Just how friendly are Mensans? Very friendly, if the annual convention of geniuses held in Pittsburgh last week was any indicator. Everybody seemed to smile, talk was lively and the social hall was always full. But the most telling sign was the "hugging code," a little sticker stuck on the members' badges to signal whether they wanted a hug. Green meant "hug me," yellow signaled hugs-by-permission and red requested personal space.
Held at the Omni William Penn Hotel, the convention's full title is the About Mensans For Mensans Annual Gathering, abbreviated "AM-FM AG." The radio theme extended to the schedule, or "playlist," which was positively packed with events. Mensans could practice tai chi, compete in a Scrabble tournament or hear Bob Luken's lecture on the Wright Brothers. They could also learn about the robotics program at CMU, or bone up on green technology.
"I joined for the social interaction," said Elissa Rudolph, the brand-new First Vice Chair of American Mensa, Ltd. (she wears a green sticker). "I'm a consummate learner. I want to find out about the universe." Rudolph lives in South Florida, but she grew up in Pittsburgh.
Mensa is often misunderstood by non-members (or "normals," as one Mensan put it). Simply put, Mensa is a global social club for people with high IQs. Since there are different IQ tests, and each is scaled differently, the number scored isn't important -- it's the percentage that Mensans care about. Only test-takers who score in the 98th percentile or above are accepted. But as members are keen to note, race, class, gender and sexual identity have no bearing. If you've got the right "processing power," you're in.
"Mensa is a very important social club," said Dutch native Willem Bouwens (yellow sticker), who was just elected Chair of Mensa International. And Bouwens should know: He considered himself an outlier growing up, and until age 33, he never felt socially included. "Mensa has a very low visibility in the Netherlands," he added. But after 22 years in the club, Bouwens holds one of Mensa's highest offices.
Most Mensans at the convention seemed to feel the same: High intelligence doesn't make a person better, but highly intelligent people have a lot in common (mostly, the fact that the other 98 percent don't really understand them). And most dismissed concerns that the club might be elitist: "I couldn't belong to a bowling team if I couldn't bowl," Rudolph asserted.
Aside from sky-high IQ's, Mensans are a diverse bunch. "It's a do-it-yourself organization," said Rudolph. "We have over 160 special-interest groups, and each has a separate newsletter. You could say we're one of the most democratic social clubs there is."
Generally, the AM-FM GA looked like any other convention. Sure, there was the stray Segway rider, and radio personality Dr. Demento was keynote speaker for Saturday's Mensa banquet, but anyone expecting a coterie of mad scientists would be disappointed. And for a $35 fee, newcomers could take the Mensa test and consider joining that very day. Some Mensans expressed amusement that they were sharing Downtown with Anthrocon, the nation's largest furry gathering.
Next year's convention will be held in Detroit, Mich., with the motto, "What genius picked Detroit?"
But Mensa isn't just about fun and games, claimed Beth Anne Demeter (red tag), an energetic 32-year-old from Chicago. The group has practical applications too, she says: There are groups for Asperger's discussion, depression therapy, gay and lesbian activism, and progressive theology.
"People take different avenues to get involved," Demeter said. "I think if you want to change the world, there are ways you can do that."