Piotr Migdał

Dating for nerds (part 1): problem diagnosis

23 Jul 2017 | by Piotr Migdał

Dating for nerds (part 1): problem diagnosis

xkcd: Creep

  • Are you introverted, shy or socially anxious?
  • Are human interactions a maze of unwritten rules, and is physical touch a minefield?
  • Yet, you crave a romantic relationship with a girl of your dreams?

You are not alone. And most likely, with a little bit of work on yourself, you will get a happy dating, sex and love life! I want to help you with this series of articles on dating for (male, hetero) nerds (or: geeks, programmers, introverted intellectuals).

Before we go to the more juicy parts, let’s diagnose the problem.


Personal disclaimer

I am not sure if I want to publish pieces of dating advice on my semi-professional blog. It is a soft, opinionated and personal matter, inadvertently revealing my secrets and vulnerabilities. Though, if it is true that "data science is the sexiest job of the 21st century", maybe machine learning and dating are not that far apart. ;)

Also, to be clear: I don’t claim to be "good at dating"1, whatever that means. But I see the profound change from something being frustrating to a field where I feel well. And I would like to share some lessons I’ve learned in the process, often the hard way. While my problems with dating (or rather: not dating) gave me a lot of pain, they also prompted me to put a lot of effort into developing social skills in general.

Sure, there is no shortage of Internet dating advice. Yet, there weren’t many things I found illuminating (I link to ones that were). Nerds have special needs, special skills and things which may work differently (honesty, emotions, touch, spontaneity, expectations of partners) - general advice rarely cuts it. Some great minds consider this problem notoriously hard:

How to help all the young male nerds I meet who suffer from the dating problem, in a way that passes feminist muster, and that triggers the world’s sympathy rather than outrage?

I believe that, just as there are shy, nerdy men, there are also shy, nerdy women, who likewise suffer from feeling unwanted, sexually invisible, or ashamed to express their desires.

But well, fortune favours the bold. :) I spiked it with numerous references, so even if you fine with dating, you may find a few interesting links (I am an unabashed link hoarder).

Who's that for?

This text is addressed to heterosexual male nerds. Ideally, I would send it to my younger self2 (say, 15-25yo - the sooner the better), so as to be spared a lot of unnecessary emotional pain, feelings of loneliness, rejection and isolation. But, well, I actually want to help people, so it is wiser to think about a wider (not-empty!) audience.

A lot of this content might be useful for other groups (gender, sexual orientation, level of nerdiness). If you are not in the "main target", yet find it useful - I am really interested in your feedback! Conversely, each person is different, so what was important for me may be irrelevant (or even harmful) for you3.

Dating is not easy for anyone. Most people struggle with it at some point, not only nerds. And it’s fine to be nervous. At the same time, the bar is not so high - all you need is to get a bit of understanding of yourself, your body, other people and dating dynamics. By putting in some conscious effort you will get ahead of most men!

A large portion of this information is on approaching people in general, or advancing any relationship - surprisingly many things I learnt from dating are crucial for my networking skills (which, as a semi-freelancer, I use a lot). Job interviews have similar dynamics - just instead of getting laid you want to land a job (you need to interest them in you rather than express your neediness).

The topic dating may sound ambiguous - is it about looking for casual sex or the search for the love of your life? What I’ve found the most problematic is the transition from platonic contact to a romantic or sexual relationship, which works the same way regardless of relationship type or goal. Typically the most defining moment is the first committed French kiss. Most of advice here will be focused how to get to this moment.

Also, if you are on the recipient side of a nerd’s (however clumsy) courtship, I hope that you will learn a bit about his POV and be able to help him (whether it means taking command or turning him down in a clear but graceful way). And pointing them to this blog post (ideally: not in a passive-aggressive way) would be great! :)

It is not about

Before I proceed to it, let me lower your expectation. So, this text is not about:

  • Appealing to any girl. If picking up as many girls as possible is your goal, there are better sources. Here I will focus on approaching girls you are genuinely interested in.
  • A motivational talk. I won’t invent anything better than this mongoose fending off lions; still, scaring off every interested female is not the thing you want to do.
  • A magical trick (like s/wand/wang/). It might be that there will be a single piece of advice that will remove a crucial blockade. But most growth is a step-by-step process, taking time and during which you need to get out of your comfort zone.
  • A zero-sum game mindset. Unfortunately, a lot of mainstream dating advice uses a competition or conflict metaphor, where one side (whether a man or a woman) advances at the cost of the other. Here I want to focus on things that are mutually beneficial.
  • How to maintain a relationship. While it is a crucial topic, it is a very different activity than getting into one. However, these links may be helpful:


Who is a nerd?

A geek is a nerd with a non-zero chance of having sex - Staszek Krawczyk

While I use the word nerd a lot, it’s not about self-identification (here is a very stereotypical case in White & Nerdy by "Weird Al" Yankovic). You don’t need to have your favourite equation or a comic book! Note that for the sake of this text, I use nerd and geek interchangeably.

If you are highly intellectual, socially awkward person, you are likely to benefit from this blog post series. Just reading this blog post beyond the 140 character baseline is a good indicator that you may like its content. All bookworms, and blogworms, are welcome!

In short, nerds are typically defined as having a combination of intelligence, obsession and social awkwardness (as covered in this classic Venn diagram). If you really want to dive into this topic:

Social and sex life of nerds

Alan Turing: They only beat me up because I'm smarter than they are.
Christopher Morcom: No, they beat you up because you're different.

Social life may not be fun, especially during childhood and adolescence - with severity ranging from being an outsider to being totally excluded or actively bullied. Nerds may get it harder with interpersonal skills and their social rank, see:

Dating is a social activity - so there should be no surprise that such problems may make it hard to date. On top of being different, there are nerd-specific issues, covered in:

In short - being very picky and having a main focus other than mating makes dating hard. Winning a math competition is unlikely to make you much more sexually appealing. At the same time, overthinking and being a disembodied brain on a stick makes dating much harder.

Einstein sex genius - WulffmorgentHaller webcomic strip

(C) by WulffmorgentHaler (2010), used with permission

Don’t get me wrong - witty humour and an extensive vocabulary may help a lot, as well as some possible side-effects (such as good social standing or popularity). Just - sheer brainpower is not enough. Your intellect makes some of tasks way easier, but one of the key Smart Guy Productivity Pitfalls is to use it in lieu of effort. For dating it may be even more treacherous - here you are not at a big advantage to start with. It seems that data support it:

Note that the maximum is around average. So, it may be not because of being smart, but - different. It mentions some really scary statistics like:

By the age of 19, 80% of US males and 75% of women have lost their virginity, and 87% of college students have had sex. But this number appears to be much lower at elite (i.e. more intelligent) colleges. According to the article, only 56% of Princeton undergraduates have had intercourse. At Harvard 59% of the undergraduates are non-virgins, and at MIT, only a slight majority, 51%, have had intercourse. Further, only 65% of MIT graduate students have had sex.

Though, to be fair, it is at best 2* data, according to the Sex by Numbers credibility scale. See also Relationships: The First Time… - Flowing Data.

So, if you are a virgin, you are still in a good company! If you are barely not a virgin, you may be ahead of this intellectual cohort.

Main issues

From my anecdata, the main pain points are:

  • poor social skills - most of dating is in the extra-intellectual sphere, about reading cues, knowing cultural expectations and attracting (not: persuading) people
  • poor body language - sex is fundamentally about the body - being a brain on a stick won't get you far
  • poor hygiene - greasy hair, dirty clothes or (worst of all) bad breath can be instant turn-offs (good news: once you are aware of it, it’s super easy to fix it)
  • careless clothing - no need to become a fashion expert - even t-shirts are fine; just make sure they are fit and new (not: washed-out, gray which used to be black, oversized, free promo wear!)
  • unfavourable gender ratios - many nerdy places (like math/phys/cs departments) don’t have many girls; regardless of the reason, if you stick only to them, it will be an uphill battle
  • overthinking - there are no perfect people; and initial impressions of a person may be not enough for predicting future possibilities
  • talking not doing - one common trap is that once you find a fascinating girl, you keep talking but don’t do anything in a sexual direction; procrastination can freeze any project... and romantic pursuit
  • being misread - a lot of your actions may be considered rude, malicious or cold; for example, being in your thoughts can be seen as ignoring people, being honest - as trying to overtake power, etc.
  • having niche interests - mainstream interests can attract a wider spectrum of people
  • facts over emotions - correcting someone’s errors in casual conversation and delivering truth in its raw, insensitive form is rarely beneficial for dating
  • intellectually intimidating - knowledge of arcane subjects might be as much attracting as intimidating; often I was told that she was afraid to say something dumb, afraid I won't her serious if she does not know insert a technical topic here, etc.
  • being afraid of being a creep - many shy guys are afraid that revealing their love, or lust, will result in ostracism (it may be a result of being bullied in the past, social anxiety or already feeling like an outsider)

I will go how to address these points, often starting from underlying causes.

Evil nerds

People will misinterpret and misattribute your actions and attitudes a lot. However, it does not absolve you of responsibility for checking if what you do is fine! Nerds are not immune to most vices, and there are some that they excel at.

You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole. - The Social Network 2010 film

The whole opening scene from The Social Network movie may make one cringe - it is a beautiful depiction of a smart, obsessed and arrogant nerd. It’s not only a misunderstanding - it’s constant ignoring and judging his date.

Even if you are (or were) underprivileged socially it does not automatically make you a good person. Being bullied does not guarantee you won’t turn into a bully, vide this cynical twist of The Ugly Duckling comic strip by SMBC. What’s worse is when it goes beyond being unpleasant to being violent:

The men who sexually trespass against me are nearly always men who are unhappy or at a difficult point in their life. They are nearly always men who experience social isolation more generally. They are also nearly always men not actively dating any other women.

She, as a clearly nerdy woman, talks about her violators with a great deal of compassion, understanding and insight. To make it clear - no amount of suffering you received gives you a pass to harm innocent people. Through the remainder of this blog post series I make a strong assumption that you are committed to treating others with care, and not taking an unfair advantage, regardless of the circumstances.

Sure, nerds may come as insensitive, uncaring and rude, even if their intentions are good, see INTP = asshole?. Often it is an unfair judgement - based on comparison with their "obvious" cultural norms. However, I am a nerd is not a get out of a jail card, and if anything - will cause more ostracism than compassion.

Also, while in your workplace people may tolerate your ways, and turn a blind eye to your "difficult character" if you are an expert, the same thing won’t work in relationships. While nerds are in some demand, it’s nowhere near to programmers in the workforce.

Girls who love nerds

Yes, yes - whatever you were told, it’s not only jocks who attract women. Besides insight into arcane things other people are not aware of, and reasonably good job prospects, some girls are interested in the introverted, brainy type.

She loves nerds

What’s crucial: you don’t need to appeal to all women, and there are well enough women interested in nerdy men. Some of them may be fellow nerds, some not, but still considering intellect, introversion and deep interests sexy (a key word: sapiosexual). For some others your nerdism might be not relevant at all (just one of many aspects of your personality). Most importantly - if you are into some girl for her interests and character, there is a fair chance that she may find you as fascinating.

While still I have a soft spot for nerdesses, I no longer restrict to this circle. Dating non-nerds is not like dating outside of your religion… or species. OK, maybe it is a bit, but still - it may be worth it. While some differences may be tricky, some other may be very much complementary (vide this Nerd shopping xkcd strip).

One friend of mine wanted to write "Why do neurotypical girls fancy nerdy boys?", on her romantic interests. When I asked her why, she said:

I find genuine, intense interests and a lot of curiosity very attractive. - MS

While being different may have resulted in bullying in primary school, now it may be an advantage - you stand out! Also, particular interests may make it easier to find a very non-random girl - by meeting her through a network of like-minded friends, or at a specialistic event.

The best dating website? Meetup.com! - Sarah Martin

When it comes to attractiveness, The Mathematics Of Beauty - How you can use your flaws to your advantage from the former OkCupid blog shows that it is better to be very attractive to some (and non-attractive to others) rather than just ‘OK’ to everyone. While it talks about physical beauty, I would bet that a similar effect for other aspects.


I would like to especially thank to Sarah Martin and Marcin Kotowski.

In the next episodes:

  • Dating for nerds (part 2): gender differences
  • Dating for nerds (part 3): social skills
    • Introverted dating in the extroverted world
    • Asperger syndrome and autism spectrum
    • Embodiment
    • Human interactions are a bit unpredictable - deal with it
    • How to make other people want you, rather than being needy

And in the meantime, one more funny link: Casually Explained: Finding The One. ;)


  1. I cringe each time when I imagine people experienced my awkward courtship. So to clarify: I just suck less than I used to.
  2. Most likely I will never be in position to teach my younger self in that matters, unlike in Ted Chiang, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, pdf
  3. As always, before taking this advice consult you doctor, rabbi, PhD advisor or reptilian overlord.