Whether or not someone is actually deemed to be cool sounds like stuff of playground gossip and, in fact, it is. But recently a group of social scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York have decided to try to more clearly understand what is actually considered and defined as “cool” in today’s society. Interestingly, the idea of coolness goes back to the Middle Ages and is rooted in West African culture, according to Yale University’s art history professor Robert Farris Thompson.
The researchers quest for what defines “cool” lead them to ask 508 people to use adjectives they thought were related to the word itself. Most studies reveal that self-confidence is a highly attractive trait and this study was no different. People gave words such as “confident” and “popular.” Other words such as, “aloof” and “calm” appeared less frequently. It was difficult to pin down a very specific definition but what the researchers did agree upon is that people seem to recognize coolness when they see it.
Celebrities are often considered cool because they are being perceived at a distance. They may play characters that exhibit desirable traits and, because the public doesn’t actually know them personally, admirers are able to project their fantasies onto the celeb. In this case being aloof may appear as though someone is really cool when it is often a self-protective stance.
The assignment of popularity seems to go to those who are considered to be cool because of specific traits. Those traits may be related to appearance or financial status and are very often acquired by association. People who surround themselves with “cool” people tend to be seen as having those characteristics as well. Those with advanced social skills and an ability to make friends easily are often seen as cool and that perception creates a cycle of likability. When people are seen as cool and likeable they are a sought-after friend; and when people feel sought-after, they tend to be friendlier, and more socially confident.
As parents, we attempt to teach our kids that being cool is really about being nice, honest, and a good friend because as adults, we have learned that these traits are much more important in the long run than those that may currently be valued by their peers. Even media directed at kids often have stories about how the popular kid falls from grace because of his or her meanness, and is only fully accepted when they have been reformed. If only real life mimicked that scenario more often.
Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon us to recite the mantra about what we believe should be cool, even though our children will learn that those who are deemed cool at school may not have any of the above-mentioned traits. And of course the majority of kids will spend most of their teen years thinking that the antonyms for cool are anything that defines their parents. Ultimately though, the message will get through, so don’t stop trying to convey it.
While the definition of “cool” may not be any clearer after the study and in fact, I believe it to fairly subjective in reality, the topic does inspire interesting conversations and can be very revealing about how people see not only others, but also themselves.
What traits do you think make someone seem cool?
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