onegeeklogo6We geeks like our stuff. Whether it’s collector’s edition action figures, handmade costume pieces, directors’ cut DVDs, bootleg audio recordings, game-tweeked computers or super-lucky dice, we’ve all got something that we treasure.

And, at least to fellow geeks, it’s all pretty cool stuff. I remember the first time I saw a first-edition graphic novel at a friend’s house, with the author’s signature scrawled across the front. My first instinct was to pick it up and admire the autograph, maybe flip through it to check out the story. My friend’s gasp when I reached for it made me realized that what was to me, a cool trinket, was one of her prized possessions – an irreplaceable artifact of her geek-ness.

I kicked myself. I should have known better. My years in the Society for Creative Anachronism taught me an important rule about “stuff”. “If it ain’t yours, don’t touch it without asking.” Whether at a merchant’s booth, as a part of someone’s encampment, or in their home – it’s always better, safer and more polite to ask before handling someone else’s things.

While this is a rule we all should have learned in kindergarten, it was really confirmed for me when I started playing in the SCA. Since the Society (and many other theater or re-enactment groups) put a high emphasis on hand-crafting and creative arts, any item you pick up at an encampment could well be something the owner (or someone else) has invested countless hours of work (or large chunks of money) into. Just because you don’t recognize the value immediately, doesn’t mean that it’s not there.

Also, in the Society, there were some very practical reasons for asking before you touch. First of all, that dagger that you just picked up could be a lot sharper than it looks – and the only thing worse than damaging something irreplaceable is damaging something irreplaceable and bleeding all over it in the mean time.  And, secondly, any sort of item could have sentimental or spiritual significance that aren’t immediately apparent to the casual observer. What you might perceive as a piece of costume jewelry might well be a token representing an important award – or a religious icon.   It’s always better to just ask.

Somehow though, I hadn’t taken that message from the Society (or from kindergarten) to the rest of my geek world, at least not yet. But my friend’s reaction was a quick lesson in geek etiquette that I’ve kept in mind ever since.  When it comes to other people’s “toys” – be they computers, books, costumes or games – ask first. And after you receive permission, treat their valued items with the care and respect that you’d want them to show your favorite things. Take good care of them while they’re in your possession, and if you’re loaned them, return them in a timely manner and in as good of condition as they were when they entered your care.

Don’t dog-ear book pages, or lay an open book face down so that the spine becomes broken. Don’t touch CD surfaces or bladed weapons with your bare skin – the oils from your fingerprints can do irrevocable harm to the surfaces. Don’t “play” with action figures or Lego sets by taking them apart, removing accessories or bending them into awkward positions. Don’t put on clothing or jewelry without specifically asking if you can try it on. Never leave borrowed items where they can be exposed to extreme heat (like in a car) or moisture, or where they’re likely to get stolen.

In general, if you’re entrusted with something of value, treat it better than you would if it was your own item. It’s not just the item you’re being loaned, it’s your friends’ trust as well. And that, once broken, is hard to replace.

As for my friend and I? Fortunately, I was able to recover from my faux pas, apologize for touching without asking, and she was kind enough to let me read through her treasure… after I washed my hands, of course.

Have questions about how to handle a geeky situation? Need advice on social etiquette relating to games, movies, fan groups, conventions or other geek-ful settings? Write us at <!– document.write( ‘‘ ); // –> and your question may get answered in one of our future “One Geek to Another” columns!