Outsiders rule?

The Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth, proclaims Alexandra Robbins, who subtitles her new book: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School.

Robbins follows six high school students and a young teacher (a Vermont lesbian teaching in the South) through a year of school, chronicling gamers, band geeks, emos, punks, loners, jocks and the Popular Bitch, who likes a punk boy. Even the teachers are consumed by gossip, petty rivalries, bitchery and bias toward the “popular,” Robbins asserts.

A Chicago Sun-Times reviewer buys the premise that outsiders are creative, independent thinkers, not just kids who are slower to develop social skills.

At the heart of Geeks is quirk theory, which “hypothesizes that the very characteristics that exclude the cafeteria fringe in school are the same traits that will make them successful as adults and outside the school setting”: creativity/originality, freethinking/vision, resilience, authenticity/self-awareness, integrity/candor, curiosity/love of learning/passion, and courage.

Kids on the “cafeteria fringe” — the ones who can’t figure who to sit with at lunch — usually haven’t chosen to be friendless. (Robbins’ examples do have friends, though not necessarily the ones they want.)  In my experience, outsiders aren’t necessarily super smart, creative or bold non-conformists.  They may be just geeky kids who need a little more time to get it together.  Nor is it axiomatic that the socially adept will be as vapid and mean as the popular girls Robbins describes so vividly.

As an amateur anthropologist, my daughter spent middle school studying popularity. She concluded the essential ingredient is confidence.  In high school, she wasn’t “popular.,  but had plenty of friends in the good-student set. She had the confidence to act as a social sponsor for new kids.  Her specialty was getting a new kid accepted at a compatible lunch table, so they wouldn’t be “cafeteria fringe.” She did it because she is both socially adept and nice. And a bit of a busybody, perhaps.

Cliques aren’t new. What’s changed is the ability of teens to use social media to harass, bully and exclude outsiders — or insiders who stray from their clique’s rules of behavior.  I’d like to learn more about how this works and what might limit the cruelty.

About Joanne


  1. I’d say that of my college classmates, those who participated in the Greek system have on average tended to do better post-graduation than those who didn’t. I went to Stanford, so nearly everyone was extremely bright. The interpersonal skills of the Greeks benefited them in the workplace. IQ only takes you so far in the office- having both a high IQ and being “people savvy” is what’s necessary to be a success.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    I would say the Greek system is a mildly effective predictor. But there are caveats. Once in a while, there’s the family business, although none of my fraternity had that going for them as I recall.
    A surprising number of them served 64-72, which would have helped.
    You don’t get into the Greek system if you are obviously non-people savvy, at least potentially and a couple of exceptions I noted did not fare well in life afterwards. And they were extra trouble before graduation. So maybe it’s chicken-egg.
    My son figured the important thing in college was to learn how to deal with different types of people and grades were secondary. He did well in both and has had success in business where personal relationships are important.
    But sure, the people who act toward other people in such a way as to leave others wondering how he could be so stupid–i.e. mean, dismissive, oblivious, suck-up, inconsiderate, impolite, talk over, etc.–are going to have a hard time even if it’s a matter of poor social skills from parenting or brushing Aspergers’.

  3. Like a lot of generalizations, the one presented by Robbins is wrong for a lot of people.

    I WANTED friends when I was in junior high; I was just unable to conform sufficiently to meet the requirements of most cliques. I was a weird kid and a little egghead and even one of my friends, once the popular kids started wanting to hang with her, dropped me as a friend. (Which is why I’m not quite so down with the idea of “Oh, women MUST have women friends in this world.”)

    I still often feel like an outsider as an adult. I’ve learned to cope with it better and have found friends who are also somewhat of outsiders…the “in crowd” don’t harass me, they just don’t have much in common with me and so tend to leave me out of social stuff. Whatever. I’ve kind of accepted that I’m a loner.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    I was/am a loner. I join groups that need me–sports teams in college and service organizations and so forth–but not many purely social groups.
    I discovered that, no matter how sweet it appears being in the in-group is, it’s a matter of the right clothes and….sameoh sameoh.

  5. Stacy in NJ says:

    Richard and ricki, I frequently run into people (on the web and in person) who claim to be “loners”. I’ve come to realize that a great many people see themselves as outsiders to some extent. We seem to live in an age when everyone seems to be connected (Facebook and all that malarkey), but we also feel isolated. What a strange phenomenon

  6. Stacy in NJ says:

    Crimson Wife, The book is named GEEKS Shall Inherit the Earth, not Greek. That’s pretty funny, though.

  7. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    The social dynamics of “outsidership” are completely different for guys and girls.

    I don’t think it makes much sense to talk about them as if they were the same phenomenon.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Stacy. I think we got it. Greeks are the polar opposite of Geeks, hence the utility of the comparison.
    I was mentioning to my Dad the other day that my kids made and kept more friends from high school and college than I had, by a factor of twenty or so. My Dad pointed out I’d had a war in between school and setting up as an adult. Still, talking with a couple of Army friends, we discovered that none of us, sillyvilians for going on forty years, had bothered with Facebook for anybody we’d met since we got out of the military. So it was HS, college, Army, and then forty years of boring people. Go figure.
    Perhaps we like to figure ourselves as “loners” as a way of reassuring ourselves that we are autonomous people. Being autonomous is, among other things, a way of not being sucked up by mobthink. Who was the stevedore philosopher who wrote a short book about mobs we all read forty years ago? I’d try to google it, but I would lose my place here.

    If we were not in some sense loners, we’d be clones or something.

    I go out to dinner with some guys when our wives have book club. Decent guys, all of them, and we’ve pulled off some group projects to help one or another. But I still feel like an outsider. Maybe we all do.

  9. Stacy- I did notice Ms. Robbins’ title said “geeks” not Greeks. I was just saying that I think she’s wrong about it being the quirky loners who are most successful after high school.

    I wasn’t in the “popular” clique at my high school, but I wasn’t an anti-social geek on the cafeteria fringe, either. Newsweek did an article awhile back called “Gamma Girls” , which resonated with my and my H.S. friends’ experiences. Most of us did wind up pledging a sorority in college, where braininess was valued rather than denigrated.

  10. Do whatever interpersonal skills Greeks might have to be successful within the Greek system necessarily translate outside of the Greek system. Or if Greeks are more successful, is it for other reasons than interpersonal skills…say being from families that are wealthier.

    I remember Greeks as being very conformist in some ways, and some of the makes in the Greek system as coming across as emotionally stunted in many ways.

    I live in a college town and sometimes my route takes me past some sorority houses…it seems like there is still a huge emphasis on conformity..being required to dress a certain way etc.

    I work with a lot of health science students, from med students to nursing students. It is one thing to have an interpersonal savviness within certain circles….but does it necessarily translate when you are taking care of a patient who comes from a background that is completely different from yours…I would say no.

    That being said I can see advantages to being in the Greek system for some people.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    When I was in college, going on half a century ago, I had a fabulous, terrific, wonderful, ingenious idea. There was a sorority group running a center for helping kids in a disadvantaged area outside of East Lansing. I figured I was already hanging around guys enough already, being a fraternity grad adviser. So I figured the gals could use a little help. Dodgy area and twitchy plumbing and all that. So I joined. Only guy. Now, the subordinate point is, while I grin ear to ear, that the sorority women were running a center for kids in a disadvantaged area.
    Separate incident. Hanging around in a dorm grill with a woman. She says, “Aubrey, you’re clean.” That was a poser. Then she pointed out the, probably proportionate proportion of guys in the grill with their bed hair, dirty bare feet and presumbaly unwashed in-betweens. Wannabe hippies trying to be individualists like everybody else. Point is conformity is/was not limited to sorority row.
    Women in what was called, loosely, “The Movement”,, or “The Loose Movement”, referring of course to the large and shifting numbers of issues which caused them outrage or to smoke marijuana, whichever, were socially pressured to pay no attention to looking good. Trying to look good, or even avoid looking bad, showed frivolousness, superficiality, unseriousness, bourgeois standards, and the inability to see what was Important. Many of the Movement women took that seriously and outliers competed to see who could look worse. Dirty little practical joke was the Movement men still lusted after the well-dressed sorority girls. Surprised me, I can tell you.
    Point is, lots of subcultures have internal conformity. The question is what happens when the interact or enter different subcultures.

  12. Richard, I don’t disagree that other sorts of groups have their own expectations about conformity.

    I think it is one thing if you are a part of a loose group with a common interest…it is another if you are part of an insitution(Greek system) that is supposed to be semi-sanctioned by the college you are attending.

  13. I read another view of the book elsewhere. I’m curious to read the book and see what it says.

    My dad was a geek, who did not have the best interpersonal skills. He was extraordinarily gifted in one area though, which allowed him to do well in life.
    It seems like some of the geeks that the author talks about share a giftedness that allows them to be successful. Not every geek will turn out to be the next Bill Gates though.

    I wonder, as parents, how much influence we have on our kids about geeks, jocks etc. Despite my own father being a geek, he desperately wanted me to be involved in athletics…he thought athletes would make better friends than the people I was hanging out with. Despite being on the swim team, I only formed loose friendships with my teammates, and it certainly had no bearing on how I was viewed in school.

    In our town, we have been having a bitter debate about redistricting/redrawing school boundaries. Kids must take away certain messages from their parents…like kids who go to XYZ elementary have welfare drug addicted moms…even though that has no bearing on the truth. When all these kids meet up in junior high do kids assume what the parents say is true about XYZ elementary, that the kids are trash?

  14. Mark Roulo says:

    Eric Hoffer wrote “The true Believer”

  15. You don’t think that the business world places more emphasis than is probably warranted on “looking the part”? This is particularly true for women and for those working in sales, consulting, PR, and other fields with a high level of client interaction.

    My sorority sisters and I used to make fun of our chapter’s Rush handbook appearance rules. But in retrospect, I realize that many of them aren’t that different than the clothing & grooming guidelines found in career handbooks.

  16. Crimson…I don’t doubt that the business world places a high value on looking the part.

    I’d also venture to guess though that the rush handbook of today/dress expectations are entirely different than what they were, say in the eighties, when the preppy trend hadn’t entirely died out, and women in particular dressed more conservatively than they do now.

    Would the dress expectations of a sorority today match the dress expectations of someone wanting to work in pharmaceutical sales, for instance?

  17. I can’t speak to what the Rush guidelines of today are like, only what they were in the mid-’90’s when I was in college. They were definitely more preppy/conservative than the overall fashion of the time, which was Britney Spears-esque belly-baring tops & microminis. I specifically remember being told that the candy-colored nails popular at the time were a “no” and we had to get French manicures instead. The idea was to look pretty in an elegant & classy way. Advice that definitely carries over to the workplace.

    I don’t know anything about pharmaceutical sales per se, but most successful saleswomen I know in other fields look polished.

  18. Richard Aubrey says:

    My sister had a good friend who was a good swimmer. She got a job as a lifeguard but attracted so much attention that they had to put her in a non-swim suit job counting chlorine supplies or some such.
    She was going to interview with a pharma company and asked my father, her father having split, what about it. My father’s advice was to not, no way, under no circs, take a job in sales.
    Chances are the rush rules are more conservative than the dress code (wink wink) for outside sales for women.
    Anybody can look the part, if they pay attention. See “Dress for Success” Many imitators. Don’t need Greeks for that, unless it’s a matter of explaining the necessity of paying attention to the subject in the first place. Looking the part includes body language, speech patterns (don’t, for heaven’s sake, say “speakeen” for “speaking”), conversational ease, appropriate humor.
    Went to an interview where, in a moment of relaxation, one of the interviewees told a funny which included a guy taking a dump on the bar. Noop.
    We tried to inculcate table manners. Was a story whose truth is mine to keep about the time I,as a the house grad adviser, put one guy’s plate on the floor to make the point. Not happening in a dorm or apartment. Not that we weren’t gross, but we knew, most of us, when to straighten out for tactical purposes.
    Is it for sure true that the number of kids at WXYZ el who have crackhead moms is not out of line with the other schools in the area?

    Mark. Thanks, but I knew it. I wanted to see if you did. Yup.

    I don’t see that the semi-sanctioned issue is relevant. The sanctions or lack thereof checklist probably doesn’t ask about a dress code.

  19. Cranberry says:

    You should all check out the same author’s _Pledged_. Suffice to say, after reading that nonfiction work, my husband declared he would never let our daughter join a sorority. It’s quite ironic that some have chosen to praise the Greek system in comments on another book by Alexandra Robbins.

    It would also be a good idea to read the book the post discusses, before dismissing its conclusions.

  20. Richard Aubrey says:

    Well, Cranberry, there’s a book or my lying eyes. My parents were both Greek, as was my brother, my wife, my sister. My daughter in law, my son, my daughter. I worked in civil rights in Mississippi in the Sixties with a group including a few Greeks, more than would be proportional given the population on campus at the time, although the group was so small that one or two extra would make a big percentage change. As I said earlier, I worked with a sorority group in a poor area.
    When we got a blizzard one year and the campus closed early, the guys in the houses on our street, which was sloped up on the way off campus,spent most of the afternoon pushing an endless stream of spinning cars up the street, letting the employees get home.
    So, it’s the book or my lying eyes. You’ll excuse me if….

  21. I agree with the initial point that many “loners” are lonely; and the implication that social skills training for kids who are having problems with their peer relationships can be highly beneficial.

  22. Richard Aubrey says:


    Training social skills is or was usually seen as teaching politeness. Don’t slurp your soup.
    Training interpersonal skills is different. The Pick Up Artist community is huge, and their basic message is, act confident and as if you are worth speaking to. That, to people who can’t do either. To grown men–more or less–who are desperate for help. And frequently ready to pay for the advice.
    Seems that the interpersonal skills thing is either scripted behaviors for kids who’ve been socialized by robots or indifferent parents, or who have some version of Aspergers, or advice to “get confident” . It’s the latter that seems to be at the bottom of poor abilities to get along in kidsociety. Don’t know how you teach it.
    Especially to a kid. Did hear,years ago, about the possibility that shyness may have a genetic component. What if that’s true? And other social difficulties as well?

  23. Cranberry, I read the book Pledged, and had conflicting feelings about it. It seemed that the author had certain conclusions(some of which I agreed with), but she shaped the book to fit her conclusions, not the other way around.

  24. The only Alexandra Robbins book I have read is The Overachievers, which I felt was basically just an extended, gossipy magazine article full of stereotypes and overgeneralization. I would suspect that Pledged is similar.

  25. @richard, wouldn’t you say there is a range as to what sort of volunteering the Greek coomunity does. Sometimes sororities and fraternities will do service projects at the hospital I work at. Many times they seem to be little more than a photo op, get a tshirt sort of event. Maybe this provides a positive experience for the person who is organizing the event…..other than that going somewhere for a couple of hours one time doesn’t really provide much depth of experience.