I heard someone say “you’re so cool you’re hot” and, wow, I got confused. This article summarizes the elements of coolness:
(You could use the table of contents below to jump to the sections that are most important to you.)
- The Meaning of Cool
- What Makes Someone Cool?
- 3 Ways to Be Cool
- 5 Great Starter Tips To Be Cool
- Towards The Self
- Towards Others
- Towards Stress Situations
- Some Coolness Tips To Try Out
- 3 Ways to Be Uncool
- 3 Tips To Be Cool From The Greats
When you’re hot, you’ve got looks that arouse attraction, desire, even lust. In short, it’s physical. However, when you’re cool, it comes from the inside – you’re eliciting a collision of and emotion, and that’s complicated.
In short, hot is easy but cool is more challenging. And the first thing to know about it is time and age.
Yes, coolness is time-sensitive. What used to be cool before (think James Dean) isn’t cool anymore. It’s even age-sensitive: what’s cool for the young isn’t cool for those who are older.
Here’s a summary:
As you can see, the very young and very old aren’t expected to be cool by setting trends, by going against rules, or by incredible achievements.
On the other hand, these elements of coolness happen more among adolescents and young adults.
Whatever your age, you’re a man of cool if you’ve got three things: tolerance, self-confidence, and an easy manner.
The Meaning of Cool
Where did today’s meaning of cool come from? How did it start? Believe it or not, the word is more than 80 years old, and it still feels as young as ever.
The word “cool” first became popular in the late 1940s, started by Black American jazz musicians known as “cool cats”. However, to trace the true beginnings of cool, we go deeper into the annals of American history.
According to a paper by Botz-Bornstein, today’s international culture of coolness dates back to Black slavery when they survived by using irony, emotional detachment, and suppression (or disguise) of disagreement or provocation into a type of humor that is either bland or inoffensive.
In other words, coolness began as a defense mechanism than blended subversion and submission and created a practical way of resisting using their own creativity and innovation. If you think about it, really, it’s still a defense mechanism today.
From those historical roots, today’s types of coolness can be described in general as a creative form of singular nonconformity – and that applies to products or people. To put it in another way, it’s about choices vs limitations, freedoms vs oppressions, and originality vs conformity.
At the same time, there’s a clear warning: being cool can make people become passive instead of achieving their best.
One example is when they decide that belonging to a group is more important than personal development or academic achievement. So there’s a caveat: keep your cool but – as much as you can – keep away from results such as social decay, bias, ostracism, and all the negative side effects of coolness.
Well, since we’re traveling back through history, let’s go further back to about 2000 years ago in Rome, where a philosopher named Epictetus suggested that it’s much cooler to focus on things we can improve such as our impulses, attitudes, beliefs, desires, opinions, judgments, and passions.
And, to cultivate coolness, it’s best to be indifferent towards what we can’t control such as the past, death, and the actions of others. Ignore what depends on public opinion, changes with time, or ends with death.
In short, begin your search for coolness by asking yourself: is this something that I can control completely?
If the answer is yes, go for it! Otherwise, let go and rechannel.
With those practical guidelines in mind, let’s move on: How do you know if someone is cool?
What Makes Someone Cool?
Today, the term “cool” is a commonly-used synonym for “acceptable” and indicates the speaker’s neutral acceptance, positive approval, or time-limited tolerance. In comparison, we rarely use “hot” nowadays to mean strong approval or attraction.
Still, to be hot is easy: show the right amount of skin or muscle (exactly how much is unclear), elicit the right amount of pheromones (from whatever age or gender) and, voila! You’re hot.
Coolness, on the other hand, isn’t as easy. It’s a blend of “disaffiliation and association” according to a psychology report. It takes much effort to appear effortless and, at the same time, elicit admiration acceptance, even emulation – dude, that’s, like, hero worship.
But, you might ask: has there been any scientific research about coolness?
For instance, in a paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research titled “What Makes Things Cool? How Autonomy Influences Perceived Coolness” authors Caleb Warren and Margaret C. Campbell identified three key factors of coolness:
- Tolerable differentiation: Something is cool when it’s different in small or occasional ways.
- Unacceptable difference: When a difference is large, overly repressive, perpetual, unnecessary, or illegitimate, it’s not uncool – it’s unacceptable.
- Free society: Coolness is an idea that can flourish only where individuals are generally free to choose and express their preferences.
But hold on: Why are athletes cool when they win at sports while artists are cool when they’re eccentric? Sounds a bit confusing, right? But according to research, there’s a perfectly logical explanation.
In a psychological study titled “Coolness as a trait and its relations to the Big Five, self-esteem, social desirability, and action orientation,” researchers confirm what we know about the two types of status elevation:
- Cachet coolness – being cool due to socially desirable attributes (Someone is considered cool due to social success when they win something through ability and competence)
- Contrarian coolness – being cool due to socially desirable attributes (Someone is considered cool due to being rebellious, going against current beliefs, or defying standard norms)
A related study by Dar-Nimrod et al titled “Coolness: An Empirical Investigation” identified two personality types and criteria related to the coolness factor in contemporary Western cultures:
- Independent personality: Someone who is more independent and usually goes against a prevailing culture by behaviors such as bullying, drug use, gang membership, interpersonal violence, rebellion, rejection of effortful striving, risk-taking, and smoking.
- Dependent personality: Someone who focuses outward and is sensitive to external values and valuations or, as the authors put it, “observable criteria for social inclusion or exclusion” such as desirability, likability, masculinity, muted emotion, sexual appetite, toughness, and youthfulness.
And that’s not all that we know. For instance, the MIT study titled “Coolfarming – How Cool People Create Cool Trends” states that something is considered cool due to the following attributes:
- Novelty: Fresh and new,
- Entertainment: Fun,
- Satisfying: Meaningful or gives you a feeling of happiness or satisfaction, and
- Social acceptance: Used or recommended by others who are “like us”
Basically, what makes something cool today are the same things from the time of plantation slaves and the reign of early cool cats of jazz.
But this is a different time. We love to say that coolness is “hard to define and easy to exploit” particularly when appealing to emotion instead of logic – as ads often do to part the fool from his money.
Well, there’s a whole lot of research, opinion, and insight about different aspects of coolness, and we don’t have enough time for all that. Fortunately, a research paper used a COOL Questionnaire and reviewed research papers about coolness to conclude that:
- Cool can include one or both inner cool and outer cool.
- Outer cool can include classic aesthetics (how it shows the highest standards of something) and hedonic quality (how it makes us feel, how we identify with it).
- Inner cool can include desirability (how it matches us), perceived usability (how it makes our life easier), and rebelliousness (how it’s different from others of its kind).
To illustrate the concept:
If there seems to be a disconnect between your inner cool and your outer cool, consider what Sabio Lantz has to say: “If we want to change ourselves, we should practice good outer behavior.”
And, if you’re not sure about what’s good and what’s bad, no worries. Ancient philosophers consider them as two sides of the same coin.
In addition, another researcher gathered all factors of coolness and organized them into a wheel that you can use to assess coolness in a person, thing, experience, or idea.
See for yourself:
If that’s too complicated for you, here are three universal elements of personal coolness that you can easily identify or cultivate: confidence, style, and manner.
A Quiet Confidence
Those of us who can see the lack of control around us feel the need for control. This is exactly why we should go a cool attitude.
How do we do that? Don’t aim for total control or complete detachment. Instead, practice a quiet and confident mindset of personal alienation that attracts new actions and ideas.
At the same time, like and respect yourself and the people around you. Know what’s right and what’s wrong, and admit mistakes with quiet courage and grace. Finally, be unique in a simplicity that’s all your own.
And that concept of original simplicity brings us to the matter of style.
A Bit of Style
Style is not about what you’re wearing, but how you wear it. In short, it’s not about fabrics or colors or brand names – nor is it about clothes, accessories, or being different for its own sake.
What is it then?
According to Amy Kaye, “the first people to act cool were probably poor, like blacks and poor street kids. They couldn’t afford to be fashionable but they wore what they had with style.“
Simply put, it’s not about price or practicality, not about conformity or trendsetting. It’s all about how you pull it off. It’s how you wear it.
And if you’re new to styles and such, how can that happen?
First, you like it, then you feel good in it, and then you feel good in it no matter what. (“It” can be a pen in your hair, a hat in your hand, a band on your ankles – whatever you can wear.)
And finally, remember what we mentioned earlier about contrarian coolness and unacceptable difference: when the difference is too wide, unnecessary, overly repressive, perpetual, or illegitimate, stop – you’re on the borders of the unacceptable.
So, to boil that down, find what you like, and then express your style in a simple but unique way that’s nice and comfortable for you.
This brings us to another element of cool: ease.
Ease of Manner
Remember what Epictetus said about letting go of what you can’t control, like public opinion or perception for instance? So, if you care about your reputation most of the time, you’ll be uneasy and there’s nothing cool about that.
Forget about joining any contest – popularity, power play, or stuff like that – your body will overload you with chemicals that don’t relax you, and that’s not cool.
Don’t be a god or a hero (but have courage enough for what matters) and don’t worship people. Instead, be laid back, relaxed, calm, and committed to being a decent and likeable person to everyone.
Ditch the insecurities for good. Don’t fear who you truly are. You don’t need followers to keep you alive.
Be secure about (and have total faith in) yourself, don’t be afraid to show your sensitive side, and be quietly passionate about what you feel is fair and right.
And at all times, remember: ease of manner. Be quiet and discreet in anything that you do. You don’t need attention, and you don’t need to call attention to yourself.
But the real measure of your ease of manner is this: be outwardly calm in times of high stress such as extreme joy or fear, terrible loss or misery, conflicts, accidents, and unexpected situations.
Now that you know the “what” of coolness, let’s discuss how to do it.
3 Ways to Be Cool
Do you know cool people? Are they unique? Are they friendly with everyone? Are they confident? You can be that way too but in your own way.
In short, you can be cool and, at the same time, be yourself.
5 Great Starter Tips To Be Cool
No idea how to go about it? No worries. There are no standards or universal rules here, but here are 5 great starter tips.
1. How To Own It
Instead of thinking about doing good, think of personal integrity and authenticity. Owning it means, above all, honoring yourself.
- The Inside Job: Put simply, it means acknowledging your pros and cons such as your fears and neuroses along with your talents and skills, and your biases and tendencies along with your strengths and uniqueness.
- The Outside Job: Owning it also means accepting your responsibility for any results that you produce. In other words, totally embrace your power to change. You don’t need permission. You got it. Enjoy your freedom to err and self-correct.
2. How To Laugh At Yourself
We’re not talking about gelotophilia. The thrill of being an object of public laughter is the domain of billionaire comedians. We’re talking about the ability to handle life better with a very personal sense of humor, optimism and a healthy ego.
- The Inside Job: Dr. Jeremy Sherman provides 12 steps to reengineer your mindset and be able to laugh at yourself. It begins by laughing at others. You don’t have to be kategelastic, which is offensive, but it’s a method that can change your life.
- The Outside Job: In the simplest terms, it’s about not taking yourself too seriously. It helps you improve your health. Laugh at your weaknesses and your embarrassing moments as often as possible. However, observe proper context so you don’t end up in a straitjacket.
3. How To Care About Yourself
You can’t give what you don’t have. That’s the mantra of ultimate cool. It means that, first, it’s ok to be selfish. And then, aside from physical self-care, you’ve got to take care of your own mental and emotional health – they’re extremely important to be cool.
- The Inside Job: To develop the coolness of self-control, be constantly aware of your emotions. Second, to develop the coolness of focus, find purpose and meaning. Finally, never rush: think before doing anything.
- The Outside Job: Always – and that means no exceptions – express what you feel inappropriate ways, at the right time and place. Part and parcel of the outside job are your daily (yes, daily!) routines in grooming, hygiene, exercise, and mindful nutrition.
4. How To Stand And Deliver
Now we’re talking about reputation, credibility, and commitment. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. And when you do, keep your word.
- The Inside Job: Mantra time again – give only what you have. Being a man of your word is one of the pillars of being cool. Without credibility, you’re not a man, you’re a joke.
- The Outside Job: Walk your talk, peace out conflict, and do unto others. At the same time, remember three things: (1) you can’t please everyone, (2) no one is like you, and (3) some people can’t get it.
5. How To Make Your Own Way
This is for the independent-minded, the freedom-fighter, the creative individualist. Going your own way begins with conviction or faith. Then, it takes courage, determination, and wherewithal – ability, support system, and resources.
- The Inside Job: Cultivate patience. When the going gets tough, clear goals and a firm belief will keep you going. When the support systems and the resources thin out, creativity will keep you on track.
- The Outside Job: It’s as lonely to be unique as it is to be at the top. Meaning, if you want to be cool, you’ve got to be comfortable with solitude. Your mantra: “I’m alone but not lonely.” Whatever happens, you’re an apple: likable, helpful, and natural.
If you want to be cool by breaking the rules, fine. However, the first thing is to know what the rules are. Then, know how to break them in ways that are appropriate, valuable, and efficient.
On the other hand, if you want to be cool by joining a group or by doing what someone else does, you’re not a rebel, you’re just finding another way to conform and fit in another mold. You’re not original or self-sufficient. If that’s cool enough for you, fine. You decide.
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Towards The Self
Being cool towards yourself is an attitude, a mindset of acceptance and making do with what you have.
For instance, in the article, The Importance of Being Uncool, Michael Conniff says: “The acknowledgment of your own uncoolness is the only thing cool about it. If you can look at yourself and say “uncool” then you have learned something very important about the human condition, about the haves and have-nots — and especially the unfairness of life.“
Here are five tips about being cool to yourself: (1) know yourself, (2) like yourself, (3) say no when you should, and (4) be the best at what you love to do. (5) Finally, care about your personality more than your looks.
Even better, find joy in being by yourself.
Being cool towards others is being tolerant of different personalities, not getting emotionally affected by difficult people, and not being needy in any relationship.
Know how to interrupt (there are at least 9 ways) and when to interrupt, but even better: be a great listener. These are skills that anyone can practice and develop into a habit. Mantra alert: Kill logorrhea! No matter what they say, nobody likes a person who talks too much.
And you know what the coolest thing is? Sticking up for the uncool. Really.
Corollary to that, respect people who are better than you. Jealousy is not cool in this context. Connect and empathize with people, particularly those who are different from you. Take the initiative – they’re usually shy.
Towards Stress Situations
One definition of coolness that has existed long before the term “cool” became a thing is someone who is calm, effective, and logical even during stressful situations. In fact, that’s the original meaning of “cool” that still remains today.
Cool people are honest but civil and sensitive – they don’t hurt others. They can take a stand but are always diplomatic. They are on good terms with everyone, even in disagreement. They know when to use humor in difficult or challenging situations.
If you can do a real-life James Bond, always cool and calm in times of crisis, handling difficult people and difficult situations with the right ideas or solutions, making it all look effortless – you’re the god of cool.
Unless keeping your cool is already an ingrained habit, it’s fine to give yourself a break from being self-controlled. You’re no superhero, so it’s fine to step back and relax once in a while. Chill out, you’re only human.
Some Coolness Tips To Try Out
The internet provides so many tips for those who want to be cool, ranging from consumerism (clothes, accessories) to psychology (attitude, relationships), and so on. So why are people still asking?
The fact is, coolness is not putting on someone else’s persona but enriching yours. Here are some coolness tips to try out.
- Enjoy: As one writer points out – and there’s no better way to put it – “We have to stop grieving about what has happened, stop stressing about what will happen and truly acknowledge all the things that are happening.”
- Define: Compassion is empathy, presence is being, and big heart is openness. These three are the clearest lines that define the boundaries of coolness.
- Detach: Don’t be needy of anyone or anything. Be calm and deliberate, even when no one seems to be looking, and even more so when you’re alone.
- Be stylish: Don’t just think about presenting yourself in a positive way — do it. In short, be fit, make good hygiene a habit, and be quietly confident in thought and in action. If you make a mistake, laugh, learn, and be better from it.
- Relate well: Be a friendly conversationalist or listener, but never be too eager. Accept that it’s ok to be different. If you’re not good with humor, listen well, speak up calmly and certainly.
- Be self-aware: Relax. Seriously. Accept everyone as your equals but keep in mind that some people won’t get it. Never get attention by using bad behavior.
3 Ways to Be Uncool
Attention, gentlemen: It’s not enough to have perfect hair or manners. Even fame, high office, or canonization doesn’t work when the public gets a whiff of greed, unkindness, falsehoods, or deceit.
Yes, the fickle public – so billions of Twitter followers do not mean someone is cool.
But, hey, being uncool is simply a less-traveled road to coolness, you know? And, rest assured, many of these later became busy superhighways, so who are we to judge, right?
Here’s a quick list of indicators when you know you’re uncool – celebrate them!
- Be clueless: You don’t know what others think are cool such as the latest trends, fads, and famous celebrities.
- Be unimpressed: You know that not all people are cool; some are not good influences. You know you can be cool without being in a popular group. You’re not impressed by bullies, and you always got the back of anyone being bullied.
- Be socially crippled: You tend to correct others. Flirting or small talk is often awkward. You don’t know the right thing to say, except maybe when it’s over – and then you’re brilliant.
- Pro-comfort: Your fashion style is comfortable, not trendy. You’re ok with avoiding cool social events that you know are fake and miserable.
- Positive outlook: You’re never harsh to anyone, and you do your best to help. When your advice is rejected or accepted, it’s ok. You’re just sharing an opinion. And you know what you’re talking about even if they don’t.
- Total awareness: You’re totally fine being uncool since it’s the cool thing to do, and that’s who you are. As Lester Bangs (Philip S. Hoffman) in the film Almost Famous puts it, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”
Let’s be clear: arrogance is not pride. Being arrogant means three things: (1) excessive pride in the self – also called “inflated ego”, (2) contempt for others, and (3) disrespect for others, whether hidden or obvious.
Arrogance is impulsive self-interest that covers insecurity. On the other hand, pride includes (1) deep pleasure and satisfaction of responsibility, and (2) a feeling that is positive and socially valuable related to worth and goodness.
In fact, it’s cool to have a quiet, understated pride in anything but it’s terribly uncool to be confrontational or defensive about it.
The thing is, it’s uncool to seem to be trying too hard. Of course you can, but it should look effortless. (It’s not what you’re doing, it’s what others see.)
How does trying hard feel? You know you’re trying too hard when you feel that, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you never get the appreciation that you think you deserve. For one reason or another, you’re always falling short.
People who try too hard show their insecurity when ignore their instincts about the reactions of others. There’s a simple reason why that’s not cool. For instance, if you’re servile or obsequious, it creeps out others.
That is decidedly not cool. A change is in order.
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Just to clarify: being selfish is different from being self-aware or self-centered. Simply put, selfishness is greed, such as when someone takes all the benefits. On the other hand, self-centeredness is insensitivity to others.
Self-awareness, a truly challenging mindset to maintain, is simply an awareness of the self in the greater schema of things. While being selfish or self-centered is not cool, being self-aware is totally cool.
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3 Tips To Be Cool From The Greats
We’ve explored history, science, and psychology. Now let’s explore literature for the greatest tips to coolness.
Here are three works with words of wisdom that – surprise! – echoes what we’ve learned so far.
Alexander Pope once said: “Blessed are they who have no expectations, for they shall never be disappointed.” What does that have to do with being cool?
Most people want to be cool in return for something: acceptance, recognition, admiration, whatever. When things don’t turn out as they expect, they’re disappointed, of course.
So, if you don’t want to feel the hurt of disappointment, don’t go there. No expectations, duh.
from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” The highlights:
- It’s not the externals – The road to coolness is not appearance. It’s not brand names, designer clothes, or pricey accessories. It’s not great hair, straight teeth, or perfect muscles. It’s not public approval. These things never last. If you’re trying to be cool with a pair of sunglasses, you’re lost.
- The invisible essentials – We’re talking about values that last: trust and dependability, honesty and concern, responsibility, and knowledge. All have no price but are valued in any age, culture, or context. If you think a certain hairstyle is cool, you’re misled.
- Seeing rightly – This takes maturity, experience, and wisdom – nothing to do with age, gray hair, or wrinkles. Immature is behavior inappropriate to age. If you’re mature for your age, you’ve got behavior that’s common in those who have learned from experience. Cool.
One of the greatest guides to coolness is the poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann.
Here are some highlights (because you’re reading this far, #3 is specially for you):
- Constant calm – Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. / Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
- Be yourself – As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. / Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. / Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
- No comparisons: If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
- Be mature: Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
- Stay positive: Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. / Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. / With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.
- Love yourself: Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. / Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
And there you have it: you’re now an expert on all the key points of coolness.
But, before you go, here’s everything in seven (7) takeaways.
- “Cool” has different meanings. Whether you’re rich or poor, ugly or stupid, famous or ordinary, whatever your age, gender, abilities, or beliefs, you can be cool.
- Learn from history, from research, and from the great minds in literature.
- What makes someone cool? The right blend of confidence, style, and manner. How do you know who’s not cool? Someone who wants to be cool, that’s who.
- Work on what you can control, let go of what’s beyond your control.
- You can resist or fight as long as you’re creative, likable, inoffensive, and useful. Know how far you can go, how much society will tolerate, and balance your goals with social relevance.
- Relax. Go with the flow. At the same time, control what you can and want to.
- Nature is messy. Life is messy. What’s the best way to deal with it? By being cool. You know the roots of the word “gentleman” right? Gentle. Man.