13 Things That Surprised Me When I Attended My First Mensa Annual Gathering

I spent five days at "nerd camp," and I think I've finally found my people.
Publish date:
July 22, 2016
conventions, smart people, Mensa

"You seem pretty smart," my coworker said to me during a break at work.

"If I was really smart, I'd be rich by now," I joked.

"I'm serious," she said. "I'm in Mensa; have you ever thought about joining?"

I hadn't.

My kindergarten teacher thought I was a genius. I tested into a gifted program a few years later, but my parents wanted me to socialize with "normal" kids. And no matter what year of school I was in, I found it boring and tedious (math gave me headaches and still does). Maybe she was onto something.

"Just think about it," she said, before going back to work.

She was a temp, so I didn't work with her for very long. But her suggestion stuck with me.

Earlier this year, frustrated by a lack of offline social and networking opportunities, I checked out American Mensa's website and decided to take the home version of the entrance exam. I passed.

I contacted Mensa and arranged to take the official entrance exam. I was nervous. I hadn't taken a test in years. My stomach was in knots, I sweated like a pig, and the math sections just about drove me nuts.

But I passed.

The day I received the email telling me I qualified for membership, I revisited Mensa's website to pay the membership dues. I noticed that the Annual Gathering was coming up and that it was being held in San Diego, which meant I could easily drive there.

I asked for a few days off of work, arranged to stay with family, and registered.

In three months, I went from being glued to the latest episode of Scorpion to attending a presentation given by the real Walter O'Brien.

This is what I learned.

"Hug dots," "singles dots," and "no photos" stickers are a great idea that could be adapted anywhere.

Many Mensans like to greet each other with hugs. Many don't. Simply stick a color-coded "hug dot" onto your badge to make your preference known (green for "hugs welcome," yellow for "please ask first," red for "no hugs please"). Likewise, singles looking for a match can add a blue dot. Not all single people are looking for someone — you look for the dot, not for a wedding ring.

And I was pleasantly surprised to see that another sticker indicated "no photos please." The media does cover events like this sometimes, and not everyone wants their picture taken.

The age range is all over the place.

I met Mensans in their teens and Mensans in their 80s. There were some really smart kids (a.k.a. Young Mensans) in attendance, but except for technology-oriented programs, I was often the youngest person in the room.

Brainiacs aren't necessarily politically correct.

While I have yet to encounter anyone deliberately attempting to offend someone, Mensans can laugh at things (including themselves). One very popular program was a performance of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, a biting satire of Catholic doctrine (only one person took offense, but he did have fair warning). The speaker of a different program commented that he loves Mensans because we can laugh at politically incorrect jokes (he had a lot of them — and they were hilarious).

It was surprisingly easy to talk to people.

A lot of people with high IQs find socializing tricky. Besides having to navigate conversations with someone who might not understand us, many smart people (including my two best friends) have ADD, autism, or other challenges. But other Mensans, at least from my experience, seem to get that. Starting conversations with anyone was easy, and no one took it personally if you stepped away for any reason.

"Smart" does not necessarily mean "sexless."

Some of the naughtier, "adults only" programs — a BDSM meetup, a rope-bondage demonstration, lectures on the adult film industry — just might shatter that particular stereotype. (I didn't attend any of these, but they were on the schedule for a reason.)

Not all Mensans have PhDs.

There were plenty of people in "smart" professions — teachers, doctors, techies, etc. But I also met blue-collar workers, housewives, artists, and actors.

Not everyone at the Mensa Annual Gathering is a member of Mensa.

The AG is open to non-Mensans (some Mensa events welcome non-members). I met a few people who were there to support a friend or relative, and several of the speakers I encountered freely admitted to not being in Mensa (one bright young woman claimed she was nowhere near smart enough, although I disagreed).

My childhood finally makes sense.

One speaker shared some information with me that turned out to be priceless. I was always bored senseless in school and openly hated the dumbed-down lessons, aggravatingly slow pace, and mind-numbing busywork. According to Gifted Research and Outreach, highly intelligent children learn differently and are more likely to struggle in a conventional learning environment than their peers. (I did manage to get decent enough grades, but I still hated every single second.)

The stereotype of the asthmatic/allergic nerd may have a grain of truth to it.

According to one presentation, a higher-than-average proportion of Mensans report allergies, asthma, and a spot somewhere on the autism spectrum. (So that's why I'm the wheezy sibling...)

No one gave a flying fudge what I looked like.

This is a good thing. It was nice to be called "funny" and "interesting" for once!

Some smart people like to party hard.

One of Mensa's most popular Special Interest Groups, or SIGs, is Hell's Mensans. They love a good party — and if they aren't wild enough for you, there's the Firehouse SIG. There was a cash bar near the registration kiosks; I overheard a conversation about one of the hospitality suites running out of alcohol, and my local chapter does four or five happy hours per month.

Some of the best stuff is on Facebook, but no one expects you to use Facebook if you don't want to.

It's true that a number of SIGs are Facebook-based, and a lot of members meet primarily online (especially outside the U.S.). But this is the first time that I've had anyone shrug and say, "Yeah, lots of us aren't on Facebook either," in response to my explaining that I don't use social media.

Scorpion may seem far-fetched, but Walter O'Brien says the show is inspired by real cases.

Yes, Walter O'Brien is a real person. Yes, he has an IQ of 197. Yes, he's involved with the TV show (he says it's "70 percent real"). Yes, Scorpion Computer Services is a real company. And I'm sure some people still won't believe any of this. (But they can't ruin it for me. The "Scorpion Unleashed" program was still fascinating. And the show is highly addictive.)

All in all...

  • Days at MensaCon: 5
  • Programs attended: 25
  • Caffeine consumed: way too much
  • Number of times I was mistaken for a speaker: 2 (total shock, both of them)
  • Competitions entered: 1
  • Competitions won: 1 (sorry, not telling!)
  • Times I wished the weekend would never end: too many to count

I doubt I'll be able to attend next year's AG, but now that I've finally found my people, I'm looking forward to meeting more of them through my local chapter.