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To be or not to be cool, that is the question
Enuja, Inkscape

I've been thinking about the concept of coolness for a while now. I don't think of myself as cool, and I don't think of myself as valuing cool as a good thing. But I've seen some people lately who are uncool in a way that bothers me, and people have complimented me as cool, so, here I am, writing about cool.

In middle school and in high school, I was deeply uncool. For the most part, that was a good thing; I was able to capitalize on being an uncool nerd. I was chosen for group projects because everybody knew I'd do the work, I was able to stave off boredom in class by simply reading a paperback book every single day, and I developed a group of friends interested in Star Trek and in fantasy books. The nerds stuck together, and I was happy to be a nerd.

But because I was in nerdy schools, and the nerds stuck together, I was never the nerdiest person I knew, and I had plenty of friends. Also, I wanted to be sexy, and often succeeded (even though I had zero luck dating anyone I went to school with, while we were in school), and I didn’t see the sexism in it at the time, but I understood that sexy women were not geeky. So I didn't always feel like a “real” geek or nerd. But I certainly wasn't cool, either.

I know that social scientists and historians have written about cool. I keep meaning to explore that literature, but, except for reading “The Conquest of Cool” (which is about the revolution in advertising and fashion in the 60s and 70s), I haven't. So here's my untutored opinion, maybe slightly informed by hearing some of the academia of cool 3rd and 4th hand.

Cool is, in many ways, primarily about competence. If you're good at something, it doesn't fluster or surprise you. And if you're familiar with something, it doesn't surprise you, either. So being cool is being so competent and so experienced that nothing fazes you. I think it's good to be excited about things, so I don't want to be cool in the sense of adopting a constant state of disinterest. But I adore competence, and I enjoy knowing stuff, so, in some ways, I do want to be cool.

I have a coworker who reads as a very awkward geek. He's super intense, and always running around. At work, we're not supposed to run, (because we're supposed to work safe, and, while I philosophically reject the idea that running is unsafe, I accept it as a reasonable institutional norm), and I've heard bosses expressing frustration that, after they asked him not to run, one minute later, he'll be running again. This coworker doesn't just run while on the clock; at break and at lunch he's also running, or otherwise moving really really quickly. He always seems stressed out about something; he doesn't seem to be able to just be at peace with where he is and what he's doing. Instead, he's always in a hurry to do something else and be somewhere else. And he’s not so good at following social cues, either. But I think the primary thing that labels this coworker of mine as clearly very geeky is that he is taking everything around him very, very seriously. I don’t work a particularly challenging or well compensated job. And taking something so easy so seriously just rubs me the wrong way. Which is odd, because mostly, my coworkers annoy me by goofing off on the job, not by putting their noses to the grindstone. I suspect that taking an easy job very seriously is uncool because it seems to be a sign of incompetence. In reality, it’s a sign of emotional approach, not skill level or intelligence, but it feels uncool.

I’ve been getting better at it, but, for a long time, I flat out refused to simply turn around, while on a walk. I had to get to a destination, or walk around a block (even crossing a street was enough). My problem was that simply turning around in my footsteps appears incompetent. It looks like you’ve forgotten something, or you don’t know where you are. And I do not want to look incompetent. So, in that sense, I’ve always been obsessed with looking “cool.” Except that plenty of cool people are perfectly happy to loiter and, yes, to turn around.

The interaction of “geek” and “nerd” with coolness has done some really interesting things in the last 30 years. If I remember correctly, Hugh Rawson’s 1989 “Wicked Words” (an excellent and highly readable dictionary of curse words, if even more dated than even the publishing date suggests) has only the circus sideshow freak definition for geek, and does not even include the word “nerd.” I feel like I knew the words “geek” and “nerd” just as soon as my vocabulary got large enough to encompass them, but both had clear negative connotations. As the digital industry has grown, there are now famous geeks and nerds who are very rich, and being a nerd is much, much cooler. Which makes sense because technically competent people get to show off their competence, and often seem to be surprised by nothing. But, still, in order to be a geek you’ve got to be obsessed with something, and obsession is the opposite of cool. So I think coolness is at a very interesting point, historically.

Personally,  I'm in to moderation in all things, including coolness. I want to be cool in that I want to be at peace, comfortable in my own skin, reasonably competent and informed. But I want to be able to make mistakes sometimes, I want to be able to be a novice while I learn new things, I want to be able to take some things seriously, and I love visibly and audibly expressing happiness.

My personal values are quite different than that of the mainstream. People in the mainstream might interpret this as some kind of coolness, but to me, it feels much more like being an unpopular outsider than a person with cutting edge, “cool” ideas.

I certainly enjoy the “being popular” part of coolness; it's fantastic to have friends and socially satisfying to be valued by those around you. But I'm also a loner who likes hanging out on the edges of the crowd, watching people, and being an outside observer. And you can't do that when you're the center of attention! While hosting a parties, sometimes I hang out in the empty-est room, and talk to one person at a time. I guess one could interpret this as the “cooler than thou” uninvolved and perfectly self sufficient type of coolness, but I think it is different.

So, yes, I want to be viewed as competent and informed, but my relationship with coolness will probably always be a complicated one.


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