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The Concept of Cool... the demeanor (coolness)

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The definition of cool people and their crucial role in society

(1st edition - April 2007) by A.O. Kime
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Defining cool people

While it seems commonly and uniformly known what ‘cool’ means when describing an object or action, which even dictionaries address although they still consider it slang, there exists some lack of understanding as to what this adjective means when applied to a person… as in someone being cool. Dictionaries have fallen short in defining ‘cool’ in that context (coolness)... having only grazed the subject.

Even though ‘cool’ is commonly applied to characterize a person’s demeanor, that context is further sidelined by lexicographers when they only define the slang version of cool as meaning “very good, excellent”. While one can get a rough idea from this, or by looking at the other definitions of cool, but since these definitions are out-of-context it doesn’t do it (coolness) justice.

While ‘debonair’ comes the closest to describing coolness in the dictionary, it is defined as having a gentle quality not normally associated with cool people who would never admit to such gentleness. At any rate, despite its similarities, it wouldn't be appropriate to use a French term for a seemingly exclusive American demeanor. As for another reason Americans don't... it sounds too sophisticated and wimpy.

Therefore, it is important a more complete definition of coolness be put forth… not only for clarification purposes but to draw attention to the crucial role cool people play in society. As will soon be demonstrated, it is the only demeanor which guards against dysfunctional acts.

Of course, to describe coolness entirely is impossible because it is a demeanor and demeanors, like love or music, go beyond words. One simply cannot convey the rationale and pleasures of the heart which are phenomenal in all respects… and there is something especially refreshing about love, music and truly cool people.

The perplexing aspect is how do you nail down "behavior towards others" or "outward manner"? Demeanors certainly aren't consistent... being much like a chameleon changing its appearance to fit each new situation. Nor have demeanors been viewed as having a consistency... that is, until now.

Cool in the 1950s

While cool people have existed for ages, they weren't called 'cool' until the 1950s... but undoubtedly were referred to in countless other ways... except, only partially could a single word describe it. Until the 1950s, no English word has ever existed which could grasp this demeanor in its entirety.

Aside from the fact the term ‘cool’ was first popularized in the 1950s, more importantly it was the era which first recognized coolness as a legitimate demeanor which wasn't yet acknowledged by the sciences. Moreover, the 1950s determined this demeanor should have fundamentals (tenets)... what was necessary in order to be 'cool'. In short, rather than apply 'cool' (very good, excellent) to just objects and actions, it could be applied to deserving people who always did cool things. After all, the world needs at least one demeanor which exemplifies 'very good' or 'excellent'.

Yet, it wasn't anything established by committee... it just happened. As with all notable 'movements', the times were ripe. Contributing greatly was the recent WWII victory and the quantum leaps in modernization... unparalleled in the history of man. It was a time of great pride in the country as the eternal hopes of humanity seemed to be finally materializing... except for the black race of course whose time had not yet come.

Given that the 50s was first to incorporate tenets into a demeanor, perhaps it best exemplifies it… although the later generations would surely disagree. Cool is still cool however, only the slang words, fads and styles have evolved… but since they only play a small role, the pleasurable role, its importance lies in the tenets, not the versions.

Before characterizing coolness though, let’s first take a look at its prominence with young people during the 50s when almost everyone tried to be cool… at least 85%. Of those, most succeeded but some didn’t… but since it’s a matter of degree, this should roughly summarize it:

Those who were super cool: 10%
Those who were pretty cool: 25%
Those who were fairly cool: 30%
Those who were kinda cool: 20%
Those who were not cool: 15% (being mostly nerds who didn’t try)

As to how these figures would compare to earlier or later times is uncertain however. While one might assume during earlier times there were far fewer cool people, the roaring 20s might argue. Perhaps too, the 1890s. But were people really 'cool' then or just the fun-loving type? Well, since there are differences we don't know because historians didn't yet know of this demeanor. After all, it depends on their other qualities. For example, there is nothing cool about a fun-loving and charismatic gangster. Nor would the fictional Great Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel necessarily be considered cool just because he was rich and liked to throw parties.

Of course, as one ages their coolness begin to evaporate in varying degrees due to the environment within most workplaces and the sobering realities of life. This can largely be attributed to peer pressure but that, in turn, is affected by one’s circle of friends, habits and hangouts. It is a matter of which has the greater influence. However, because environments evolve as time passes and friends grow older; it becomes increasingly more difficult to find people of the same age group who still subscribe to this lighthearted, aloof, fair-minded and debonair-like lifestyle.

It should also be noted that within each version of coolness, specific to a generation, there are countless ways it can be expressed. Everybody does it differently. Personalities vary and so does the emphasis placed on the various aspects. Many have gotten the wrong idea however… believing cool is just about slang and dress. They are mistaken and if overdone... it becomes un-cool. A fool of today is not unlike the fools of yesteryear.

Yet, some people are cool and don't know it... like perhaps cowboys. If they did, they'd never admit it. However, while many people associate talk of 'cool' with hippies... the hippies only adopted it. There were virtually no hippies in the 1950s... only a few scattered beatniks with their trademark goatees. While the 50s generation was a daring bunch, they weren't near as radical as the 60s hippies... apparently the reason hippies are more associated with the term. Nonetheless, country folks don't buy that story... for them, it's still hippie talk.

So… what is coolness?

Since there had to be a reason for that particular term, some basis, let’s look at those definitions of cool which are most related to 'coolness' in the Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

Cool adverb (1951): in a casual and nonchalant manner (example: they learn to play it ~, not really involve themselves)

Cool adjective
2a: marked by steady dispassionate calmness and self-control (example: a ~ and calculating administrator)
2d: free from tensions or violence (example: meeting with minority groups in an attempt to keep the city ~)

7 slang: very good, excellent

This dictionary goes on to state that as an alternative synonym, cool may imply calmness, deliberateness, or dispassionateness.

Note that this particular dictionary only defined the slang version of ‘cool’ as an adjective to mean “very good” or “excellent”, but, as said, those meanings are only applicable to an object or action… it doesn’t define a ‘cool person’ (coolness).

The fundamentals and versions

Except for ‘deliberateness’ and ‘dispassionateness’, although the latter can be applied loosely, the rest of the above are definitely involved. The only differences are in slang words, styles and fads which make each version of ‘coolness’ unique. In order to be cool in current times, one must also be ‘hip’… a 50s slang word meaning that one has adopted the latest fads, popular terms and styles of clothes.

However, because coolness consists of both constants and variables - its fundamentals and versions respectively - makes it both stationary and moving when applied to people. This has the effect of creating time-sensitive perspectives which, in turn, may be the reason dictionaries have ignored cool in that context (coolness). It is evidence of their confoundedness.

When the time comes when people no longer try to stay current… that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re no longer cool. Perhaps it’s just that they don’t subscribe to the latest version of coolness where the ingredients of 'hip' are ever-changing. Most remain loyal to their generation’s version. Almost invariably though, the desire to be cool gradually fades away. Older folks might choose to be cool only part of the time while others may quit trying altogether.

Of course, those who quit are more likely to become boring, grouchy or worse. Old bad habits are often re-adopted such as the human failings of jealousy, insincerity, greed, irresponsibility and aggressiveness. They may become more easily angered, unrepentant and judgmental.

On the other hand, cool people know they cannot fall victim to these bad habits to be considered 'cool'. To the best of their ability they try to remain faithful. After all, there is nothing cool about exercising these human failings. Further, in order to be cool one must be ethical… they walk hand-in-hand. It is impossible to be cool and unethical at the same time. For example, there is nothing cool about a personable con man… it’s all a charade. A cool appearance and the latest slang do not automatically make someone cool. It goes much deeper.

Even though coolness varies between generations, there are constants upon which its varying compositions are based. For example, while cool clothes would be the constant, tastes would be the variable. Likewise, hip is the constant whereas the variables would be the evolving fads and slang. In other words, “walk the walk and talk the talk” is the constant whereas only the ingredients change.

Nor does the latest version of cool affect previous versions… each version has a life of its own. In other words, no style can make another style wrong; they only indicate which version of cool someone belongs... as if a tribal affair.

Unchanging however is the ability to be quick-witted as great comebacks are a must. Lightheartedness, aloofness, coyness and bluntness are also fitting for someone cool. A smile might be broad, quick, tempered or nonexistent depending on one's style. While the ability to keep your ‘cool’ (never get rattled) is necessary for great comebacks, it is also good training for awkward, tense or dangerous situations. A quick presence-of-mind often pays off.


Much of the emphasis so far has been placed on the pleasurable part of being cool however, the fun part. The most important aspect of coolness is fair-mindedness. One must be honest and ethical… although something you don’t broadcast otherwise you wouldn’t be cool (part of ‘the game’). Besides, being humble is cool. Yet, while honesty and ethics are the underpinning of coolness, its twin pillars and foundation, it needs little elaboration.

What cool isn't is adhering to political correctness… nor is it cool to bring up the topics of weather, your mom’s apple pie or last night’s dream in a conversion. While the list is much longer, the idea is… avoid plain vanilla (boring) subjects and don’t get personal. The greater idea is to maintain an air of mystique to avoid appearing dull and lackluster. It makes life more fun and interesting. To avoid appearing humdrum (un-cool), teenagers will go so far as to steer clear of any topic adults talk about.

However, because cool terms are forever changing, one can only appear cool to one’s own generation. Few people try to keep up… as evidenced by the fact the term ‘hip’ may, or may not be, used anymore. Since the 1950s, the most recognizable word still in use today is ‘cool’… but these different terms don’t matter. By any other name, a rose is still a rose. What matters is the associated attitude… because, as soon explained, it is important to the issues of freedom.

To clarify… are the older generations no longer cool because they’re not longer hip? Well, even though trendiness rarely transcends the generation gaps, outsiders can still appear to be somewhat cool by their attitude. While it’s rarely equal to the pronounced coolness of a teenager, cool is still cool. The right attitude has a way of canceling out one’s ignorance of the latest sayings and trends.

But, should a particular generation be the standard by which all others are measured? Like the 1950s? Or are we to conclude only current teenagers determine this? Well, even though most people probably feel their generation was the coolest, but due to the myriad of forces at work at the time, the influential dynamics, versions of coolness cannot be compared or ranked. Collectively, at a given time, it was considered to be as cool as cool can be… certainly the idea wasn’t to be second-rate. Besides, second-rate ideas never survive when pitted against first-rate ideas. At any rate, because this collectiveness is fluid and ever-changing, the dynamics rule only briefly.

Despite its short life, naturally each era (the times) would consider itself ‘the best’ but there can be no winners when the slate is always wiped clean for the next group of contestants. That happens because the times refuse to acknowledge each other. The 60s certainly didn’t confer with the 50s nor did the 80s care what the 70s thought. Of course there is some overlapping until more popular fads come on line. The dynamics, whirlwinds of ideas converging on a particular point, determine this. The Enlightenment in France and England during the 18th century best demonstrates this phenomena.

As another example, if the 1870s considered the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer cool (effectively), we can’t say otherwise. After all, he surely knew all the latest buzz-words, fads and styles back then… but while popular then, they wouldn’t be now. We are in no position to say he wasn’t cool… except for his last stupid day.

Yet, a case can be made against cool… but only against acting cool, not for being cool. In some circumstances, acting cool is often taken as a sign of indifference or ignorance. It might not be appropriate at certain times. Dignity and acting cool don’t mix either… that is, without finesse. Once someone has mastered the technique however, they become super-cool.

As one gets older, the demands of society and the workplace often forces one to put on a different face. While a dignified person is usually a stick-in-the-mud, and rarely fun to be around, they adopted that lifestyle because they discovered acting dignified pays off. While true, unfortunately most don’t know it is still possible to be both cool and dignified at the same time. After all, cool is not the antithesis of dignity… instead the candidates could be any of the human failings such as snobbishness, insincerity and so forth.

While one might be tempted to lambaste the dignified for being pretentious, it is no more pretentious than any other demeanor… which would include coolness. Yet, in order to express ourselves beyond words, demeanors are necessary. While a demeanor is how we wish our inner self to be reflected, accurate or not, it is also the manner in how we wish to experience life. For most everyone, that means enjoying it… but since enjoyment is a commodity otherwise elusive it must be manufactured. The fun part of coolness serves that purpose.

Cool people not only create pleasures out of the simplest things in life, they appreciate coolness. For example, in their opinion anyone rich or famous who treats everyone as their equal has reached one of the heights of coolness. It is exhilarating to witness. In their opinion, someone of high standing rising above the rituals of society is one of the coolest things they’ll ever see. While they may not know the sincerity of such a person, it is nonetheless refreshing to see this aspect of coolness in action.

Coolness and its place in government

But of a government official we might ask ourselves… is he/she also honest and just? While they may exhibit traits of being cool, but for the sake of expediency have they dispensed with the most important parts? Like a con man does? Good questions considering our freedoms depend upon the answers.

To forsake honesty and justice in the name of expediency is to forsake the spirit of America… the attributes of which uniformly exist in being cool. While it may dwell more in the mind of the young, it is also the bedrock of the mature idealist… and for good reason. Full-fledged coolness has come the closest to the ideal demeanor since chivalry in Medieval times.

Not only was cool created in the 50s to make life more fun and interesting, being a perpetual challenging game of wits and one-upmanship, but its most important attributes can go a long way in ridding society of its numerous problems. After all, coolness is the only attitude which guards against dysfunctional thinking… which relegates it into being the most valuable attitude on earth.

How so, you might ask? Well, lightheartedness is the best sign of a healthy mind. There is no greater signpost. On the other hand, while seriousness has its rewards… its solemn aspects often translate into dysfunctional behavior after a protracted period of time. Many people realize this however and try to chill out periodically… like on weekends. It is psychological medicine… but you wouldn’t need this medicine if you were otherwise cheerful and outgoing. Furthermore, beneath its pretentiousness, which is the common denominator of all demeanors, is the solid foundation of ethics and honesty. While one might question the value of pretentiousness, consider the age-old truism "you become what you think about".

Also, coolness has codes of conduct, tenets... like chivalry once did. Without codes of conduct, an ad-hoc demeanor isn't even deserving of a name because it has no recognized substance. While someone with a dignified demeanor would know what it takes to be dignified, these things have no redeeming qualities except to highlight itself. Of course, while a dignified person may possess virtuous qualities, the point is... virtuous qualities are not required in order to be considered dignified. Instead, like chivalry, the world needs demeanors with substance... they should be more than just a veneer.

While farmers, ranchers and those within a few other occupational fields are well-known for their virtuous codes of conduct, it is more a matter of individual ethics because they'd still be referred to as 'farmer' or 'rancher' even if they weren't ethical. That's not the case with cool people, one must be ethical to keep the title.

While to become dysfunctional later in life is commonplace, it is the most dangerous within leadership. When legislators surrender their core beliefs to peer pressure, as often the case… it is not only dysfunctional but dangerous to freedom. Peer pressure is the primary reason for the passage of unjust laws. This despicable weakness in character is not only an ethical matter but should be considered dysfunctional… after all, weaknesses are dysfunctional.

It is no mystery why the younger crowds are cooler… they haven’t yet grown dysfunctional. It is a powerful case for needing more youth in government.

If only those who were cool… stayed cool.

A.O. Kime

Last modified: 03/06/16