Confessions of a Greek Geek
I was in a fraternity in college. It’s something I don’t admit to people until I’m really comfortable with them. While it was a great experience for me back then, it’s something I’m weirdly ashamed of now.
A Little Background
Like most like-minded nerds in the early pre-internet 1990s, I was pathetically awkward in middle school and high school. My tight-knit cadre of classmates was brought together as a defensive unit against the cool kids as much as it was for mutual friendship. Many of us were bullied and the teachers didn’t seem to notice or care, so we did our best to stay under the radar.
I went to an engineering college after high school. I hated engineering, wasn’t even very good at it, but pushed myself through it anyway. As one might expect, engineering school was full of students with a similar life experience to mine. In that environment, I discovered that there were two types of geek. Some of us embraced it, owned it, and thrived on it. There was also a second category of geek. Many of us felt like our nerd label forced us into a lower social caste that we never asked to be a part of. We didn’t embrace our inner nerd, we tried to crawl out from under it at every opportunity.
I fell squarely into the latter camp. That didn’t make me any less socially awkward, I just didn’t embrace the corner of society that I’d be sequestered in for as long as I could remember.
Why fraternity life was good to me
There are a many reasons that I’m really grateful for having taken the opportunity to join a fraternity while I was at college. Among the most important is how it helped me change how I viewed myself.
You can’t simply go from social outcast to social butterfly by uprooting yourself, and landing adrift in a sea of unfamiliar people. For me, it helped to belong to a tribe of people like me. “Nurturing” is not the first thing that you think of when you think of an unruly testosterone-fueled frat house, but that’s kind of what it was. It was big enough that there were plenty of people to hang out with, and I didn’t have to worry very much if I screwed up and made an asshat of myself. It was sort of an incubator for real-life. Could I have gotten the same benefit by belonging to some other school club instead of a fraternity? Perhaps, but you learn a lot more about interacting with other people when you need to live among them, all the while maintaining a house financially and physically, 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
That bolstered my self-confidence, a lot. It sets up a healthy feedback loop that I didn’t have before. With self-confidence, you talk to more people. When you talk to more people, you get more confident.
I didn’t meet my future wife at one of our fraternity parties, but I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to start talking to her when I met her at another school if I hadn’t gotten my training wheels first.
So Why am I Still Embarrassed?
The last time I told one of my colleagues that I was in a fraternity in college, his response was “Oh really? How many women did you rape?”
There are men who become someone different once they’re part of a pack. It’s easier to let misogynistic world views slip out when you’re safely in the company of other men. There’s also a lower barrier to general irresponsibility and recklessness when you’re supported or egged on by a large group of your friends.
I don’t have a name for the resulting less-evolved men that surface when mob rule kicks in, but I like to think that the frat boy label gets applied to “beer me brah” dude-bro guys like this, regardless of association with a fraternity. It’s an unfortunate truism that men who are susceptible to group think often don’t mix very well with greek life. The caricature of the drunken frat boy is intertwined with the neanderthal dude-bro because of the safety provided by roaming in a pack, and a pack is exactly what a fraternity is.
Some people who dislike fraternities are less concerned with the mob behavior and waste more derision on the frat boy caricature’s cultural choices. But people are infrequently harmed by cap-wearing, foosball-competing, beer-pong playing, Dave Matthews Band listening, sportball watching, chicken-wing eating dude-bros. That’s pretty dumb — it’s as stupid as making fun of someone for watching Dr. Who, or (worse) categorizing all geeks as Dr. Who fans.
My fraternity had its share of dude-bros. It also had some pretty hard core gamers. It had a band that practiced in the basement and did shows at local clubs. Our biggest party of the year involved creating elaborate cardboard-and-duct-tape mazes through our house (an impressive feat of engineering if I do say so myself). There were gearheads and classical pianists (actually, there was just this one guy who was both). We had members from every continent except Australia, and we tried really hard to get the one Australian student interested in rushing us. Heck, we had a guy from Zimbabwe as our president. We were a pretty diverse group except for that whole all-male part.
As I’ve drifted further and further into software development as a career, I run into more and more people who took a different path. They grew up just fine and learned how to interact with people in a perfectly acceptable way without the artificial constructs of greek life. Few of them are empathetic to the fact that it worked for me. I suppose I don’t need their acceptance, but it’s strange that it’s something I keep to myself and don’t share very readily. It’s not some horrible secret and I’m not pretending I’m suffering from some sort of persecution. Greek life worked for me. I’m glad I did it. And, no, I didn’t rape anyone.
This writing originally appeared on Medium.