Reader Request Week 2018 #5: Who’s Cool and Who’s Not

Oh, just a picture of Krissy. ‘Cause she’s, like, cool.

Kaci asks:

Having just read the Twitter post, I’d really like to know your theory of coolness and why some people will never be cool.

She’s referring to this Twitter conversation between me and the Washington Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg:

And it sounds like Kaci doesn’t want to wait, which is reasonable inasmuch as she probably wouldn’t be in the room for a private conversation between me and Alyssa anyway. So, fine, here is my theory on “cool” and why some people will never be cool. And to explain it, let me use a couple of examples, namely, me and my wife Kristine.

I am, to put it bluntly, not cool. This does not mean that I am not (or at least could not be) a good person, or a nice person, or a person that people are interested in meeting, or someone who is creative or does interesting stuff, and so on. What it means is, when I meet people, I generally want them to like me. I like to be liked. This aspect of my personality means I expend time and effort and energy to find the ways and means to help people decide if they want to like me. It doesn’t always work (and sometimes I decide I don’t want to like someone), but generally it does; I’m mostly likeable, and by now I’m pretty good at reading people. But the point is, there’s a flow of conversational and personality energy coming out from me, hoping to draw the other person in, to help create a space we can both be comfortable in, and maybe even be friends together.

Krissy also generally likes to be liked; who doesn’t? But the thing about Krissy is that she’s perfectly fine if you don’t like her, either, and her particular personality means she doesn’t worry about either condition. She is a lovely and wonderful and delightful person, and also, she’s pretty much entirely self-contained. Your approbation or opprobation is neither here nor there to her. As a result, she doesn’t send out a lot of energy when you meet her initially. Energy and effort goes to her, rather then from her, and then depending on what she decides, you get to be friends with her, or not. She’s never less than polite and kind and correct with people; I’ve never known her to be cruel or standoffish, unless someone richly deserved it. But fundamentally she’s a person people want to impress, rather than the person trying to impress people. In other words: she’s cool.

Much shorter version: If you’re the sort of person who wants people to like you, you’re not cool. If you’re the sort of person who people wished you liked them, you’re cool. Likewise, things that are cool are things you have to do the work to approach; not-cool things come out to find you.

“That’s just the difference between an introvert and an extrovert!” I hear some of you say. Well, no. As it happens, I’m the actual introvert in the family, and Krissy is the actual extrovert. I put out energy and effort despite eventually wanting to withdraw from people and recharge in my room; Krissy draws people in and then once they’re in her circle of friends, she’s ready to party. I think there may be some correlation between introversion and coolness (shyness can be confused with coolness, for example), and extroversion with not-coolness, but it’s not one to one.

Indeed we can come up with lots of reasons why people are cool or not cool, but I’m not sure that any one of them is a constant. People who are beautiful seem to automatically go to the head of the line in terms of coolness, as an example, but I know lots of people who I think are gorgeous who are also deeply not-cool in their personalities, and vice-versa. Some creative people I know are cool; many are not. Some people would say “coolness is confidence” but anecdotally I don’t think anyone would say of me that I’m not confident, and yet I don’t consider myself cool at all. Most nerds are really not cool, and yet I can think of a few who totally are. And so on.

Also, and to be clear: Coolness, or lack thereof, is not a value judgment. Some awesome people and things are not in the least bit cool; some real trash is found under the “cool” umbrella. I do think at least some of the valorization of “coolness” comes from the simple fact that most people and things aren’t in fact genuinely cool. Most people like to be liked; in situations where people feel comfortable, and on their own terms, they send out energy to others and hope to draw others in. Likewise, most creative things in the stream of commerce aren’t meant to be difficult to approach; they’re made, bluntly, to sell, to someone. At the end of the day, something that is “cool” or not is neither here nor there to its value (and its value to you), and cool people are still people and you can like them or not, depending.

Now, here’s a couple of caveats to the “coolness” thing. The first is that “cool” is obviously very often shorthand for “a person or thing or action I like and/or admire,” as in “I love that dude, he’s so cool” or “That movie was really cool” or “That was a cool thing you did.” If you’re using “cool” that way — and pretty much everyone does — I’m not going to argue with you about it. The ridiculous fungibility of the English language means things can be “hot,” “cool,” “bad,” “good,” and “sick” simultaneously, and all meant positively, even when those words (again, obviously) have their own separate meanings in different contexts, and shades of difference in this one. When I’m talking about “cool” and “not cool” I’m scaling it down to a very specific context (and also, I should note I’m making a qualitative distinction between “not cool” and “uncool,” the latter of which has specific negative connotations, and while I’m at it, between “not cool” and “warm,” the latter of which has its own positive connotations. Wow, my philosophy of language training is getting a workout today).

The second caveat is that not-cool people and things can have situational coolness thrust upon them. I am by no stretch a cool person, but in events like readings and signings and appearances, I get to be a temporarily cool person, because lots of energy is being directed at me by people who have come to see me, and the dynamic of the event is that I can’t really return the energy in kind.

The coolness generally dissipates the moment I’m off the clock, thank God, because I’m not actually famous and thus am not cursed to be recognized everywhere I go. That sort of coolness is performative and I can’t imagine having to perform it all the time. It’s difficult for not-cool people to be cool on a regular basis. It’s like ill-fitting shoes. I imagine for cool people the opposite is true — being in a situation where they would have to send out energy all the time to other people would be exhausting.

I like that my wife is cool; from a sociological point of view it’s been fascinating for me to watch people react to her over the last quarter century. I imagine that she feels the same way about me, watching me do my thing with people as I get to know them, and they me. I think as a couple we make a pretty good team because we are content to be who we are. I like my not-cool self. And I enjoy trying on a daily basis to get my super-cool wife to decide to like me. It’s fun. And so far, so good.

(There is still time to ask a question for Reader Request Week! Go here for all the details, and to ask your question.)

37 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2018 #5: Who’s Cool and Who’s Not

  1. Notes:

    1. Since I’ve opened myself up to it, yes, you may if you wish discourse on whether I am cool or not (I have clearly expressed my thought on it). Allow me to hope you might not be a jerk about it. Likewise, any excessive buttering-up will be viewed with an eyeroll.

    2. Likewise, Krissy, but be aware that you’re talking about my wife there, and I will look askance at any attempt to say not-nice things regarding her.

    3. Also, please don’t use the cool/not-cool thing I’m talking about here as cover to be jerks about other writers/creators, especially people I know. I won’t appreciate it.

    4. If you’re wondering whether you’re cool or not cool: You’re probably not cool. And that’s great! Join the crowd.

  2. But can I wear a sombrero and still be cool? ‘Cause it’s no fun being cool if you can’t wear a sombrero.

  3. The cool continuum changes over time. I have a friend who was extremely uncool in high school and never changed. He is pretty much the same as he was 30 years ago yet he’s now cool (at least by nerd standards).

    Your kids never think you’re cool. I’ll bet even Miles Davis’ kids don’t think he was cool.

  4. I don’t fit either one of these personality types. I am standoffish (like Krissy) and also want my space to recharge (like John). I really care not about impressing people (outside of work that is). Probably because of work and some family issues I (being honest here) think most people are not worthy of trust. I allow people to EARN my trust, but I am not easy about it. In work settings I tend to be pretty vocal and assertive, but I turn it off at 5:00pm.

  5. I think the operative word is “team”…you guys are a team, and you complement each other in so many ways, including the cool/uncool thing. Two cool people in a relationship often seem to end up on the cover of a magazine. With their team…of lawyers.

  6. Love this description. Thinking of my (other) favorite writer, @GreatDismal William Gibson – I suspect that he is cool by this definition. I can’t imagine him caring one way or another how I feel about him. Plus he’s got such edgy fashion sense – which wasn’t part of your description but man I want to wear some of the clothing he writes about (c.f., Buzz Rickson jacket in “Pattern Recognition”)

  7. “Much shorter version: If you’re the sort of person who wants people to like you, you’re not cool. If you’re the sort of person who people wished you liked them, you’re cool.”
    I couldn’t read this without thinking the simple analogy would be (allowing that individuals don’t all fit the type): Cats are cool. Dogs are not cool. Wonderful, yes. But decidedly not cool.

  8. Cool people are often oblivious to their coolness, because they’re too cool to care. People who revel in their perceived coolness are definitely uncool. You just don’t realize how cool you actually are, which causes you to be even coolererer.

  9. Well I know I’m cool, so I’m going to go turn up the central heating and put a cardigan on.

  10. John, your definition of “cool” makes sense from a relatively uncomplicated psychological standpoint, if I’m understanding it correctly. You seem to be postulating a spectrum related to the flow direction of psychological energy/effort in terms of establishing connection.

    And as you note, the English language being what it is (particularly with a multi-billion dollar industry to influence belief, spending decisions, etc.by using semantic manipulation), “cool” has many connotations. I often see it used interchangeably with “hip” in reference to an ephemeral popularity based on a combination of novelty and status.

    And I often see it used as you discuss- a non-specific substitute for any number of positively-connoted adjectives and slang terms.

    But none of those definitions seems to adequately capture what “cool” means in the phrase “the cool kids”. (Examples: “If you can’t sit at the same lunch table with the cool kids, you must be a dork!” or “I have to have one of these jackets, Mom– all the cool kids have them!”) While the usage may not be exclusively adolescent, adolescents originated this version of “cool” and it’s a powerful term in their consciousness.

    Did you encounter this use of “cool” during Athena’s middle school/high school years? If so, how did that impact your own Theory of Cool? And if not, can you speculate on why not, and offer other parents any insight on how to achieve a similar lack of cool-related adolescent personal development?

  11. uleaguehub:

    Athena’s school had a different dynamic than most, I think, because it was so small; there were thirty people in her graduating class. Everyone knew everyone and were (largely) friends with everyone, and that changes things.

  12. This is one of those definitions that cant make any difference. People are who they are and cant change their coolness level. Anyone talking about the definition of cool is definitely not cool.

  13. Thanks for answering my question! As usual, I feel like I’m neither, though I imagine the default is “not cool” :-) I would be sad if no one, liked me, of course, and I’m going to be social at social events because that’s why I’m there. But whether any specific person likes me isn’t particularly important. On the other hand, I definitely don’t think I’m the sort of person that people wish liked them. My pattern seems to be benign indifference to people until we’re thrown together for some reason, and then maybe we’ll click, which is great when it happens but can hardly be expected to happen all the time. I tend to assume that other people are also benignly indifferent to me unless we get thrown together and happen to click.

  14. I was raised to be civil. It stuck, so I am biased. I think true civilisation is impossible without civility. So I will almost always be polite to strangers (unless they are being uncivil – littering, for instance.) I’ve never been much interested in being liked by people I don’t know. I can do extrovert things but it’s not where I live.
    I’ve never been cool though. That’s partly looks and partly being on the introvert spectrum, so to speak, but also ‘The child is the father of the man’ territory. Because of my birth date I was a year younger than all of my classmates. Also, my parents moved about a bit, when I was young. I learned early how to play groups; how to be accepted in the outer circle, how not to be bullied and how to be left in peace. Coolness didn’t come into that (though I learned the value of being funny.)

    As for your “I know lots of people who I think are gorgeous who are also deeply not-cool in their personalities”, I have often wondered if that same ‘The child is…’ principle is at play there. Some forms of beauty are striking more than conventionally pretty (think of Angelina Jolie, for instance) and they might have been considered almost odd-looking as children. Maybe that’s part of the reason some gorgeous looking people can’t really see themselves as cool (or beautiful.)

    Anyway, an interesting question – and thank you for picking & answering it.

  15. You’ve made being a public doofus socially acceptable. I think that’s pretty cool.

  16. Hipness is, what it is
    And sometimes hipness is what it ain’t
    -Tower of Power
    Doesn’t the same thing apply to cool? Changes from person to person and time to time.

  17. I think it’s possible, according to your definition, to be both cool and uncool at the same time, as they seem to be related but not oppositional states of perception. One can want people to like themselves and want to impress others *while at the same time* be a person others want to impress. I think it’s often a matter of context which state is on at any given time, and in many cases it’s not both, but they’re both fluid.

  18. I like Devin’s Schrodinger’s Cat of Coolness thing. btw, Krissy is without a doubt cool, and also insanely photogenic.

  19. I think a lot of it does boil down to confidence and self-sufficiency. My husband and I are totally, irrevocably un-cool. But we worked our asses off to make sure our two kids were both competent and confident, and while we certainly weren’t aiming to produce “cool” offspring, it’s what we ended up with. I do mean “cool” the way our gracious host means it, and not in the “cool kids’ table” way, though it was both entertaining and edifying watching the kids at that table trying to figure out how to deal with mine. But, alas, they’re out in the world being cool now, and we’re no longer cool by association.

  20. Could there be a superposition? People around whom even cool people are not cool or people who are not cool to themselves but are cool to others?

  21. Meh. You are not truly free until you unshackle yourself from the perceptions of others.

    I am cool because I say so. The cool table is wherever I happen to be sitting. The cool kids are the ones I’m hanging out with right now. The cool clothes are whatever I have on my back at the moment.

    Etcetera, etcetera.

  22. This fits pretty well with the history of the term, I think. It seemed to start as being fairly unemotional, not caring…not quite cold, right? Then it seemed to move to being calm and above it all, so that you didn’t want to lose your cool. This became an aspirational thing and cool moved over into being a generically positive modifier, but the old connotations still hang around it, so if you’re a neat/fun/attractive person who doesn’t care about whether people think you’re neat/fun/attractive (but who can care about other things, now), then you’re cool.

    I don’t care whether people think I’m neat/fun/attractive, but taking an honest look at it, very few people are ever going to think I am, so I’m not cool, and I’m fine with that.

  23. I quit caring about that crap in 8th grade. Since then, I’ve been myself, as absurd and unique as I want to be. It is much more fun.

  24. This is fascinating, because you have a totally different definition of what “cool” means than I have ever used. Thank you for elucidating this, but I have to, not so much disagree with you, as realize that when you talk about “cool” and I talk about “cool” that we are using that term to mean entirely different things.

    So that’s interesting in and of itself.

  25. Ooooo, I like this one. I however think you have it wrong, Dear Host.

    Being cool is not determined by caring or not caring what other people think of you. That’s close, but I’m afraid you have missed the essential nut of it.

    It’s like this:

    I’ve had enough golf lessons that I know how you are supposed to swing a club. Yet, I am not a particularly good golfer. I have all the knowledge, skill, etc. I need, yet except on some rare and noteworthy exceptions I fail to put it together. Why? I have no confidence and belief in what I am doing. I am way to self conscious about it. I don’t believe I will hit well. I am thinking about becoming a good golfer rather than being one.

    It’s like jaunting in the Stars My Destination. If you don’t believe it will happen, it won’t

    So what does this have to do with being cool?

    You are cool when you do just do what you do with confidence and ease, unselfconsciously.

    When you doubt yourself, or don’t believe you can pull something off, or as you say, are worried about what other people think, than you are not cool.

    This is why James Spader can wear those hats in The Blacklist and look cool. He KNOWS they are awesome and he is awesome in them. His knowing is what makes it cool. I look like James Spader, in that I am a Middle Aged, balding, white guy who’s a little pudgy. I bought a Blacklist hat. It does not look cool on me. Why? I look like a guy who is very self-conscious that he is wearing a hat.

    Cool is confidence and grace under pressure. It is comfort with oneself and what one is doing, and not worrying about the shit that doesn’t matter.

    That’s my theory, anyway.

    And yes, I think that you are therefore cool.

  26. I am not cool and never will be. This bothered me until… sometime around my freshman year of college, when I made a conscious decision not to care any more. I don’t know where that puts me in your scheme of thought, but it doesn’t really matter; I know it’s made me happier over the years.

    My partner’s daughter, OTOH, is very cool. I wish I’d been like her when I was younger.

  27. Well now I want to know all about your philosophy on language training too! I really like the way you break down all of the relevant ways in which ‘cool’ can be used vs what you mean in the blog post.

    (Long time reader, first time poster… so sadly I missed the reader request week to submit what your philosophy on language training is :).

  28. Well, the cyber void has just destroyed my post so I’ll do the short version. I first became one of the three coolest people on the planet when I started to Read Combined Honours in Drama and Theatre Arts; there were five thousand applications for the 18 places in the department , I got one of them. But it still is need something…

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