am GGG (not so) or am aware of you and your blog (not until a random google brought it to my attention more than a year after you indicated your problem with me). What's UP? I'm curious. Can we talk?

Yea or nay, thanks for the chortle. I'm notorious! Whee!

BoS said...

Zer -- M-Salon.

Anonymous said...

"I wonder if we find it reassuring to use that label in case potential is not reflected in real world achievement."

I have to agree with this quote. How strange to find a blog full of adults referring to themselves as "gifted."

Zer/ZerendipT said...

BoS, best anyone at M-Salon can figure, you are holding on to something that upset you in 2002, when I protested my privacy being violated as my actual name was posted at M-Salon. Is that it? That's the reason you say unpleasant things about me on your blog and in emails soliciting the source of your pique? If so, that's sad. What a waste of brain cells. Feel free to stop obsessing about me, please, if you can.

BoS said...

Once again, Zer, you are clueless. This post is two years old, the one linking to the choice of name is 6 years old, and I haven't thought about you in years -- you're too silly. Please dear, don't take yourself that seriously -- I don't. If I did, I wouldn't let your comments through.