Denver Mensa A.G.

Kit and I are back from Denver, where we both spoke at U.S. Mensa’s Annual Gathering. Several readers have asked what a Mensa gathering is like. Mensans simply have one thing in common: they’re all in the 98th percentile of intelligence — pretty smart people.

OK, But Smart Can Be a Liability

Smart doesn’t necessarily mean they’re well educated (though they tend to be), nor does it mean they necessarily have any common sense, nor does it necessarily mean they have any social skills, nor any other particular trait not related to intelligence.

All in all, most of them are pretty normal people …with a few “outliers” that help to give Mensa its reputation for being weird or nerdy. Some can be stand-offish and superior, but most are humble, interesting people.

One trait that intelligence gives people is curiosity — most Mensans are knowledge sponges. So what’s a Mensa conference (in their terms: gathering) like, then? Five to eight tracks of lectures, back to back over several days.

Some talks are simply entertaining, but most have some cutting edge or thought-stimulating aspect to them. As an alternative for when there’s nothing in the program of interest, there are game rooms, from cards to jigsaw puzzles to Boggle to (shudder!) members telling word puzzles to each other (I have no patience for those myself).

One Significant Advantage

What I like about Mensan audiences is their ability to “get” every joke I include — instantly. They understand the implications of the issues I raise, such as zero tolerance. They can follow a complex argument. At the same time, they can be a tough crowd: they demand the best, expect well-thought-out points, and have no patience for sloppy scholarship.

Spotted in Denver.

They’re definitely not afraid to challenge an “expert” who is speaking to them. The morning I arrived there was a rumor going around among the speakers that one of the presenters had finished their talk, and in the Q&A period one of the audience members raised his hand and said, “That was the worst presentation I’ve ever heard.” — and that comment was applauded by the rest of the audience.

When I saw the program chair later (a long-time True reader who had recruited me for this gig), I asked her about it. She hadn’t heard about it, so I still don’t know if it was true. But it is at least plausible, and is a speaker’s worst nightmare — and an example of what I mean by some Mensans not necessarily having “social” skills.

Lots of Readers

It was a blast for me to have so many fans in an audience. When I introduced myself, I was really surprised that that brought hearty applause. I asked how many of them were already readers, and about a third raised their hands. I got fabulous feedback, and truly had fun there.

Entertaining the crowd while giving them all something to think about — a Zero Tolerance rant was part of my agenda.

So for me, the bottom line was that it was an incredibly stimulating environment and I had a great time. And while I was there, the organizer of the Regional Gathering in Reno started working on me again to come to his conference — I had turned him down a few months ago. But I had such a good time in Denver that I relented, and will be at the Reno conference (er, RG) in October. So if you missed this one, there’s a second chance for you this year.

If you’ve always considered joining Mensa, but weren’t sure what it was all really about, there you go. To be in the 98th percentile, which essentially means you’re smarter than 98 percent of the population, translates to an IQ of about 132 or better (it varies a bit depending on which test you take). They accept many tests, such as California school assessment tests (which are or were given in many states, not just California), many military assessment tests, etc., or you can take one of the many tests they accept or proctor themselves. See Mensa’s web site for more (a gateway to national sites the world over; Mensa is decidedly not just a U.S.-centric organization.)

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21 Comments on “Denver Mensa A.G.

  1. I had the pleasure of being Randy’s speaker shepherd for one of his talks, and he was easy to work with (not to mention interesting to hear him present).

    Randy’s last sentence above is: “Mensa is decidedly not just a U.S.-centric organization.” Mensa was founded in England in 1946, and has a presence in dozens of countries.

  2. I was at the Mensa AG and you were on my “must see” list. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get to your presentation after all! (As a member of the Host Committee, volunteer duties took me away.)

    I’m so glad to hear you’ll be at the Reno RG. Have you considered speaking at the Annual Gathering next year in Pittsburgh? Sure hope to get a chance to see you!

    I’ve been informally invited to Pittsburgh, but haven’t had a chance to look at my schedule yet. I have a lot of catching up to do right now…! -rc

  3. Sorry to have missed you in Denver, but you seem to have a good grasp of us. Hope you’ll seriously consider Pittsburgh next year, and by the way, how about your own membership plans? Dive in, the water’s fun!

    I’d be surprised and appalled to learn the story of the audience response to a poor presenter is true; we’ll challenge an “expert” in a heartbeat, but mass boorish behavior is something I’ve not encountered, either as an occasional speaker nor long-term Mensan.

    To be sure, I didn’t witness any such boorish behavior, I’m happy to say. And the feedback I’ve received has been very flattering and complimentary. I mentioned the story to another organizer, who said he had heard it from (with my retelling) three people, and was trying to track it down and would let me know what he finds out.

    I had a terrific time at the A.G., which is the best possible argument for joining. I haven’t made up my mind about joining yet, but once I catch up with some urgent work I’ll definitely be considering it. -rc

  4. I was what they like to call a “first timer” at the annual gathering and from what I saw, everyone there had a great time. Personally, I will be at all future AGs. It was one of the best times I’ve ever had.

    The best way I have ever seen Mensa described is from an article The Last Sock In the Nerd Hamper, and it reads, “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 nee somewhere to go and let down their guards and just be themselves, whether it involves being overly smart or not.”

    From this description it is obvious that one of the more common reasons that members, such as myself, join Mensa, is to to have an escape from our daily lives with other interesting people.

    Your show was wonderful. I enjoyed it and talked about it afterwards with friends who’d went and a few who didn’t. The comment I heard most from them was, “Oh, I wanted to go to that.” All I can say is, if you’re going to make another Mensa event I’m attending, I’ll be there.

  5. I attended the Denver Annual Gathering (AG), and as a long-time subscriber to TiT, I made it a strong point to hear both Randy’s turns at the podium.

    “The True Stella Awards — or… Lawsuits Gone Crazy” and

    “The 7 Deadly Sins … + 1” both were excellent!

    It is a good thing that he prefaced his talks with an explanation that he intended to “hurt our brains” by making us think at the same time he made us laugh. All I have to say to that is …. Ow, Ow, Ow!, LOL

    Randy: Maybe you could make it to the next year’s AG in Pittsburgh? Do the “7 Wonders of the Modern World” and pick the ones that are the worst Head Scratchers.

  6. I have been a member of Mensa for many years and took their test initially out of curiosity and, once I had discovered from the initial free test that I was of Mensa potential, to prove to myself that I was intelligent.

    Once I had passed the entry test I started to go to Mensa meetings and the thing that I discovered about Mensa groups, which to me is their main distinguishing characteristic, is the different level of conversation. Whereas the average pub conversation covers a limited and predictable range of topics, with sport and soap operas never being absent for too long, Mensan conversations range far and wide with a plethora of topics being discussed.

    My belief is that the intelligent brain is a curious brain, and thus Mensans tend to have at least some measure of knowledge about a far wider range of things than do those of average intelligence – and this ability to contribute to many topics accounts for the wide-ranging nature of Mensan conversations.

    Having said which, my membership of Mensa is not something I tend to reveal too quickly; unlike other characteristics, claiming to be intelligent is seen by some as boasting of a kind of superiority. Unlike physique “Hey, you’re a tough looking guy – do you work out?” which is treated as no more than a distinguishing characteristic which one might admire, intelligence is often denigrated: “Hey, if you’re so clever, why aren’t you a millionaire, then, smart ass!”

    And, so as to not stray too far from the topic, let me say that I, too, have never seen boorish behaviour at Mensa gatherings of any size – although I have only been to UK events.

  7. Hmmm. Reading this blog I feel a bit like Proust having just bitten into the madeleine. Years ago I joined Mensa in search of this camaraderie – but kids and no money took me away. Wonder if they revive memberships?

    I’m quite sure they do. -rc

  8. I attended the Seven Deadly Sins + 1 talk, arriving slightly late. Having been a long time TiT and Stella Awards subscriber, plus a contributor and editor of HeroicStories, I was looking forward to hearing your talk and meeting you in person. What a surprise it was to come up to you after the talk, only to have you look at me and then my name badge to have you say, “I know you!” 🙂

    I recognize many subscribers’ names. Not all of them, of course, but it was sure fun to meet so many readers there. -rc

  9. I would note that intelligence does not mean “smart” and that one of the most common things I found in Mensa was a strong tendency to believe that their expertise in one or more fields automatically carried into other fields–a failing which is disturbingly easy to trip on when you know a lot of things about a lot of subjects. That kind of knowledge does make you an expert among ordinary, non-curious people.

    One problem with knowing and in particular, “getting” nearly everything is that you easily overlook things which are “obvious” to you, but which could make lots of money if you bothered to publish them. This is a result of the natural tendency of people to assume that everyone else is “just like me.”

    The Internet is particularly dangerous for the perpetually curious, as it is an infinite “twilight zone.” Since connections exist between everything, it is very easy to jump down a rabbit hole and lose what you were after at the beginning of the hunt. A conversation can go from dessert to politics to history to paleontology and back without actually leaving the connected track. Like James Burke’s “Connections” series, only there may be no planned route.

    Mensans, SF fans, and nerds in general have trouble resisting a conversation which they feel they can add (or detract) to/from, this willingness to jump into a conversation between strangers is, in normal society, considered rude. But in these circles, what counts is not how you got into the conversation, its whether you have anything to contribute. If you don’t, you will be shut down and out quite quickly.

    My own theory is that there is some fact to the traditional “nerd” image–thick glasses and no social skills. Often, people with horrible eyesight are not diagnosed until they enter school. Unfortunately, the first 5 years of life is were much of your social interaction skills develop–including the vastly important information transmitted by body language.

    This leads to people who only understand the 5-15% of a conversation which is spoken, and they miss the nonverbal portion. Nerds with thick glasses literally cannot “see” when you are joking. And in turn, they do not tend to send the proper nonverbal cues either, so that other people have trouble knowing how to interpret what they are saying–which is, unlike much conversation, PRECISELY, the words they speak.

    Because of this precision, they are often considered a bit “weaselly” by others, since they tend to qualify everything which is not a proven fact. This is a tendency which has to be fought when you are giving testimony in court; jurors don’t trust someone who doesn’t give a straight answer–even if a straight answer is partially wrong some of the time.

    [50,000 words omitted]

    One of the great joys of associating with such people is the fact that they “get” most everything. You don’t have to explain why the trilingual pun you made is funny. Or much of anything else, leaving you free to argue points without a lot of teaching of background so you will be understood.

    Another great joy is in leaving them again. It is extremely strenuous to be thinking nearly constantly, with an audience who will willingly tear your thoughts to shreds if you leave an opening.

  10. I’m really sorry to have missed you at the A.G. this year, but due to finances I was unable to attend.

    Thanks for the kind words regarding Mensa and I hope to see you at a future event.

  11. I first joined Mensa Canada in 1966 and retained membership for about 25 years until I let it lapse. I couldn’t agree more with your comments about the diversity of characters in Mensa. Some are incredibly articulate and verbose, and others (like me) are so laid back that people are unbelieving when they find out I was in Mensa.

    One of the most poignant observations I’ve heard was after one member was pontificating about something or another, another member reminded him that he was only one in fifty, not one in a million. I always loved that observation.

    Yep: that’s what “98th percentile” means! I used to amuse myself by saying to people, “Do you realize that nearly HALF of all Americans are below average intelligence?!” Typical replies included “REALLY?!” and “Yeah, I’d be willing to believe that.” -rc

  12. I must shamefully admit that my Life Membership in MENSA has been sadly unused. It is the one group where you don’t need to constantly explain yourself, since even those without the same knowledge set can still appreciate your views on complex concepts. My everyday contacts are seldom able to comprehend the majority of my esoteric comments and humor, so I have learned to ‘dumb down’ a lot of it. There is something to be said for being the smartest person in any given situation. 😉

  13. This all sounds pretty interesting, but I have never considered trying to join Mensa, or even testing my IQ, due to the attitude that Richard from the UK mentions. It seems that society considers it very egotistical and self-centered to promote yourself as smart, and thus I’ve always had an aversion to even thinking about it. Even if I’m not in the 98th percentile myself, I really love talking and meeting with smart people, for many of the reasons mentioned your post and the subsequent comments. So maybe I’ll look into taking a test, but I still find the whole business a bit difficult, considering most of my life, I’ve been told not to be concerned about one’s intelligence (or lack thereof).

    Incidentally, my poor eyesight was diagnosed at age 7 – but my glasses were not particularly thick. 🙂

    The people who tell you intelligence isn’t important are the dumb ones, so you should take their opinions with a grain of salt. Intelligence shouldn’t really be a matter of pride, since you’re not responsible for it, but neither should it be a source of shame. You are, however, responsible for properly feeding your brain, and you can do that whether you’re intelligent or not. It might be more satisfying to challenge yourself by hanging around other intelligent people, and that, in my opinion, is a decent reason to join Mensa. -rc

  14. At the Denver AG, I attended a program at which an audience member stated words to the effect of “That is the worst presentation I have ever seen.” Someone on our side of the aisle suggested we drown the audience member out with applause. Since I felt the audience member had been rudely challenging the speaker regularly throughout the program, I started to applaud. After several seconds, another voice contributed an opinion that the applause might be misunderstood. I realized my error and stopped applauding. At the very end of the program, we applauded the speaker longer and louder then the prior effort.

    When I told the organizer of the upcoming Reno Regional Gathering the story, he was horrified. I think he’ll be relieved by these further observations. -rc

  15. I second what “Bill in suburban Chicago said” (I was sitting next to him at the talk in question), and have a bit to add.

    The knucklehead (I’m being kind here) who stood up and stated, “That was the worst presentation I’ve ever attended,” or words to that effect, was essentially saying that he didn’t agree with the speaker’s thesis — even though the speaker was merely explaining WHY he agreed with SOMEONE ELSE’S (a third party’s) point of view, and was eagerly telling audience members to where they could turn for more information. Just because the speaker could not articulately answer all of the aforementioned knucklehead’s questions, he (the KH) decided that the speaker had to be embarrassed and his credibility destroyed. We were NOT amused, and did indeed applaud the speaker (even if misconstrued) after the idiot’s remark.

    I’ve been an active member of Mensa for 25 years, and have seen my share of boorish behavior, but that was absolutely the WORST example of it I’d ever seen at an event (or am ever likely to see again).

    All that having been said, the Denver AG was, overall, quite a good one.

    RC, we really do hope you’ll consider Pittsburgh in ’09 (I missed both of your talks this year).

    Thanks, Mark. -rc

  16. First, let me say to Randy, I’ve been a reader since back when it was called “This Just In.” Bravo and all that.

    Second, I was in the audience, two rows behind the person I’m ashamed to call my fellow member, who said it was a terrible presentation and “If you were my attorney I’d fire you.” The fact is, it was a poor presentation — the speaker couldn’t back up many of his claims and was very unacquainted with conflicting evidence. Nonetheless, I remain very sorry for the shabby treatment he got from that one jerk.

  17. Just making a small correction to the definition of what it takes to be in Mensa, which is related to the comment, by a poster, about a particular Mensan only being one in 50, and not one in a million.

    The requirement for being in Mensa is to be *above* the 98th percentile. Not at it. So any particular Mensan could well have an IQ of anything above 132, maybe 180, 200, whatever.

    Many members also belong to one of the other, more elite, high IQ societies as well.

    Thanks Randy, I’ve been reading True for a few years now. I did want to get to your talks at the AG, but wasn’t able to make it.

  18. You say: “What I like about Mensan audiences is their ability to ‘get’ every joke.”

    That’s a very common reaction of people who could join, who find Mensa for the first time.

    I don’t have to explain my jokes, I don’t have to lose half my vocabulary, I don’t have to hide the fact that I ‘get’ things much faster than the average person. I can just relax with friends who feel the same way.

    If you make it, welcome aboard.

    I’m ashamed to see the rumor substantiated by some of the other commenters here.

    In all the Mensa conferences I’ve attended, I’ve never witnessed nor even heard of someone being that incredibly rude to a presenter. [Other Mensans, yes, but not a guest.]

    I’ve seen presenters encouraged by their audience to take the test and join, and I’ve heard people in the hall after a seminar who tear apart a presentation, but generally if someone doesn’t like a presentation / presenter, they’ll just walk out and not waste their time. That’s why poor presenters rarely know it – nobody tells them to their face, even diplomatically.

    In fact, there’s usually a reminder in the schedule book that many presenters are not Mensans, and to be extra nice to our guests, for guests you are. If people are fun, we want to be able to invite them back and have them say ‘yes’.

    And to Cathy in Philly, yes, they do revive memberships. If you have some proof (an old card or newsletter) it’s easiest, but they can often look you up in their records. Look on the national site.

    About the only topic which isn’t discussed among Mensans is ‘how smart are you?’ and its variations.

    People who say intelligence isn’t important are either very intelligent, so it really isn’t important, or are not intelligent, in which case it’s a painful subject they don’t want to deal with. (Aside from the extremely unintelligent, who generally seem to be pretty happy folks. Wonder if there’s a moral there?)

    On a resume, I’ll include some of my volunteer service to Mensa if it helps my position, but tend not to out myself too often otherwise. It’s just another characteristic, like having blue eyes or being tall, but some people feel threatened and need to try to belittle someone they know does better on tests than they did.

  19. Their cutoff is only 132? Genius begins at 140. 132-139 is sub-genius. Hmmmph. Some clubs will let any riff-raff join.

    But my main reason for not joining Mensa is derived from a famous Groucho Marx quote: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

  20. Randy, Thanks for this! You totally created the whole world of it for me.

    I am a stand-up comedian. Not a Mensan. I do comedy of a philosophical/metaphysical nature. One of your tribe came to my show and hooked me up to be a presenter at the Pittsburgh and San Diego conferences this year.

    I’m so honored. I had a good degree of difficulty finishing high school and now I get to brag that the smart kids want me.

    WOOO HOOO! They get jokes! I am delighted. I’ve got a few shows coming up in Colorado if you’d like to come as my guest.

    Thanks Again!

    Just remember that trouble finishing school doesn’t mean you’re not smart: you may have just been bored (certainly I was!) Surely anyone who is successful at philosophical/metaphysical comedy is no slouch! I’d love to come to any show near me; I’m in Western Colorado, about 5 hours from Denver. -rc

  21. Thank you very much for this thread. I’ve always thought that Mensa membership was just out of reach, but from the comments here, possibly not.

    Lynne’s comments struck a chord with me. I don’t like the necessity of losing half my vocabulary, nor not telling a joke because I know *sigh* that I’ll need to explain it.


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